Beat the Freeze: Pro Tips for Maintaining a Compost Pile in Winter

Kiki Powers

by | Read time: 5 minutes

If you are familiar with composting, you probably know why this beneficial practice is associated with eco-minded, “green” living. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), composting is the natural process of recycling leaves, food scraps, and other organic matter into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants.

Beat the Freeze: Pro Tips for Maintaining a Compost Pile in Winter

Anything that grows will eventually decompose. Composting simply speeds up the process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, worms, insects and other decomposing organisms. The resulting material, or compost, is often referred to as “black gold,” as it is so fertile and nutrient rich. The U.S. Composting Council lays out some of the benefits of regularly composting, which include:

Revitalizing the environment – Compost can sequester carbon, rebuild depleted soil nutrients, conserve and retain water, limit erosion, reduce the use of negatively impactful synthetic chemical fertilizers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing waste – As composting utilizes food scraps and other organic waste, the practice diverts these materials from landfills and incinerators, upcycling them into a productive, environmentally beneficial product.

Protecting against soil erosion – Compost binds soil together, increasing infiltration and slowing the surface flow of water.

Promoting healthier plants – Compost supports healthy resilient plant growth, helping to balance soil density, adding and retaining nutrients and discouraging disease, pests and weeds.

Conserving water – Compost retains and efficiently transfers water, which helps the environment and makes plants more drought resistant.

Improving human health – Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that access to healthy, high quality soil, such as that produced by compost, has been shown to support immune well-being, and help protect against stress and depression.

Additionally, unlike plastic recycling, with home composting, you control the process and successful outcome. By contrast, despite well-meaning human efforts, only 9% of all plastic used worldwide is recycled, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation. Happily, you have positive influence here as well. You can ditch plastic for multi-use, biodegradable products.

Not only will making this adjustment reduce ocean-suffocating waste, but you will also benefit−twice. First, from using the household item as intended, and second, by productively employing it afterwards as additional “brown” layering material in your compost. This is especially valuable if you are short on dried fall leaves! Consider switching to biodegradable/compostable versions of household items you use regularly, such as:

If all this has you excited either to begin composting, or perhaps to revisit the practice, your timing is ideal, even if you were a “seasonal” composter in the past. If you have considered composting to be primarily a spring and summer endeavor, you are not alone. Many people compost their produce scraps in the warmer months but are likely to abandon the project in winter and fall, especially in colder climates. And yet, there are many good reasons to employ this incredibly earth friendly practice all year round.

Composting as a four-season activity is well worth your time, rewarding you with nutrient rich organic material to nourish your indoor plants and garden. In fact, late fall is one of the best times to begin composting. Those fallen leaves gathered on your lawn are a free bonus from nature, as they are one of the most important ingredients in your compost bin. The kitchen scraps only provide food for the organisms that turn those shredded leaves into rich, black soil.

You can set up an outdoor composting station in most U.S. climates, even colder regions. That’s because the decomposition process only slows down once the temperature drops, it doesn’t totally stop unless the pile freezes and then only temporarily. Beneficial bacteria, fungi and other microbes−as well as larger decomposers like sowbugs, pill bugs and earthworms−can survive in compost piles year-round, and will start breaking down organic matter as soon as it warms up outside. These guidelines can help ensure your cold weather composting success:

Create your winter composting station

As to how you structure your compost station, your options abound, whether you want to set things up indoors or out. There are many great bins and containers available for sale, some which allow you to rotate and aerate the decomposing materials. While some of these devices are costly, there are many simple, comparatively cheap DIY options to consider as well. You can also upcycle old storage bins, wooden boxes or simply dig a hole in the ground in a corner of your garden.

Stockpile fall leaves

Leaves, straw and pine needles are excellent “brown” carbon-rich materials that improve compost pile aeration and reduce odors. Once you understand the priceless contribution of shredded leaves to your compost station, you may want to collect them in bags at the end of autumn for use throughout the year.

Layer by “color”

In composting jargon, think “greens” and “browns” when preparing your compost ingredients. “Greens” are the wet, nitrogen-rich items such as food scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags and fresh leaves. Be sure to exclude meat scraps, fats or animal/human waste. “Browns” are the dry, carbon-rich ingredients, such as dry leaves, grasses, compostable household products, newspaper, plant clippings, wood chips, hay, straw, sawdust and pine needles.

Balance moisture

Decomposing organic matter requires both oxygen and water to survive. You help ensure optimal air flow by layering “greens” and “browns,” as well as breaking down larger materials to “finger” size and stirring and/or turning your pile periodically. Food waste “greens” will add sufficient moisture, balanced by drier “brown” materials. Aim for the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.

Apply benevolent neglect

Once set in motion, cold weather composting is comfortably low maintenance. Whereas in warmer months, regularly turning and aerating your compost pile is important, it is actually better not to stir up your compost in winter months as doing so will only result in heat loss in the interior of the pile and slow down the decomposition process.

This information may be timed perfectly as we start contemplating New Year’s resolutions worth keeping. Why not make year-round composting a holiday discussion topic? You may find others interested in joining forces with you, especially kids, who can participate in various fun ways. What a great example to set. Cheers to your healthy, green journey!

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