Winter Composting 101: A Guide to Garden Growth

Winter Composting 101: A Guide to Garden Growth

Just because it’s about to be winter doesn’t mean you should put your composting plans on ice. Taking food scraps and turning them into fertile soil is an easy, effective practice when leading a sustainable life. Granted, when winter arrives, many gardeners assume they should pause their efforts until spring. But with the proper techniques and a little care, you can continue composting throughout the winter months. Interested? From what you can compost to how to get the best results, we have the solutions to maintain a successful compost pile even as temperatures plunge.

What is composting?  

First, the basics: composting takes the organic materials most people discard and transforms them into a nutrient-rich soil conditioner. Suppose you're already someone who knows what bottles, cans, and packages can and can't be recycled. In that case, composting is the next logical step since it lets organic waste like food scraps, yard trimmings, undyed hair, and certain paper products decompose into the dark, crumbly substance we call compost. For your garden, it adds nutrients to the soil, allows your plants to thrive, and replaces chemical fertilizers.

Not convinced yet? If you can produce a lot of compost — particularly if you are in the food industry  — you can even sell your “black gold” and earn some extra cash. 

Why is composting important? 

Many people don't realize the importance of composting for a healthier planet. Because food scraps are natural, we assume they biodegrade nicely in landfills. However, that's not the case — primarily due to a lack of oxygen.  

Food waste in landfills produces methane through a process called aerobic decomposition. When organic matter, like food scraps, ends up in a landfill, it's buried under layers of non-organic waste: plastics, metal scraps, and whatever else people throw away. In these anaerobic or low-oxygen conditions, certain bacteria break down the organic matter, which releases methane gas as a byproduct. 

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential much more significant than carbon dioxide over a relatively short period. However, when we can compost organic matter, we're helping reduce the methane released into the atmosphere. 

What can you compost?  

Only some things are compostable, so here are a few guidelines. Among items you can safely compost? Food scraps (mainly produce like banana peels, apple cores, and stems), coffee grounds, tea leaves, straw, grass cuttings, garden waste, leaves, hair, non-glossy paper, and even your biodegradable SaltyLama  laundry sheet packaging. But other foods and outdoor matter aren't fit for composting. So, avoid tossing in meat or bones, yard waste treated with pesticides, and diseased plants.


Composting 101: How to make compost at home 

If you've never dabbled in composting before and decided— winter or no winter — now is the time, the good news is that it's simple, regardless of what season it is. Winter composting can lead to rich, nutrient-dense compost ready for spring planting. The decomposition process continues, albeit slower, even in colder temperatures. By composting year-round, you'll divert kitchen scraps and yard waste from the landfill, reducing your environmental footprint.

Composting aligns with eco-friendly living and sustainable gardening, making it an excellent choice for those committed to a greener lifestyle. Better yet, you'll reduce waste, boost your garden or flower bed, and take better care of the planet in one fell swoop. Can't wait to get started? Here's how: 

Choose your compost bin and pail 

Begin by designating an outdoor area to set up your compost. There are indoor composter machines if outdoor space is unavailable. However, you can set up a no-frills compost pile using a wooden frame outside or invest in a compost bin or tumbler. Use a pail to collect organic matter for composting. Keep it in your kitchen for convenience. Dump the bucket into the compost pile daily to avoid odors.

During winter months, pick a sheltered spot that soaks up the sun, and insulate the compost with straw, leaves, or hay. After ensuring adequate drainage, cover the compost pile with a lid or tarp to absorb heat from the sun. 

Maintaining your compost 

Once you've started composting, facilitate the decomposition process by aerating your compost. A periodic turn of the pile — once a month or so — allows for oxygen infusion, which is vital for the healthy breakdown of organic matter. Combine nitrogen-rich greens like kitchen scraps and coffee grounds with carbon-rich browns like cardboard and shredded paper. But in cold temperatures, add more browns to your pile and avoid large pieces of wood, which can decompose too slowly. Again, ensure the pile is in the warmest, sunniest location possible.

Remember, the composting process is still underway, even though it’s chilly. You can use a compost thermometer to check the temperature, which should be above freezing.  

Harvesting winter compost 

Once winter ends, your compost will be ready to tackle springtime, enriching your garden soil and plants. Over time, the pile will develop a dark, rich color, which indicates the compost is loaded with nutrients. This is when you can begin harvesting, beginning from the bottom of the pile where you no longer see any food scraps. You can sprinkle the compost over your garden and plants or combine it with organic soil.   

Troubleshoot issues 

If your compost stumbles, don’t fret. Does it have a strong odor? Introduce more “browns” like dead leaves. Is it too dry? A splash and sprinkle of water should refresh the mix.   

Composting 101 FAQ  

Is composting easy? Yes! It requires a few steps to get started, but once those are in order, it’s as easy as remembering to take out the food scraps, add them to your pile, and occasionally turn it.   

Is composting affordable? Absolutely! As long as you have a backyard, composting doesn't have to cost a thing. Pile it up in the corner of your backyard and use a bail or pot from the house for food scraps.  

As there are upscale composters and bins, the process can be as thrifty or as pricey as you want.   

Can I compost moldy fruit and vegetables? Yes, you can! Mold is composed of microorganisms that facilitate decomposition.   

Learning how to compost is an important — and attainable — part of sustainable living. And don't let winter discourage you. Even in the coldest months, you will still be reducing waste. Just be mindful of the climate and carefully monitor how your compost is doing to ensure it thrives. The effort will be worth it — your yard and garden will ultimately reap the benefits while you’ll be keeping your eco-friendly lifestyle from going into hibernation.      

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