Composting in Winter

How to start a compost pile in the winter. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

If you've ever worried about a compost pile attracting flies or offending your neighbors with nasty odors, winter is a great time to start composting. There are fewer flies to attract, and winter's lower temperatures help keep down odors - although if you incorporate enough carbon materials you shouldn't have an odor problem, even in the summer. You can start a winter compost pile without fear, so start raking those falling leaves and begin a new adventure!

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Composting in winter is just as easy as composting in summer, although it will probably take longer to get finished compost. The bacteria, mold and insects that are necessary to turn garden and kitchen waste into compost work more slowly in cold weather, but they are still active and you'll have finished compost to use in the spring.

Right before the county fair our community had a clean-up day at the fairgrounds. One of the heavy equipment operators was willing to load my truck with some of the shavings that we cleaned out of the livestock barns. I was pretty excited!

A truck-full of wood shavings provides all the "brown" material I need for composting. (c) Oak Hill Homestead

Then I got home and had to shovel out the truck in the late summer heat all by myself. I wasn't quite as excited then - but I got it done. I piled it all up in the barnyard so the dogs wouldn't dig or roll in it; I know from experience that they certainly would if they could get to it.

You need the same ingredients for a winter compost pile as you would any other time of year: "brown" material (carbon), "green" material (nitrogen), air, moisture and time. Wood shavings are "brown." Fresh manure is "green" but any manure that was mixed in the shavings I brought home (cattle/goat/sheep) was already aged and considered "brown" also. This truckload provided all the brown material I'll need for my winter composting.

I also started a new compost pile near the chicken coop - which is also near the big pile of shavings - so I can add the day's chicken droppings easily. I've been dumping the ducks' nasty muddy water on the pile every morning as a way to add moisture, and the autumn and winter rains will hopefully provide most of what's needed. I have to hand-carry water to my birds so I'll have to do the same for my new compost pile.

I'll probably move this pile to the garden during a spell of warm weather, but in the meantime it's an easy place to deposit poultry droppings and keep them from stinking by covering them with shavings.

A truck-load of wood shavings provides all the "brown" material I need for composting (c) Oak Hill Homestead
What's left of the giant pile of wood shavings.

I have a compost pile going in the garden too, which is fenced so the dogs can't get to it. Since my raised beds are empty now (except for the perennial bed) I built the new compost pile on one of the beds. My summer compost piles were directly on the ground in a corner of the garden. The hard soil underneath those piles has improved immensely over time - my shovel is easily driven into the soil that used to be rock hard - and I want to take advantage of that improvement in my raised beds too. Besides, building the pile farther away from the garden fence will keep my dogs from their endless attempts to "dumpster dive" through the fencing holes for whatever kitchen waste I've buried in it that day.

Every couple of days I bring a wheelbarrow-full of "horse apples" from the horse barn and another wheelbarrow-full of shavings from where I dumped them in the barnyard, and add layers of each to the compost pile. I also added the green plant matter as I pulled up spent plants and cleaned up the garden for winter. Then I add kitchen waste and the shavings from the broiler chicks' brooder. Covering the new additions with a layer of shavings helps hold the heat in and keep odors down.

Autumn also finds me raking up the fallen leaves. Throughout the year I have plenty of "green" materials but I'm a little light on "brown" things so I save those autumn leaves - and this is why I was so excited about that truckload of shavings. Yes, I have hay, but hay contains seeds so I don't use it very often. The shavings and fallen leaves I gather now will be used during the spring and summer.

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A few tips for successful composting in winter:
Keep the size of the material you add as small as possible. Shred fallen leaves by running over them with the lawn mower. Chop kitchen waste into small pieces. Use thin layers of greens and browns instead of thick layers.

You don't need to turn the pile as often as in the summer. Turning it lets heat escape, and you want to keep it as warm as you can. You can surround the pile with old straw bales to help hold in the heat or put a tarp on top, weighted down so it won't blow off in the winter winds.

Keep the pile moist but not soggy. If it gets too wet, you can add more brown material to soak up the moisture. (By the way, this is why I like having my compost pile right on the ground or on top of a raised bed. If there is too much water it just runs right into the soil underneath.)

Don't add diseased plant matter or weeds that have gone to seed. Your winter compost pile might not get hot enough to kill diseases and seeds. (You can use a compost thermometer such as this one (affiliate link) to keep an eye on the temperature.)

What are you waiting for? Rake up those autumn leaves, add all your fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen (coffee grounds too!), and harvest some great soil in the spring. If you're lucky, you might even be rewarded by steam wafting from your compost pile on cold winter morning, a welcome sight for any gardener.

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  1. Such a useful, informative post. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Michele. I hope it's helpful.

  2. I love my compost pile!
    :) gwingal

  3. How warm is it where you are? I stop composting in the winter and let my summer's compost finish. I live in Wyoming where our winter is fierce. Any tips?

    1. I'm in Oklahoma, but we lived in Wyoming years ago. It does get cold! You could surround your compost pile with straw bales and/or top it with a tarp or an old glass window to help keep the pile warm. You might also add extra nitrogen to the carbon materials. Let us know how it goes.


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