Winter is a difficult time for gardeners. Everything is quiet and it seems that much happens. However, it is a time of rejuvenation and preparation for spring, so it shouldn’t be ignored. This article is about composting during the winter time and features a guide and winter composting tips. We will show you how you can maximize your compost over the winter so that come spring you’ll have bountiful quantities of outstanding soil, ready for spring blooms!
Many of us enjoy a garden with beautiful blooms, delicious vegetables, and herbs for the cooking pot. As all avid gardeners know, fertile soil is the key to successful gardening. But what makes soil “good?” And, if you are unlucky enough to have a “bad” soil, what can you do to make it better?
The answer is simple, improve your soil by adding compost. Even better, why not make your own eco-friendly compost heap. Being ever conscious about chemicals and pollutants, this is a great reason to consider making your own compost.
This article will start with some general information on composting, and how you can use it in your garden. From there, we will look more specifically at composting in winter, and what you need to do to maximize your success during the winter time.
Compost Maintenance and Maximization
One important aspect of creating your own compost heap is caring for it and maintaining it. Compost is the best fertilizer you can use on your soil, and costs are very low once you’re up and running — if anything at all. A compost pile does not take a lot of upkeep, but as it is kept outdoors, it is better to learn how to protect it from the elements.
If you have cared for your compost over the winter months, it will still contain all those nutrients that your growing plants will need in the spring.
All soil, good or bad, benefits from being fertilized. Some soils may not need as many nutrients as others, and that is the key element. A poor soil cannot make its own nutrients, and crops cannot grow without food. Compost will give that soil a helping hand.
How then can you tell if your soil is good or bad?
Soil pH Balance
It’s important to understand the pH balance of your soil. Only then will you know how to balance the fertilizer, to improve the nutritional benefits in your soil.
- Put a handful of soil in a plastic plant pot. Pour some vinegar over it. If the vinegar reacts with fizzing, you know you have an alkaline soil.
- For the second test, stir a handful of soil with a spoonful of baking powder and a little water. If this causes fizzing, you have an acidic soil.
Once you know the type of soil you have, you can do further tests to give you a better range of your pH reading. Use any type of pH test strip. Why should you do this? Well, a pH of around 7 is ideal, if you’re reading is higher, then a good way to deal with this is by using compost.
Compost is great at “diluting” down that pH level. Though it acts more as a buffer for the roots than bringing down the pH level. Compost is organic and a natural soil conditioner that slowly releases fertilizer into the soil.
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A bad soil could have poor nutritional value for many reasons:
Overplanting or lack of crop rotation
You can do something about this, as you are in control of your planting habits. This is not an article advising on crop rotation, but giving your soil plenty of composting treatment will help enormously.
Climate – water shortage, too much sun, or even flooding
This one you cannot do too much about, as we have not yet learned how to control the weather. If you have a small garden and there’s a water shortage, use all your wastewater for your plants, once they are in the shade from the hot sun. Learn other tips you can do to help your lawn, trees, and shrubs in a drought.
Flooding is not something we can control either. There are precautions you can take to limit the damage, but most tend to be expensive. You could install extra drainage, such as a French drain, or lift your plants in raised beds.
All soil erodes during the colder months. Topping it with a good layer of compost and then a layer of mulch such as decaying leaves or grass cuttings is a great idea. It adds a blanket of protection over the soil, against that freezing frost.
Environment – soil texture.
This refers to the type of soil you have in the land around you. This is something else you cannot control. For example, sandy, silt, and clay soils do not retain water very well.
But, you can treat it in your own backyard.
Break the soil up in your own backyard, and add compost and other mediums to improve aeration and water retention. This helps the soil to become more organic. Then you can plant your crops and flowers and enjoy successful growing.
Ingredients of a Compost Heap
Now that you have some ideas of what can cause a poor soil, let’s look at what a homemade compost heap contains, in your own backyard.
Composting material is generally broken down into browns and greens. The Browns provide the carbon, to cope with water retention. The greens provide the nitrogen which aids decomposition.
