Cold-Weather Compost

Keeping the compost cooking through winter in any region.

By Genevieve Slocum

Photography by Christa Neu


For carbon-rich ingredients, use straw, fallen leaves, shredded newspaper, or sawdust. You can toss in small amounts of ashes from your fireplace or woodstove, which also enhance the calcium, phosphorus, and potassium content of your finished compost.

Particle size. Help chilly, sluggish microbes by doing some of the work for them—chop or shred both browns and greens before adding them to the pile. Tamara Listiak of the Texas A & M Cooperative Extension recommends shredding the material into pieces smaller than 2 inches. The pile heats up uniformly, and the small particles form a kind of mat that shields the pile's warm core from outside temperature extremes, she explains.

Layering. During warm periods, you can just add ingredients to your compost pile as they become available. But in the cold season, take time to add layers of brown ingredients to your green materials. The layers help insulate your pile, trapping heat and gases inside. 

Moisture. Winter winds and low humidity can suck the moisture out of your compost pile. The microbes need moisture to survive. During warm spells, water the pile. Leave it damp, but not soaking.

Fresh air. In warm weather, frequent turning is the best way to keep microbes well supplied with oxygen. But in winter, you want to cause as little disturbance as possible to the layer of insulation. Wait until spring to turn the pile.

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