A Step By Step Guide To Composting In The Winter

For the longest time, I believed I wouldn’t be able to maintain a zero-waste kitchen in the wintertime. I love making zero waste meals for my family, but the idea of running to a backyard compost bin in freezing temperatures seemed like a nightmare. If I continued indoor composting, I worried my bin would start to smell or fill up too quickly with nowhere to put my compost afterward.

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Composting in Canadian winters seemed too tough.

But since starting The Eco Hub, I have learned so many new composting facts. More recently, I learned that composting in the winter is much easier than I had previously thought.

Just like composting in the warmer months, you still need to maintain a proper green to brown ratio and moisture levels if you are composting in the winter. But to achieve this, you will need to make slight modifications to your routine since the decomposition process becomes a little more complicated in colder weather.

So if you are wondering how to compost leaves in the winter, keep reading!

Can I start a compost in the winter?

This is the big question, isn’t it!? The short answer is yes, you can reap the benefits of composting even in the winter! Whether you’re composting in your apartment or your backyard, you can continue composting in the winter if you make some minor adjustments – the process might just move a tad slower. In fact, composting year-round is a great way to get ahead of the upcoming gardening season and make some homemade plant fertilizer!

Pro tip: When spring comes, try and make compost tea! Compost tea is a liquid by-product of extracting the microbes from an already finished compost pile using a special brewing process. It sounds a little strange, but it can give your soil a boost when you start to plant come springtime.

Black plastic compost bin in allotment garden — PhotoPin

How to compost in the winter

Since composting relies on heat, the decomposition process only stops when your compost piles reach freezing temperatures (32ºF or 0ºC). So, one option is to try indoor or apartment composting and use an indoor composting bin like the Vitamix FoodCycler.

Vermicomposting is another great way to go if you want to try winter composting indoors. Vermicomposting is like traditional composting where organic matter is decomposed, but with the assistance of worms. We have talked before at The Eco Hub about how to start vermicomposting and what to feed worms. I love this option if you live in a small space because it tends to be less smelly and is super easy to do (check out this DIY vermicomposting bin for inspo).

However, I wouldn’t suggest starting a vermicomposting bin outdoors in the winter, the worms want to stay warm too!

If this isn’t your thing, you can still compost in your backyard in the wintertime, you will just have to be a little more involved. Don’t worry, we’ve got you!

Our top tips for winter composting

1. What should I add to my compost bin in the winter?

Before we go into a step-by-step of how to compost outdoors in the winter, we first need to talk about what is compostable, and what is not compostable. Knowing what to add (and not to add) to your compost bin will ultimately be the key driver of your success in composting in the winter.

Let’s chat about biodegradable vs compostable. If an item is compostable, it will decompose with the presence of worms or microorganisms and oxygen. This includes organic green matter like freezer burnt veggies, tea leaves, and weeds, as well as organic brown materials like twigs, dry leaves, and uncoated cardboard. Biodegradable on the other hand refers to any material that can be broken down into its original composition. With this in mind, if an item is '100% biodegradable', that doesn’t always mean it can be added to your compost bin!

If you are composting indoors in the winter, what you add to your compost bin doesn’t have to change as the seasons do. 

One of the biggest threats to composting in the winter is too much moisture. I would suggest adding more brown materials than you normally would to your bin.

Keep in mind that the materials themselves that you add to your bin might change with the seasons. For example, you might not have as many yard trimmings, sticks, and leaves to add to your bin in January or February. To supplement that organic brown matter, you might need to look for other places in the winter (I will compost stale bread, cereal, unbleached paper towels, and unbleached coffee filters).

If you don’t have the time to add your scraps to your outdoor bin every day (or you just don’t want to go outside when it’s cold), you can leave your soon-to-be compost in your kitchen freezer in a compost bag.

2. How to store compost in the winter?

Believe it or not, hot composting in winter is achievable. So, try and keep your bin warm and toasty!

As we mentioned, the primary driver of decomposition is heat. So, if you’re wondering how to speed up compost in winter, make sure your compost bin is well insulated so you can keep your pile above freezing temperatures as much as possible.