Both are essential for a healthy, balanced compost heap.
Generally, you want to keep your compost heap at about 75% carbon to 25% nitrogen, though ideal ratio can vary depending on the specific contents of each pile, and the location.
That ratio is a good place to start, regardless, and you can tweak as you go.
Household greens include:
- Vegetable scraps.
- Used tea leaves/bags, coffee grinds.
- Fruit scraps, such as apple cores peelings.
- Dead flowers and household plants.
Garden greens include:
- Grass cuttings.
- Any waste green leaves.
- Old and dead bedding plants.
Household browns include:
- Cardboard and egg boxes.
- Eggshells (broken up).
- Newspapers (shredded).
- Paper towels.
Garden browns include:
- Dry leaves.
- Sawdust (untreated and clean).
- Pine needles.
- Straw (the yellow kind).
These are a few examples of the different greens and browns that you can add to your compost heap.
Where to Situate your Compost
Decide whether you want an open-aired compost heap, one that has a lid, such for example the Redmon Compost Bin (review here), or a compost tumbler. If you are having an open-aired pile, make it at least 5′ across, and tall. If you are going to use a bin, don’t use a metal one, because it may contaminate the compost as it degrades.
- It also helps to have two piles on the go. When the first one is decomposed and ready to use, start on a new pile. This way you have ongoing compost. This is a similar concept to the dual batch compost tumbler idea.
- Next, decide where to situate your compost in your backyard or large garden area. A word of warning, composting attracts tiny bugs and flying insects, so place it away from the house.
- What goes into a compost pile? Good organic waste. The greens will include kitchen scraps and garden matter. These items provide the moisture and nitrogen that break the waste down. The browns soak up moisture and aerate the compost. They take longer to break down but create essential air pockets. Crushed shells from your eggs add minerals.
What NOT to put in your compost pile
- Branches of wood will take far too long to break down.
- No animal-poo from the family pet, (there are means of composting your pet’s waste with the Green Cone method.) Feel free to add horse or cow manure, even though it can be odorous.
- Don’t use diseased plants, as this type of waste will only serve to contaminate the entire heap.
- No cooked foods and definitely no meats of any kind, they will rot in a different way, and attract the bigger flies and pests.
- Avoid putting in any fresh weeds, they might sprout and grow. You can put them in once they’ve dried out.
- The final one is not to put in any household rubbish, such as glass or plastic, they are not composting material.
Easy Pickings in the Warmer Months
Running a compost heap is relatively easy in the warmer months. You will need to aerate it occasionally, by turning it over. Having an open-aired heap like a DIY bin or GeoBin (see our review here) means this task is easier as you can loosen the heap. If it’s in a bin it can become really packed in, and you may need some muscle power to churn it all around.
Throw in a few worms a la a worm compost bin. They love it in there: it’s hotel heaven!
It is possible to speed up the decomposing process by using a compost starter or accelerator. Don’t worry, it does not mean using anything unnatural. It simply adds more nitrogen.
If the summer months are warm, the compost should break down quicker anyway, so you typically do not need to use this.
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Eight Winter Composting Tips
In the winter, the natural temperature of your compost heap will be much cooler. This slows down the rotting process or even stops it altogether.
The coldness causes the active organic ingredients to go dormant in the winter months. However, you are still producing kitchen waste. By eating vegetables, you will continue creating an organic surplus. The last thing you want is to waste your organic kitchen scraps.
Have a look at the following tips. They are designed to help you get through the colder months. This will result in a healthy compost heap for the growing season of spring.
Keep it Warm
If it is an open-aired heap, then it is important to insulate the pile. Find an old piece of carpet or bales of straw to cover it.
Keep it Dry
Place a large tarp over the carpet, held down in the corners with bricks to keep off the rain. It should also stop the wind from lifting it up and blowing rotting matter all over your backyard.
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Have a Secondary Nitrogen-only Compost Heap
Build up a high nitrogen-only heap in the winter. Put all your kitchen scraps in a large bin. Come the warmer months you can start to combine it with some browns, to add that carbon. That way you will have a new compost heap much quicker than starting from scratch.
