The Compost Pile in Winter

By , January 9, 2014

We rely heavily on composting on our “homestead” to provide good, nutrient-rich soil, and to reduce the amount of garbage we haul out on our backs to take to the dump.

A good, large compost heap should continue to “cook” through the winter in most parts of our country, but we often have long periods when the pile stops working; the outer layers freeze several times every winter.

I’ve recently made peace with this process.The key to a good, hygienic, non-intrusive compost is plenty of biofilter. Biofilter, usually cut grass or leaves in our case (see Biofilter Snob) creates an air-trapping insulation layer that holds in heat and odors.

In winter, biofilter is often hard to come by. However, through much of the winter, we have more than enough of a clean, highly insulating material literally laying around: snow. We have found that several inches of snow holds in the composting heat and hides odors. As an added bonus, nature often continues to pile it on non-stop, whether we need it or not.

If there’s no snow, the pile often freezes. We use these periods to even out the bin. With no heat (or very little—often there’s a composting “kernel” deep in the pile that we try not to disturb) there’s no reason to heap toward the center quite so much. We fill in the corners of the bin during these periods, knowing that the next thaw will restart the composting, which will spread to these outer areas. If there’s no snow, we’ll lay cut spruce and hemlock branches over the pile to act as biofilter. By leaving the limb butts long, we ensure good handles for pulling them off for the next deposit.

During times of little or no snow, a good cover becomes even more important, to keep critters from messing around in the pile (see Time to Put a Lid on It).

During the winter months, while trees are dormant, we cut any new logs needed to add to the bins.

Through all of this, we find that we pass the winter without problems. Composting begins again as the season turns. It’s not all hot compost all the time, but non-composting curing time is an essential part of the process. Even in the coldest, darkest days of winter, something good is going on under the surface, and excellent garden soil is, inevitably, on its way.

Several years ago, we had a “Doh!” moment when we heard a suggestion to improve home composting that should be glaringly obvious, but isn’t.

A friend told us that he lines his household compost bucket with a couple of sheets of newspaper. This creates a clean barrier between the compost and the bucket, so that when the time comes to empty the bucket into the compost bin, everything falls out neatly and easily!

The newspaper really should be shredded for most efficient composting, but a couple of whole sheets, well saturated with compost juices, will not cause problems. Any of it that hasn’t deteriorated soon gets mixed in anyway.

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