Compost Heaps in Fall and Winter

Compost Heaps in Fall and Winter

By Michael Jenkins

As the weather grows colder, our gardens may be growing more slowly but that doesn’t mean that garden chores disappear! Among the ongoing maintenance your garden may need to thrive in the spring, caring for your compost heap over the winter is among the most important. A healthy supply of compost can help your plants thrive, reduce the waste your produce, and enrich your understanding of the natural cycles of the garden. While composting is easy—we’ve written about it before—there are a few things that you should pay particular attention to in autumn and winter.

The primary thing to remember about compost heaps in cold weather is that composting requires enough heat to thrive and keep the microorganisms working at breaking down organic matter.  In the winter months, this may mean getting creative to keep your compost heap warm enough. While the chemical process of composting do create heat on their own, it might not be enough to counter the winter chill. Options abound for adding more insulation to your compost heap—a simple lid or cover can help keep cold rain or snow from chilling your heap down. Bales of hay or bags of leaves around the outside can provide insulation. Adding a layer or fresh manure can also add needed heat—manure creates heat on its own—but may take a bit longer to break down into compost. Ultimately some level of experimentation may come into play as you find the solutions that are right for you.

You can help your compost heap thrive by preparing your compost a bit differently in winter than you do in the warmer months.  The best way to do this is by breaking up or shredding your compostable items into smaller pieces, thus making it easier for the microorganisms in your compost heap to break them down. Another important compost heap chore—turning over the heap—also changes in winter months. You’ll want to turn over the heap less often, if at all, to avoid losing heat and disturbing the processes going on within.

A small time-saving tip, for composters in much colder places: by keeping compostable items in a mini compost bin inside, you can save yourself trips to the compost heap in yucky weather. Your indoor mini-bin should be large enough to hold a good amount of compost while still being airtight.  You should add items in the layers and proportions necessary to good compost—treat your indoor min-bin like a miniature version of your compost heap—and move them outside when the mini-bin fills up. This helps minimize both your time outside in the cold and disturbances to your main compost heap during the winter months.

Aside from all this: composting in winter is much like composting in summer. Add the right mix of green and brown material, monitor moisture levels and pH, and be patient. Composting is an exercise in working with natural processes, and in working with nature this way you’ll enhance your understanding of gardening and the world as a whole.

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