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Maintaining a winter compost pile

Composting in the winter can be done!
Composting in the winter can be done!
Panphage of Wikimedia Commons

During the cold weather there sometimes seems to be little to do other than to look seed catalogs and dream about the summer. If you want to get out in the garden a bit during the cold weather you may want to consider the challenge of keeping your compost pile going all year round. The climate in Baltimore is fairly mild as compared to other places, but you would still need to prepare your compost pile for the freezing weather. The main ways to keep a cold weather compost pile going is to make sure there is sufficient heat, air and insulation.

Generally, a winter compost pile needs to measure at least 1 cubic yard in order to generate enough heat to break down materials. To keep the warmth inside the pile alive, you may need to seek out supplemental material to add to your compost bin. In summer there are always plenty of things to add, such as grass clippings and other organic waste. But, in winter you may have to seek out enough natural material to keep the pile going. You can try asking for organic waste at the farmer’s market or going to a coffee shop like Starbucks for coffee grounds. To help speed things along, shred materials into pieces two inches or smaller.

Do not water the pile if we have had regular rain or snow. In winter a compost heap can become too moist and compressed. This means that the bacteria that speeds decay will not have enough air to work properly.

Insulating the compost pile is not difficult. Piling straw bales up against the sides of the bin will protect it. Or, you can dig a pit so the compost pile will be buried in the ground and the earth will protect it. Fallen leaves also help retain heat. Though we don’t get much snow in central Maryland, a snowfall would also work as insulation. Some cover the pile with a plastic tarp to help retain moisture and heat. Some people even go as far as to build a shelter over the pile, which can help protect the pile from chronically wet weather.

Remember, no matter what you do the decay process will still be a lot faster than in summer, so don’t expect miracles. Also, if you don’t want to work on your pile during the winter or if we get another unexpected large snowstorm in Baltimore, you can store your organic waste in buckets with lids or a lidded plastic trash can. In these cans, alternate kitchen waste with layers of “brown” material, such as fallen leaves. Then, you can work it into the pile come spring.

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