You can start by moving your compost bin to a location on your yard or balcony that is better protected from the weather. You can also use a thermometer to occasionally check in on the temperature of your compost pile.

A young girl throws vegetable cuttings in a compost bucket. Metal compost bucket. Women making compost from vegetable leftovers in the modern kitchen. Close up. Recycling, organic garbage. Pin

Alternatively, you can try trench composting in the winter! This is a super-easy way to compost year-round if you have access to a large outdoor space. And best of all, you don't need a bin! 

To get started with trench composting, you will want to dig a trench 10-12 inches deep in the soil while the ground is still warm enough to move. When you add your compostable scraps to your trench, cover it with 4 inches of soil. At that depth, your compost will be warm enough decomposition can set in but deep enough that vermin won’t dig it up. To use your compost trench over the winter, you can add your compost in and rebury it when the ground is warm enough, or you can dig covered holes in your trench which you can drop scraps through as needed. 

3. Should I cover my compost in the winter?

Covering your compost pile in the winter can help to keep your bin moist and speed up your composting process. It will also protect your bin from the snow, ice, and rain that may come with the winter months (you don’t want stinky compost soup). Moisture control is key! And this starts with choosing the best compost bins for cold climates. First, try to pick a bin with a lid, and if you don’t have one, a tarp or homemade cover should do the trick.

Another option is to go with a manual outdoor tumbling composter. Covered outdoors tumblers are also a great choice since they are less likely to attract vermin. I don’t know about you but cleaning up scraps in the cold is something I’d like to avoid!

4. Should I turn my compost in the winter?

It can be tough to know how often to turn the compost in the winter when you are at the mercy of unpredictable temperatures. Every time you turn your compost, you are losing precious heat which is a primary driver for decomposition.

In the winter, try to avoid disrupting your compost (FYI you should turn the pile 1-2 times per week in the warmer months). Once springtime does arrive, you can move your materials from your outdoor winter bin to your regular one, and remember to mix in more brown materials when you do! Your bin is about the heat up.


5. How do you activate compost in the winter?

With cooler temperatures, it can be a little more challenging to get your compost bin going. There are tons of tips and tricks out there, but essentially you will need to add at least one of the following to help you out: nitrogen, moisture, bacteria, or bulk

Here are some examples of how to do it.

If your bin is too cold…
  1. We have already talked about insulating your bin and keeping it in a more sheltered area. But did you know the bigger your compost bin the more likely it will heat up? Empress of Dirt suggests you want to aim for a compost bin at least 6x6x6-feet to have enough mass to counter the winter cold.
If your bin is too wet or dry…
  1. While too much moisture is a more likely culprit for a failed outdoor composting bin in the winter (remember to cover your bin), if your bin is too dry you might need to add more nitrogen-rich green material like fruit or veggies scraps.  
If your bin still isn’t going…
  1.  Add in a pile of already ‘finished’ compost. This is by far the cheapest and easiest option to activate a compost pile! I like to maintain a small bin indoors during the early fall and use it to activate my compost once I move to an outdoor bin in the winter.
  2. Chopping or blending your scraps into smaller pieces can also help get your bin going quicker.
  3. Add in a compost activator from the store like the Jobe's Organic Compost Starter.
  4. If you’re comfortable with the idea, adding urine can help give any compost pile a nitrogen boost.

Don’t stress out if you aren’t able to keep your compost warm enough and your compostable scraps freeze. They will eventually decompose as temperatures rise in the Spring.

Final thoughts on composting in the winter

There is no need to be afraid of composting in the winter! Composting leaves and coffee grounds in the winter is manageable if you keep your bin warm and covered, avoid turning it over and remember to add the right items like you would any other time of year. Tips and tricks like storing your compost in the freezer and chopping your waste into smaller sections also make composting in the winter more manageable.

And the worst-case scenario, if your bin still isn’t working in the winter, you can try vermicomposting indoors. Or, know that your outdoor bin will act more as a ‘storage bin’ until the weather warms and the decomposition process can resume. This is still a win for the environment!

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