Keep the Leaves from the Fall
Collect all your brown leaves from the fall. Put them in layers with a little soil to break them down quicker. If you don’t have a bin for them then put them in plastic bags as they need to stay dry.
Once they’ve broken down, you can begin to add it to the nitrogen pile. It will not decompose quickly, but if you keep it as warm and dry as you can, at least you have something for spring. Once the warmer months arrive it will begin to decompose quicker.
If you want to keep your compost pile going in the colder months, then it needs plenty of air circulating through the heap. Good aeration is one of the key factors to make sure your compost pile doesn’t get too wet.
Add plenty of Red Wiggler worms whenever you can, they love compost and make aeration holes as they eat.
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Drain Water Away
A good way to make sure air is circulating in your winter compost heap is to have good drainage. Proper drainage will give the water an escape route.
Whether you have a ground-based compost pile or a bin, dig out a small trench around it. The bins don’t have a bottom, so in effect, it is still ground-based. The shallow funnel allows excess water to flow out and soak into the ground away from your base.
Winter Composting Needs More Carbon
You will need more carbon if you wish to continue a compost heap all year round. It is best to keep it around two-thirds carbon, and only one-third nitrogen. Add wood chips, shredded paper, non-treated sawdust, torn up cardboard. These will all help to soak up the water from the nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps. Hard yellow straw also helps to keep the carbon content and the aeration process.
Use A Compost Drum Tumbler System
There is no reason not to have a compost heap, even if you have back problems or any other medical ailment that limits your movement. There are other ways to turn over your heap all year round, rather than straining any muscles. Not only is it better for the back, but it’s better for the compost too.
A drum tumbler system is a sealed container, usually shaped like a barrel on a stand. They don’t have to be expensive, with the relatively cheap Yimby being an excellent low-end tumbler, and the Jora JK270 a wonderful high-end model.
It depends how large you want it, but they generally hold between 40-90 gallons and are available in one or two chamber designs.
Using a Compost Tumbler
You simply turn it every time you add something in there, or at least a couple of times a week. If you are impaired in any way with your strength, don’t fill the drum entirely, and pick one with a handle like the Mantis (see our review here), so it’s easier to turn.
They are ideal for beginners, disabled, the elderly, as well as the rest of the population who want an easier life and don’t want to deal with pitchforks and shovels.
They are also great for winter composting, as the contents stay dry and the units are often mobile. Because you can turn the compost bin all year round, it is well aerated, helping with the decomposition of your compost in the colder months.
Also, as these bins are sealed, there are no odor and no critter problems. Plus, a tumbler can be moved into the shed or a greenhouse, or onto the patio or conservatory, in the winter months for a more inviting compost environment.
See our guide to using a compost tumbler for complete information.
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Conclusion: Composting in Winter
Here are a few final thoughts on winter composting, and we hope that you succeed in keeping things hobbling along until spring, with great soil all ready to go!
Compost is Always Salvageable
Don’t over-worry about your compost in the winter, just keep it going as best you can. When that warmer weather arrives, then you can begin to add more brown material and churn it over to get it aerated.
Compost heaps can always be saved, but it can be hard work turning it over and over to get that carbon released.
If your compost is in a bin with a lid, once the warmer weather arrives, and if there is no rain, leave the lid off.
pH Balance is Not Important in Compost
Don’t be adding lime to your compost, thinking it needs more alkaline: it doesn’t.
The pH levels will balance out once the compost is ready. It is nature’s way of decomposing, so you don’t need to add anything to the help the pH balance. It will do it itself, given the right amount of time.
Composting is Eco-Friendly
Composting is good for the environment and for your budget. Any waste that you put in there is less waste for the landfill, and any compost material you get means less to buy.
It will improve your soil, filling it with nutrients. It’s not only great for the plants, but also for the bugs, which in turn feed the birds.
You are doing your bit for the good of the environment when you create and use your own home-made compost.
Keep your compost going all year round if you can. You’ll soon notice the difference in a booming harvest, and blooming flower head.