Composting in Winter

How to care for your compost pile over the winter.

If you spent the summer tending your new compost pile, you might wonder if it's possible to compost in winter.

Can you compost in the winter?

Winter is a great time to make compost.

If you've ever worried about a compost pile attracting flies or offending your neighbors with nasty odors, fall and winter compost piles are a good way to begin 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 composting in winter without fear, so start raking those falling leaves and begin a new adventure!

This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and make a purchase I might earn a small commission, but it doesn't affect the price you pay. Read my disclosure here for more info.

Composting in winter is just as easy as composting in summer, although it will 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.

Compost materials are all around you all year long, just keep your eyes and ears open.

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.

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 about it then - but I got it done.

But it was a great base for my fall and winter compost pile.

Maybe you're not able to get a truckload of animal bedding for your compost pile, but farms and homesteads often clean out their barns before winter arrives.

And it's not a necessary ingredient for your compost pile. There are so many materials you can combine in order to make compost.

You'll find a list of possible free compost ingredients that you might be able to source, in this post.

The ingredients for a compost pile

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) had already aged for a year and is now considered "brown" also. 

That truckload of fairgrounds shavings provided all the brown material I needed for my winter composting.

The used bedding from my fall chicken-coop-cleanout goes on the compost pile too; the droppings are rich in nitrogen and the straw bedding is high in carbon.

You'll find a list of kitchen and barnyard materials you can compost here.

A truck-load of wood shavings provides all the "brown" material I need for composting throughout the year.
What's left of the giant pile of wood shavings after building a new compost pile.

Where to locate a winter compost pile

My compost pile is located in the garden, where it's handy when I want to add some to the garden beds. 

Some gardeners prefer to locate their pile near the source of their materials, whether it's the chicken coop or a horse barn, etc., for ease in moving the raw materials.

My summer compost piles are located directly on the ground in a corner of the garden. When I turn the pile, I just move it over a bit by picking up a shovel-full and depositing it next to the original pile. This gives me plenty of room to work.

But I'm locating this new pile on top of one of my raised beds instead. 

The hard soil underneath those temporary summer 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.

Build your winter compost pile in a sunny spot to take advantage of the sun's heat.

Autumn compost ingredients

When I cleaned up the garden in the fall, I added the green plant matter as I pulled the spent plants from the raised beds. 

I layered the shavings from the broiler chicks' brooder pen and the vegetable and fruit discards from my canning sessions in between layers of shavings and wheelbarrow-loads of "horse apples" from the horse barn.

Fallen leaves are a perfect addition to the compost pile.

Autumn also finds us 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.

The shavings and fallen leaves will be used over the winter to cover kitchen waste and other "greens" that are added to the compost pile. 

Covering new additions with a layer of shavings helps hold the heat in and keep odors down.

If straw is plentiful and inexpensive in your area, consider buying a bale in the fall and adding some to your compost pile during the course of the winter. It's an excellent "brown" and doesn't contain seeds like hay does.

Subscribe to The Acorn, Oak Hill Homestead's weekly-ish newsletter
and receive a free copy of my ebook How to Make Vinegar at Home for Pennies.

How to keep compost warm in winter

Winter weather will slow down the process of composting. You may need to help keep your compost hold in the heat.

First, you don't need to turn your compost pile as often in the winter. Turning it lets heat escape, and you want to keep it as warm as you can, so let it rest longer before you turn it.

You can surround the pile with old straw bales to help hold in the heat. Likewise, covering the compost pile with a tarp can also hold heat in.

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.

  • Don't turn the pile as often in the winter. 

  • Covering the pile with a tarp or cardboard will help keep it from being saturated by fall and spring rains. It will also help hold in the heat.

  • Keep the pile moist but not soggy. If it does get too wet, you can add more brown material to soak up the moisture.

  • Keep a covered bucket in the garage or mudroom to collect your kitchen waste, then add it all to the compost pile weekly or when necessary. Making the trek to the garden might not be as pleasant in winter weather as in the spring and summer.

  • Cover new additions with a layer of straw, wood chips or other brown matter to discourage wildlife looking for an easy meal.

  • 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 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 a cold winter morning, a welcome sight for any gardener.

If you're ready to take composting to the next level, or if you're confused about that magic ratio of greens to browns or just not sure where to begin, check out my ebook The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting (for people without a science degree).

If you're new to composting, fall is the perfect time to build a new compost pile. Here's what you need, and how to maintain it over the winter.


  Facebook | Pinterest | Instagram | Subscribe