Composting in Winter: How to Do it Right




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If you are just getting into gardening, you might have started composting – it’s a great way to recycle your food waste, it gives you lovely fresh soil for your garden, and it’s a very green thing to do.

Composting is also pretty easy to do, but you will need some basic information in order to compost successfully and not end up with a wet, sludgy, smelly mess in a heap at the end of the garden.

One of the questions which you might find yourself asking is whether you can compost effectively in the winter.

After all, compost heaps rely on heat to work properly, and in the winter, there isn’t a lot around!

Can You Compost In The Winter?

If you rely on composting as a way of disposing of your kitchen and garden waste, it’s very frustrating to suddenly have to stop just because the weather has changed.

However, you can carry on composting right through the winter as long as you manage your compost heap well.

When it comes to composting, heat is a fairly crucial component and if you let the compost heap get too cold, you may find it stops working and food just sits, rotting instead of breaking down.

If you live in cold parts of the world, you’re more likely to notice this decrease in decomposition speeds, and it could last for weeks or even months.

Even if you live in a warmer climate, your compost heap will probably slow down in the winter, and you will notice food hanging around for longer.

There aren’t as many nice soft greens available to go in, and if you’re composting mostly twigs and woody stems, they’re going to take a lot longer to decompose, especially without the high temperature levels which compost heaps can reach in the summer.

However, you shouldn’t be put off; it is possible to keep your compost heap going all year round, and you don’t have to go back to throwing your food waste in the garbage just because it’s cold outside.

One good thing is that your compost heap is unlikely to smell bad in the winter, so even if things are taking longer to break down, you shouldn’t have an issue with unpleasant aromas stinking up your garden.

However, the downside is that you might find your compost bin getting very full if it isn’t breaking down and providing compost you can use.

What Should You Expect From Your Winter Compost Heap?

It might help to know what to look out for in your compost heap in winter. Firstly, as mentioned, bear in mind that the whole process will slow down.

Any food or garden waste you add to the heap might keep its shape for weeks, and even semi-decomposed waste will stop decomposing fast.

This doesn’t indicate that there’s anything wrong; it’s just natural for waste to break down more slowly when the weather is cold.

The center of the compost heap will always be warmer, so if you want anything to break down quickly, try to push it down into the middle. However, bear in mind that disturbing the heap will let heat escape, and try not to do this too often.

Remember that your compost heap will generate heat itself as the waste breaks down, which helps to keep it operating even through winter.

This heat is great, but you need to make the most of it, which means your compost heap will need some to keep going throughout the colder months.

The good news is there are quite a few things you can do to help it keep ticking over even when the temperatures drop.

How To Keep Your Compost Heap Going In Winter

Here are a few tips which might help you keep your compost heap nice and warm throughout the cold periods, ensuring it operates at maximum efficiency.

It’s a good idea to completely empty your compost bin before the cold weather hits; turn the whole bin out onto a tarpaulin, and sift through it.

Remove any compost that is ready to be used and either store it for the following year or spread it on your flowerbeds or vegetable patch.

Return any compost which still needs further decomposition to the compost bin, and then use some of the following tips to get the most out of the bin during the winter.

Doing this as part of your general preparation for winter is a good idea, and will save you from trying to separate finished compost from the half-ready stuff later when the weather has turned icy.

Keep The Heat In As Much As Possible

It might sound obvious, but keeping the heat in is probably the most important tip for keeping your compost heap going in the winter.

Keeping your bin covered is the best way to trap heat in – remember that heat rises – so a close-fitting lid is important.

A lid also helps to keep the rain out, and a dry compost heap will hold the heat in better. Icy winter rains will bring a chill to the heap that you really don’t need.

Some compost bins come with lids when you purchase them, but if you’ve handmade yours, you probably won’t have a lid for it.

