As a compost educator in central Vermont, I’ve been surprised at how many people tell me that they stop composting over the winter. Although Northeasterners tend to be unfazed by freezing temperatures, even the hardiest may balk at that thirty-second walk outdoors to drop off the food scraps in January. But there are a few simple steps that can make winter composting accessible and successful.
First let’s acknowledge the challenges that can hinder winter composting for folks who are frail or challenged with mobility; it isn’t an option for everyone. If that’s you, consider dropping off your materials at a food-scrap drop-off site or finding a food-scrap curbside hauler through the winter months.
But for many of us, the real challenge to winter composting is in our heads. It’s cold. There’s snow. The food scraps freeze and don’t immediately break down. We don’t want to. All of that is legitimate but surmountable.
Getting food scraps out to the bin in the winter doesn’t have to be an impossible chore; it can be part of your normal routine, and a little extra exercise. Make it fun; strap on snowshoes or cleats or use a sled. Make a snow angel on your way back to the house; use the outdoor time to check your bird feeders.
There’s no biological activity happening once the temperature drops below freezing, and that’s okay. You’re not composting in winter, you’re putting food scraps into frozen storage until spring, when they will break down. If you are “storing” food scraps until they can truly compost in spring, then make sure you start with enough space so you don’t end up with an overflowing mountain of frozen banana peels and carrot tops.
Follow these winter composting tips, and you’ll get a jump start on next spring’s compost and enjoy a little winter exercise while you are at it:
- Ideally, you have at least two bins to begin with, you receive “extra points” if you insulate your bins to extend the season.
- Make sure you have one empty bin ready by mid-November or no later than when the ground freezes.
- If you have two bins, empty the bin with the oldest ‘resting’ compost either directly onto your garden or into a storage bin to use in the spring.
- If you have a second active compost bin, turn it one last time before winter. This will aerate any materials you’ve been composting through spring and summer, and prepare them for resting over the winter. Once you’ve turned your formerly active pile, cover it with a layer of browns and let it rest until spring.
- Fill your empty bin over the winter. If it will help motivate you to keep composting all winter, move it to a convenient location away from snow plows and rooflines but closer to your door.
- Store browns (such as wood shavings or dried leaves) in a covered tote near your compost bin so you can continue to add two to three parts browns to one-part greens (food scraps). It’s important to keep adding those browns all winter.
- If your active compost in is too far away from your doorstep for you to realistically go out there all winter, move it temporarily or use a short-term bin out of an old trash barrel and move the materials into your regular bin in the spring.
- Don’t forget to shovel the path to your bin when it snows. This is one of those things that can make or break your willingness to keep up with winter composting, so add it to your list of winter exercise!
There are usually some winter days when it gets warmer than 32°F; when that happens the composting starts happening, and the pile shrinks a little. This process means it’s rare that your bin will actually fill or overflow, as long as you start winter with it empty.
By spring, you’ll be ready to turn your winter compost pile– it will probably be wet and a little anaerobic from sitting all winter. Just turn it over, add browns, and let it rest. Soon you’ll have that rich black gold that your lawn and garden love.
Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District (CVSWMD) as well as a former journalist and passionate gardener and composter. She leads workshops and webinars about composting, recycling, and managing toxic and hazardous materials. For more information, go to the CVSWMD YouTube channel @zerowastecentralvt.