10 Tips for Winter Composting

There's no reason to let compost go dormant over the winter. Keeping your compost active year-round offers a range of benefits, including a great fuel for your garden in the spring. Here are 10 tips for winter composting.

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Know What You Can Compost
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Know What You Can Compost

The contents of your winter composting collection can be the same throughout the year. Include kitchen scraps such as fruit peels, rinds and cores. Along with vegetables, including pumpkin shells and onion skins. Coffee grounds and paper filters can also go in the compost. Along with tea leaves and tea bags without staples or stickers. Eggshells are also a great addition to compost (you can actually use eggshells in your garden in a lot of ways). The Wisconsin DNR offers helpful guidelines for determining what should and shouldn't go in your compost.
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Add Yard Clippings
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Add Yard Clippings

Compost should have the right balance of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) ingredients. Since most of your scraps that come from your kitchen will be nitrogen-rich, be sure to add yard waste such as straw, dried leaves and plant debris. Your well-balanced compost will help in the spring when it's time to start a garden.
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Materials to Avoid in Winter Composting
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Materials to Avoid in Winter Composting

Since plants lose between 50 and 70 percent of their volume in winter composting, a variety of plant material can be processed effectively. However, there are some materials to avoid. Woody twigs and branches larger than ¼-inch in diameter should first be put through a shredder-chipper. Avoid wood and leaves from plants such as pine, spruce, juniper and arborvitae. Also, avoid plants that have been treated with weed killers.
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Get the Right Ratio
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Get the Right Ratio

A ratio of about 30-to-1 is ideal for the acidity to supply microorganisms with the amount of both the carbon they need for energy and the nitrogen they need for protein synthesis. To estimate the right carbon to nitrogen ratio, use the average of the ratios of the individual materials. The University of Missouri offers a handy chart to help with ratios. If you follow these guidelines you will be on the right track for winter composted materials.
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Build a Productive Pile
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Build a Productive Pile

To get the most out of your compost, make sure the pile is 3 to 4 feet on each side. This is done to allow retention of generated heat and air diffusion. When placing alternating layers of material on the pile, sprinkle water in so the material is moist but not soggy. As layers are added, a handful or two of topsoil or winter composting substance between the layers will supply a source of microorganisms and absorb odors. Enrich your soil, improve its structure, and give your plants a much-needed nutrient boost the easy, sustainable way, with composting in place.
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Track Temperature
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Track Temperature

Temperature is a crucial factor in the winter composting process. Temperatures between 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit indicate rapid decomposition. During the winter months, decomposition will be slower, but will quickly resume as temperatures rise in the spring. Novice composters may want to track temperatures. When the temperature of the pile gets too low, you can increase activity by adding nitrogen rich material and turning the pile. Use your compost in some of these low-maintenance landscaping ideas.
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Monitor Moisture

Monitor Moisture

In regions that receive a lot of rain and snow, moisture control is essential. This can be difficult with traditional compost piles, as the moisture soaks into the ground and is taken on by the compost. One solution is a compost tumbler which is sealed so the rain and snow melt is not a problem. Tumblers can still take on some water, so if you go this route, don't skimp on adding dry leaves to absorb any excess moisture. The tumbler is a great idea to try for winter composting.
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Insulate
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Insulate

During the colder months, the microbes in the compost must be kept active. For winter composting, move compost bins to a sunnier part of the yard if possible. And use layers of leaves, straw, cardboard or sawdust to help insulate and keep warmth in the pile.
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Add Some Worms
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Add Some Worms

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is a good alternative for winter composting during the colder months. Worms turn food waste into a rich, dark soil amendment much like you'd get from your traditional compost pile. Vermicomposting can be done in a DIY bin made from a plastic storage container and PVC pipe. The Michigan State University Extension offers tips on building such a bin. Work composting works best in areas where the outside temperatures are between 40-80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in an area with colder winters, you can bring the bin inside during the winter months.
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Troubleshoot Problems
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Troubleshoot Problems

Is the soil too moist? Warmth in only the middle of the pile? Is the pile attracting bugs, rodents or raccoons? Be prepared to troubleshoot any issues that may come up throughout the winter composting process and the rest of the year.

Rachel Brougham
Rachel Brougham lived through a major home renovation in 2019, knows the ups and downs of home improvement, and loves sharing tips with readers. A veteran journalist of both print and television, she’s won several awards for her writing and has covered everything from the environment and education to health care, politics and food. She’s written for several publications beyond newspapers including Bob Vila, Taste of Home and Minnesota Parent, and she currently writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column. Her memoir, Widowland, about the sudden loss of her husband, was published in 2022. She specializes in everything from home decor and design to lawn and garden, product reviews and pet care. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her tending to her garden (both vegetables and native plants), playing with her dog, watching sports with her family or getting some exercise. A native of Michigan, she currently lives in Minneapolis. An avid user of Instagram, you can follow her @RachBrougham.