If you don’t have a lid for your compost bin, you can fashion one out of a wooden board or even pallets. If you have the time, lining the inside of the lid with sheets of cardboard adds a good layer of insulation which can increase its heat-trapping properties.

You can also add bubble-wrap or any other insulator if you don’t have cardboard handy.

As another alternative, you can pile dry leaves around the outside of the compost bin if you don’t mind it looking a little messy for the winter, and these can then be added to the bin later.

They’ll help add an extra bubble of warmth which will keep that precious heat inside.

If you haven’t got the time or energy to make a lid for your compost bin, you should at least make sure it’s covered, or it will get very wet and sludgy.

This could be as simple as getting a sheet of tarpaulin and pegging it down over the bin, preventing the compost from getting drenched in the winter rains.

If a tarpaulin isn’t an easy solution, you can also use a piece of old carpet, but it’s best to use one with natural fibers so that you don’t end up with microplastics in your compost.

Make sure the carpet fully covers the top of your bin, and consider adding a waterproof layer to one side of it if possible to keep the moisture out.

If you can buy a jacket or wrap the compost bin up in cardboard with an outer waterproof layer, that will also help.

Although the lid is a more important aspect, a “jacket” or outer coating will help keep the heap as a whole a lot warmer than if you just have one layer of plastic or metal or wood between your compost and the outer air.

Again, an off-cut of carpet of a suitable size will make a great jacket for a compost bin, though it may not be the prettiest solution!

Add Clippings From Your Yard

Remember that you want to add plenty of dry waste to your compost heap in the winter.

Things like dead leaves, straw, and plant clippings will help include brown, carbon-rich elements, while greenery like grass cuttings will add nitrogen.

Keeping a good balance to your compost heap will ensure it’s operating in its best possible form, even if it isn’t working fast due to low temperatures.

Remember to shred heavy and woody materials before adding them to the compost heap so that they can be mixed in properly and they will break down more quickly.

If you don’t have the time or motivation to shred materials by hand, you can either buy or hire a shredder, which will make it much faster.

Having your compost broken up also makes it decompose more quickly once it’s in the heap.

Adding extra browns in winter will help the compost to absorb moisture and prevent the bin from getting too wet when it isn’t operating quickly.

Wet compost won’t decompose well and often smells pretty bad, so it’s important to include plenty of dry materials.

Remember that wetter winter air and less sunlight will reduce the amount of water evaporating from your bin, so it’s much more likely to get too wet during the winter than it is in the summer.

Take this into account when adding ingredients, especially if you live in a very humid environment.

Keep Turning The Compost

Although it is important to try and keep the heat in, turning your compost keeps oxygen levels high and encourages invertebrates to live in your compost heap.

This ensures it stays healthy and helps it to keep breaking down.

To turn the compost, shake your bin out onto a tarpaulin and then mix it up.

Take out any compost which has fully finished decomposing and put it aside for use in your garden, and then pour the semi-decomposed compost back into the bin.

Anything which hasn’t fully broken down into nice, smooth soil for your garden should be returned to the bin for further processing.

If emptying the whole bin out sound like heavy work to you, you can buy a compost bin specifically designed to tumble the compost for you.

They are a bit pricier than normal compost bins, but they can be back-savers, and will encourage you to keep turning your compost regularly.

Alternatively, you can use a garden fork to turn your compost while it’s still inside the bin; this will introduce some air and help a bit, but isn’t as effective as emptying the whole compost bin and mixing all of its contents.

You may still need to empty the bin a couple of times a year to make sure everything does get broken down.

Turning your compost heap gives you an opportunity to check how it’s doing.

After a while, you will start to learn whether it’s too wet or too dry, and how to correct both of those issues to maximize its efficiency regardless of the ambient temperature.

Add A Thermometer

Having a thermometer beside your compost bin can help you keep on top of how warm the ambient temperature is, which will give you a better idea of how the heap itself is doing.

You’ll have more awareness of what’s going on, and whether a cold snap is affecting your compost heap’s effectiveness.

