How to Maximize Your Winter Compost Pile
If you enjoy farming or gardening, even at a small scale, you likely already know the many benefits of composting. Compost offers great fertilizer for your garden in the spring, and is a great way to reduce household waste. However, it can be tough to tend to a compost pile in the dead of winter. Here are some tips to make the most of the cooler months and to keep your compost cooking.
1. Know what you can compost
A mistake that many people make is throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their compost bins. While many household ingredients can–and should!–be composted, some additions don’t break down well and can actually slow the decomposition of your other ingredients. This, in turn, slows the progress of your entire compost pile. Avoid tossing ingredients such as meat, fat, dairy, and synthetic materials in your bin, and stick to organic matter. Good additions include eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, fruits, and vegetables.
Don’t forget that manure from chickens or rabbits is another great source of nitrogen—one of the two crucial ingredients for a compost pile. Nitrogen generates heat, which is helpful during the cold winter months. If you don’t have manure, you can also add alfalfa pellets or other green material.
2. Add plant material
While you can’t exactly add grass clippings to your compost bin when the lawn is buried under a foot of snow, you can add dried leaves from a fall raking, or plant debris from houseplants.
You might also consider adding ashes from your fireplace, which increase the levels of potassium, phosphorus, and calcium in your compost—all beneficial nutrients for your gardening soil in the spring.
3. Make sure all materials are finely processed
Plants lose up to seventy percent of their volume in winter composting, making them an obvious addition to a winter compost bin. However some materials will take forever in a compost bin if they aren’t processed down first. If you plan on adding branches, pine needles, or twigs, consider putting them through a chipper first.
4. Consider size
Make sure your compost is at least three to four feet on each side, but not much more. A compost bin that is too small won’t produce enough energy to heat, and one that is too large will break down incredibly slowly. However the bigger your pile, the longer it can remain active in freezing temperatures.
5. Keep track of temperature
Temperature is integral to composting in general, but especially during the winter months. A compost pile with a temperature reading between ninety and one hundred and forty degrees Fahrenheit indicates a compost pile in the throes of decomposition. While decomposition will be inevitably slower in the cold winter months, your compost bin’s temperature will begin to increase rapidly in the spring. You can keep track of the temperature of your bin throughout the year, and increase activity by adding nitrogen-rich ingredients and turning the pile with a pitchfork.
Remember that your compost must be kept warm so that the microbes remain active. Move compost bins to the sunniest part of your yard, and consider surrounding the bin or layering with leaves, straw bales, cardboard, or sawdust.
6. Control moisture content
Similarly, if you live in an area that receives heavy amounts of snowfall or other precipitation during the winter, you need to keep an eye on moisture content. Consider covering your bin with a tarp or building a three-sided box to keep it contained. If you protect your compost completely from the elements, be sure to add water every now and then.
You might also consider investing in a compost tumbler. These sealed units take on a small amount of water, but don’t become sodden like an open-air compost bin. If you decide to allow the bin to remain in the open air, continue adding dry leaves or other dry materials to help soak up excess moisture.
7. Layer your compost
In the summer months, you are likely adding more ingredients to your compost pile and therefore, don’t necessarily need to layer. However, during the winter months, layering brown and green compost ingredients helps to generate heat and insulate the pile. When you add new layers, consider adding a handful of topsoil between the layers to absorb odors and introduce microorganisms. During the periods between compost additions, you can also cover the pile with a layer of snow. This will help to insulate the pile and provide necessary moisture.
8. Move it indoors
Remember that in the winter months, it takes longer for ingredients to break down. Try to avoid adding too many kitchen scraps to your compost bin during the winter, as this can attract rodents or other pests. If you have no other choice, you might consider moving your composting inside. This also saves you the hassle of having to trudge out to the pile on a cold winter’s evening to dispose of food scraps, and removes the inconsistencies of temperature and moisture fluctuations. Insulated sealed composters sit in a corner of the garage or basement and many can turn themselves. They usually do not emit any odors, as long as they have an appropriate balance of carbon and nitrogen ingredients.
Vermicomposting is another option, and while it produces less organic matter than traditional composting, it is a great supplement or alternative to outdoor composting if the weather gets too cold. Vermicomposting is the act of composting with worms. Worms won’t work at temperatures lower than forty degrees, so they aren’t an outdoor option for winters in most areas. However, you can bring the bin inside and compost with worms throughout the year.
9. Turn conservatively
You don’t need to turn your bin as often in the winter. Turn only to regulate moisture. In the summer, frequent turning is necessary to supply microbes with oxygen. However, in winter, turning the pile too often can result in heat loss. Wait until spring to resume regular turning.
10. Consider adding PlantCatalyst®
PlantCatalyst is an organic, non-toxic additive that allows for better uptake of nutrients. When used as part of a composting system, it helps reduces your garden’s need for additional fertilizers. If you use it before planting, it even increases the likelihood of seed germination.
Although it by no means replaces the other nutrients derived in a healthy compost system, it can help increase the success of your composting and gardening efforts come spring. PlantCatalyst® works by altering the molecular structure of water to create “micelles” chains. These chains then increase a plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. PlantCatalyst® doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals and has been used in agricultural, residential, and industrial settings for over forty years. When used along with these other tips, it can help boost the productivity of your garden at a dramatic level.
Spring might still be a few long weeks away, but don’t throw up your hands in frustration yet. By focusing on the health of your compost bin now, you can rest assured that by the time spring rears its sunshiny head, you’ll have the healthiest, most organic compost soil around.