Winter Compost

Posted on December 29th, 2010 by Tonia 3 Comments

Christmas 2010 has come and gone, and our house now looks like a compost pile of wrapping paper, fur tree needles, and cookie crumbs.  It’s time to start thinking about cleaning up, taking down the tree, and regaining our normal daily life…but I don’t want to!

I’m not quite ready to stop listening to Christmas music…not quite ready to stop scouring the internet for new, scrumptious cookie recipes and staying up way too late baking…not quite ready for the steady stream if Christmas cards and letters to stop filling our mailbox…not quite ready to stop pinning pictures of eco-friendly ways to wrap gifts.

The end to the holidays marks the beginning of a long, cold, dark stretch of winter with nothing to distract us from the fact that we live in an icy tundra.  We’ll be shoveling our walk, scarping ice off our cars, chopping wood with frozen fingers, bundling up in a million layers…for three more months with no reprieve.

Thankfully, we have several {rather wonderful} things to carry us through to spring:  a warm home, plenty of firewood in the woodshed, friends and family that occasionally drop in for visits, a warm little snuggle-bug dog, an ice-rink nearby for impromptu games of one-on-one hockey, a wood-fired sauna {the only way to REALLY get warm in the middle of January}, and a cookbook dedicated to crock-pot stews.  These are our secret weapons for surviving the post-holiday part of winter.

I actually enjoy the quiet, cozy activities of winter, but I can’t help feeling a little restless…This will be our first spring at the farm, and we can’t wait to sink our shovels into the earth for the first time.  There isn’t much we can do to prepare for the growing season right now, so we’ve just been wistfully staring out the window at the spot we cleared for our future garden, imagining it bursting with new life come May and June.

Meanwhile, our compost bin on the back porch is steadily filling up.  Every time I contribute to it, I get excited for the moment when we’ll finally scoop piles of it into our new garden.  Yummy yummy plant food, that’s what that is right there.

Speaking of compost/winter…how do you compost in the winter, anyways?  Jared is back to talk to us about this.  Thanks for paying us another visit, Jared!  It’s always a pleasure to learn about composting from you, and I’m extremely excited to be able to swap gardening stories this spring!

When I began to write this I had spent the morning pulling sleds full of kids up the hill in knee-deep snow so they could tumble down the hillside in clouds of fresh powder as many times as their numb-noses would allow.

I had spent the afternoon with neighbors, heaving shovel-loads of snow from behind cars so that those who needed to get somewhere wouldn’t be trapped behind the massive ridges of snow left behind by the plows.

When the work was done we threw the shovels aside and dove off the massive plow-piles outside our apartment, landing in snow so deep and soft we almost disappeared.  It was the biggest snowstorm I’ve experienced since I moved to Minnesota, and it’s days like these that make winter so incredibly exciting.

Ohh… and did I mention I trudged my way up to the garden so I could mix and turn the compost pile?

Yah, it was weird to be in the garden wearing full snow gear; weird to dig around for the pitchfork that had fallen from its place along the fence; weird to have to chop through the icy top-layer of the compost pile, using the shovel like a sledge-hammer; and weird that in the middle of a blizzard, with temperatures barely above zero, I found warm compost and worms still slowly at work.

Composting in the winter can be tricky.  Compost thrives in warm muggy weather, needing both moisture and heat in order to sustain the process.  It’s no surprise then that the frozen winters of the upper Midwest pose quite a challenge for those who want to continue turning their organic waste into luscious soil.  But it can be done.  And although the return is a lot slower and the work a little harder, you’ll thank yourself in April when all of a sudden that pile you’ve struggled to keep alive for 4 months bursts with fresh dirt just in time for spring planting.  Here are some things to consider:

First, if you’re using an official compost bin, complete with an instruction manual and nifty diagrams, I’d suggest consulting that for cold-weather compost tips.  Most of those can be used year-round, so you’ll just need to shovel yourself a path and go mix the things occasionally.  Again, it may take a little longer because the heat is harder to come by, but with a little attention, the compost process should continue.

If, however, you are composting in some sort of container you’ve developed yourself, you can try a few things:  First, you can move the container to some place where it won’t freeze, perhaps a shed or garage.  Again, compost needs heat, moisture, and organic waste, so as long as you keep it from freezing up or drying out, you should be fine.  However, if you are worried about the stink or the critters, you might not want it indoors.  If that’s the case, you’re next best option is to insulate the container in some way.  You might pack a bunch of snow around the container to keep the temperature relatively stable or wrap the thing in some sort of insulating material.  My favorite idea, however, is to use hay-bales as insulation.  They’re thick, they’re natural, and they can be used in the spring for mulch or weed cover.  If you can get your hands on some hay bales, do so, and use them to keep your compost warm and cozy.  And remember, as long as you’re adding to and mixing your compost regularly, the odds of it freezing into one solid chunk of organic ice are pretty slim.

This leads us to our last consideration.  If, like me, you prefer open-air compost (no container, just a pile of organic waste), then you will face quite a challenge keeping that compost alive all winter.  But I intend to try; I mean, what’s the worst that could happen – my pile freezes solid and some giant raccoon drags it into its den and waits for the compost to thaw so it can feast for weeks?  Give me a break, do raccoons even have dens?

Anyway, my plan is fairly simple.  Currently a few fellow seminarians and I collect our organic waste in our homes and bring it to a large, lidded tub behind our building. When this fills up, I bring the tub up to the community garden (currently buried in two feet of snow), and add the new organic waste to the compost pile.  The pile is covered by a tarp and I’ve laid two bales of hay across the tarp for insulation.  Whenever I add new material I simply pull off the hay bales, lift the tarp (which carries the snow with it), and mix in the new compost.  This usually takes a little hacking and poking with the pitchfork, but once I’ve broken the frozen layer, the underlying material looks fairly lively.  As I mentioned, I was up there during the blizzard last weekend and found a few worms still wiggling away deep in the warmth of the pile.  This was encouraging, and just like container composting, frequent mixing will keep the process working as well as possible.

So it takes some effort, I’ll admit that. But I think it’s worth it.  Most of us will host parties, bake piles of goodies, and cook delicious feasts these next few weeks.  The holidays are a blast, but with the celebrations come a lot of trash and waste.  Winter composting ensures that in this season of excess we maintain some level of responsibility.  Oh, and if you’re anything like me and absolutely love winter weather, then hey, it’s one more excuse to go outside and enjoy this awesome season!

To read Jared’s other post about composting, click here.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Landen Turner, Tonia. Tonia said: Jared is back to talk about #composting in the winter. Thanks for your hard work on this post, J! […]

  2. […] I contributed another composting piece for my friend, Tonia, over at Itty Bitty Impact, and it’s all about composting in the winter.  Check it out. […]

  3. […] Jared around here because he has written a couple great posts for me about composting {here and here} and I’m sure we’ll see more of him when the spring comes around. But now his wife […]

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