Composting During Winter is Easier Than You Think

Reader Contribution by Mary Murray and Windy Meadows Farm
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Here we are launching a new year, and in our part of the Midwest, January temperatures are bone-chilling cold with night-time temperatures expected in the single-digits this weekend. Even the old maples and pine trees that surround our farmhouse seem to complain as they nod down their heads against the icy blast from the north.However, inside, there is warmth not only from the crackling fire in the kitchen fireplace, but a warmth and comfort that come from knowing another cord of firewood and 60 bales of hay were stacked several weeks ago to make ready for such a winter.

January is a good month to take stock of things, and while many of us make resolutions, it’s also a terrific month for plotting, planning, and searching out new garden inspiration. I love settling in with favorite garden books and jotting down ideas for next spring and summer. It doesn’t matter if we’re planning an apartment balcony garden, a suburban backyard plot, or a large-scale country garden, these snowy days give us the time to daydream.

Winter Composting is a Form of Garden Planning

One thing many of us do is compost — but did you know composting in winter is a great way to plan for next year’s gardens? While all of my tools have been tucked away in the garden shed, composting is still one thing I can do every day without a single tool.

I admit, somehow composting in warm weather just seems easier: It’s a pleasant walk across the grass on a sunny day to toss eggshells and vegetable peelings in the composter, then give it a spin. But somehow, that same task in winter seems is a bit harder when it’s necessary to bundle up and then walk through the knee-deep snow. I generally struggle to open the lid on the composter (which has usually frozen in place), then struggle again to close the lid securely before giving it a spin.

But then, when I’m back inside, I’m smiling, yes, partially because it’s much warmer, but also because I know composting in winter is a great way for me to get the best possible garden next spring and summer.

Lessons in Winter Composting

Speed of decay. Colder temperatures will definitely slow the rate of decomposition, and we still need the right mix of brown and green waste, as well as moisture and oxygen. If we can get these to work together, we’ll be successful no matter what time of year it is.

Browns and greens. So, how do we compost successfully in winter? Let’s begin with brown waste: look around your yard for leaves and twigs, then gather paper or cardboard from inside your home such as paper towel rolls or cardboard egg cartons. What about green waste? In summer, you’d be adding grass clippings, but in winter fruit and vegetable scraps are a perfect substitute.

Moisture is also important for composting. Even if it’s freezing outside, the inside of a compost pile is warm. Fruit and vegetable scraps will add some moisture, but adding water is also important. It’s easy to decide how much: Put on a pair of gloves, gather a handful of compost from the center, and squeeze tightly. The result should be damp to the touch and feel like a sponge that’s been wrung out.

Oxygen is the last essential ingredient, and if you have a spinning composter, simply turn it one a week. If you’re compost is in a pile, give it a turn weekly with a pitchfork.

Warmth. Remember that the cold temperatures slow the process down, so it’s best to keep the size of the materials added to the compost small so they break down quicker. Another way to beat the cold temperatures is to surround the composter with bales of straw to help keep it insulated.   

Those are my quick and easy tips for composting through winter.I hope you’ll give it a try. It’s really a terrific way to jump-start next summer’s garden!

Mary Murray is a goat wrangler, chicken whisperer, bee maven, and farmers market baker at Windy Meadows Farm. She rehabilitated her 1864 Ohio farm property and is ready to share the many stories that come with farm living. Read all of Mary’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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