After a good summer of sticking cookout leftovers and garden residue into your compost pile, it probably feels like a shame to just let it die during the winter. But cold weather is the enemy to a healthy, active composting process. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, a compost pile should be 90 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, otherwise the microorganisms that break down organic waste into compost become inactive. But if you get started now, you may still be able to keep an active compost pile that will yield fresh fertilizer for the spring. It is possible to compost in the winter, and you can start a number of fall prepping activities to make sure your compost stays toasty and functioning through winter.
Insulate your pileIn order to keep the core temperature of your pile high, you’ll want to make sure the pile is well insulated. You’ll need to build walls around your compost pile if you don’t have them already. Then anything to keep the pile protected against the cold will work; home insulation, corrugated cardboard and hay bales are all options. Bentley “The Compost Guy” Christie, who excellently detailed his winter composting project from several winters ago, used a combined method of two layers of corrugated cardboard inside the bin with a layer of secondhand home insulation in between. Feel free to get creative and double up on methods. Your pile will need all the protection it can get, especially in colder climates. You’ll also want to have a large tarp handy to cover your pile. That will keep the moisture out of the pile, which can decrease decomposition if it gets too soggy. By getting started on your insulation process now, you can get the work done when the weather is still reasonable, and you’ll be able to throw your fall leaves into the pile, since you’ll need a lot of layers.
Focus on the volume of the pileIf you’re preparing your garden for next spring, you’re going to want to use the compost you already have. Layering your fall garden with compost will refresh the soil and stimulate microorganisms for the next season. After a hard summer growing season, your soil will need all the help it can get. Also, make sure to move any compost that hasn’t quite finished breaking down to the center of the pile. Now that you’ve all but emptied your compost pile, you’ll need to focus on building it back up. Quick. The best possible insulation to have for your compost is a giant pile that will insulate the core and keep those microorganisms warm and active. Christie recommends aiming for a one-cubic-yard system, perhaps larger in the coldest areas. The bigger the better. Luckily, with it being fall, you may have access to large amounts of leaves and end-of-season garden residue. Make sure to balance brown, carbon-based waste with green, nitrogen-rich waste. An option may be to save some fall leaves and add them with green compost throughout the winter. Go here to learn more about carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. As a general rule, microorganisms need a balance of 25-30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio for optimal health. Another option is to collect waste from restaurants and grocery stores. Throughout the winter, you’ll want to be adding buckets to keep the pile active, not the typical scraps from the kitchen. Still, don’t forget to keep collecting organic, compostable materials from the kitchen. As the weather gets colder, it might be tempting to start throwing those items in the trash. Resist the urge, and instead, keep a bin specifically for compostable items in the kitchen. You can invest in biodegradable odor cutter bags or get a specific kitchen compost bin that seals well. That will lessen trips to the compost bin out back, and you can go out there more on your terms (i.e. when it’s not snowing). Between keeping the compost pile larger than you would in the spring or summer and the plummeting temperatures outside, you’ll want to make sure you have a decent source of aeration for the decomposition process to be successful. To avoid having to be outside constantly turning the pile, you may want to invest in some earthworms, which will move about and aerate the soil for you.
Keep measuringMake sure to keep an eye on the pile as you get further and further into the colder days of fall. You’ll want to invest in a long compost bin thermometer to make sure the pile is between the 90 and 140 degree Fahrenheit mark. If the temperature starts to fall, make sure to start adding more scraps to the compost bin. Again, buckets of scraps, if you can.
Take it indoorsIf you’re really not into the idea of schlepping out to the compost bin when it’s 10 below and just snowed, you can start looking into indoor composting now so you’re set when the harsh weather hits. Many compost bins are specifically meant for indoors. A good one will be made of materials that cut back on odors and prevent the vermin from getting to it. Indoor composting is a great option if you don’t have a ton of food scraps (perhaps you live alone, for instance), but you still want to keep composting year-round. Another indoor option is to try vermicomposting. You basically dump worms into your indoor compost bin, which will speed up the composting process, act as a natural aerator and enhance the compost with the nutrients and enzymes from the worms’ digestive tracts. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has a good guide on getting started on vermicomposting. Some other tips for vermicomposting to keep in mind include:
- To get started, add high-carbon bedding. This is where fall will help. Shredded fall leaves make a great high-carbon environment. Shredded paper or ground-up cardboard also work. Add a few handfuls of soil, as well.
- Keep the soil as damp as a wrung-out sponge, which the worms need to stay alive.
- The bedding should fill three-quarters of the bin.
- Keep it plant-based. Never add meat or animal byproducts to the compost pile.
- Bury any food items under the soil to keep odors and fruit flies at bay.
- Chop foodstuffs into small bits to speed up decomposition.
- Keep the bin between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Vermicompost should be ready in three months.