You’ll also know when the warming weather is starting to speed things along in preparation for spring, which will give you an indication of when you should be able to start adding more compost and seeing it break down faster.

Alternatively, you could use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your compost heap.

This will help you determine whether your insulating efforts and other techniques are proving effective, and will also let you know how hot it is right in the middle – you might be surprised!

Compost is a pretty effective insulator, meaning that the outsides of the heat can be tinged with frost and the middle can be a good temperature.

If the center of your heap is cold, you know you’ve got issues, and you’ll have to increase your efforts to keep the heat levels up.

Position Your Compost Bin Carefully

If your compost bin is reasonably easy to move, you might want to reposition it to take advantage of any sunny areas that you do have in your yard.

Spend a bit of time assessing the patterns of the sun and try to work out where the sun falls for the longest periods, or even use a thermometer to measure where the warmest spot might be.

Once you’ve sussed it out, move your compost bin there so it can take advantage of the natural energy and heat.

Keep doing this throughout the year as the patterns of the sun change and you’ll give your compost bin a massive boost even in mid-winter!

If your compost bin is too heavy to move, consider doing this only when you empty it to turn it. This will probably reduce how often you do it, but will make it an easier job overall.

Of course, if you have a small yard, this may not be an option you can take, but it’s worth considering if you have the space.

Use Insulating Layers Inside The Bin As Well

Layering your compost might sound counter-intuitive given that we have also talked about turning it, but adding layers to your compost is another good way to insulate it and keep the inside of the heap decomposing at a nice pace.

Remember it doesn’t matter if the outsides of the compost get chilled, as long as the center is warm; it can even be frozen on the edges without causing any real issues.

Things such as straw and sawdust are good ways to trap heat.

If you have guinea pigs or rabbits which use either, their bedding is great for your compost – or you can ask around and see if any neighbors have them. You will probably find they’re glad to get rid of their waste!

Alternatively, you can add large sheets of cardboard or torn-up strips of cardboard.

Sheets will trap more heat, but strips will break down more quickly once the weather starts to warm up, so there are pros and cons to each.

All of these insulating layers will break down gradually when the return of the sun starts to warm the compost bin, but they’ll help retain temperatures while it’s cold.

Add Worms

Worms are a crucial part of composting. They should find their way into the compost on their own, but if you think your compost heap is struggling, you can easily purchase some.

Compost worms aren’t your standard earthworm, however; they are sometimes referred to as “red wrigglers” and you can buy them online.

Worms won’t necessarily speed your compost bin up in winter as they tend to become dormant when the weather gets cold, but adding some can give you a head-start for when spring hits, so this is something to consider if your compost is piling up and you’re worried about catching up come spring.


There are lots of little tricks you can use to keep the temperature of your compost heap up and ensure that you can still compost even in the winter.

Your compost heap will inevitably slow down and you may find that you end up with more waste than it can handle, but with care, you should be able to keep it going.

Jackets, tight-fitting lids, and a good balance of green and brown materials are good ways to keep the heat in.

Reducing moisture levels in your bin and keeping out the rain will also help, as will regularly turning the heap to keep it aerated and ensure you avoid dense clumping.

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3 responses to “Composting in Winter: How to Do it Right”

  1. […] Wet compost heaps also tend to smell unpleasant. If you’re getting too much moisture in your heap, it’s going to start rotting instead of being broken down by worms and microorganisms. In the spring, you might notice your compost heap smells unpleasant because it’s got wet over the winter. […]

  2. […] your hot compost will keep going year-round, whereas cold compost slows down or stops during the winter. That means hot compost is easier to keep on top of and doesn’t build […]

  3. […] Warmth: compost heaps operate best between 100-120 F (37.8-48.9 C). Any hotter, and the bacteria will start to die; too cold, and they will only work slowly. You will notice your compost breaks down much faster in the summer than in the winter. […]

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