Can you continue composting right through Winter?

Tobyhanna, PA(Zone 5a)

Hi all,

I started 3 compost piles this past Spring and they are still going strong, but what do I do when Winter arrives? I live in a mountain region and lots of snow and ice are pretty much the norm in my 5a zone during the Winter. Should I continue to periodically add kitchen waste like egg shells, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps to them or just cover the compost piles with tarps til Spring? Any info would be greatly appreciated.

This message was edited Oct 7, 2012 6:42 PM

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Hi, Although I don't compost anymore, my daughter does in a large drum. Yes, keep adding your kitchen waste. If you can, turn it before it all freezes. Once spring with warmer temps come, your waste will continue to break down. I wouldn't cover since moisture is good.

I used to use my empty plastic bread bags. I kept the bag under the sink in a 5 lb coffee can. When full, I added some soil, then closed it up and piled the bags out of sight. It would produce some great humus.


I live in Anchorage, AK and I cover my compost for the winter, altho, It will be about 7 months b/4 the temp warms I still see steam coming from the compost.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I seldom have HARD frosts for more than a few weeks, and when it's that cold, I can leave cans of kitchen scraps on the back porch to freeze. I add them to the heap after a few warm days.

If the surface of your heap freezes solid, maybe you could open several deep holes into the heaps before the hard freees occur. then back fill the holes with scraps. If they don't generate enough heat, they'll freeze. If they do generate eno9guh heat to thaw some of the heap, maybe you can cover them over with the loose bits.

Just a thought.

You might not need a tarp to keep snow and melt-water out, but it might hold in some of the heat!
I leaned some 8x16" paving stones against one small pile like a concrete tipi, and it held in moisture so it did not dry out as fast. Unfortunately, I read that concrete conducts heat well. maybe bank some soil around the base before the hard freezes occur? A dirt blanket to hold the heat in?

Iowa Park, TX(Zone 7b)

Here in Texas, winter moisture along with the freezing and thawing (cold at night, warmer in the day) tends to help compost break down (although not as fast as in the summer) -so we continue adding kitchen scraps and covering it will soil and bedding from the chicken coop all winter long.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

I would not cover the piles. Snow sounds like a great breatheable moist blanket for the pile. I would keep adding scraps, maybe poking a hole so you can insert them.

Tobyhanna, PA(Zone 5a)

Thank you all for your great advice! I'm going to keep on adding to the piles until 3 feet of snow keeps me from reaching them. lol :>)

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)


My mental image is a big volcano of compost, steaming amidst a winter wondeland of snow and ice.

Virginia Beach, VA

I compost all year round. I have a big pile and 3 big trash barrels.


(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

You know, I have two of those drums that you can rotate (roll) and they never get really warm. I am beginning to wonder if I traded the ease of turning the pile with the warmth that comes from having it laying on the ground building heat. Too late now. I suspect it will work until they freeze solid, but be much slower due to our cooler ambient air temp. Crumb. I should try one pile somewhere on the ground just to see.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

You don't like those drums? I have been thinking of getting one for next year. My daughte has a metal oil drum with top cut to open and bottom cut for getting the humus. She has to turn it by hand but really likes it for the result. She throws in chicken and horse manure along with her kitchen scraps and yard cuttings. .

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Well, I just don't know. They are simple to use and turn. The stuff is breaking down. But not very fast. Course I threw in some big stuff I shouldn't have and our ambient temp is pretty cool so it never really heats up. I assume I now have two frozen balls out there as they will remain til next spring. I bought a shredder/grinder to really chew stuff up but I spread it on my garden this year. It really requires almost dessicated dry stuff or it is really a pain to try to keep it from clogging. And it is a pretty skookum grinder. Perhaps I should buy a bag of steer manure to add to the bins. Course the idea is that you don't buy anything. Just use what you have from your kitchen and garden. I would love to try raising chickens and keeping bees but that is for next year. There are some chickens that can survive our winters. Or I could just get eggs all summer then use them for meat in the fall.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Hmmm .... glue old carpet fragments over the drums for insulation?

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

My two cents.
You put food in the refrigerator to preserve it and stop decay, right? Same deal with a drum of rotten stuff and a big ol fridge of mother nature. There's only so much you can do to create internal heat in the drum beyond what mother nature is taking out. Ground piles work thru winter from the ground up, at least down here in the moderate middle America, not sure about Alaska.

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Well "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Rick, it wouldn't offer enough insulation to make any difference over the winter. I would think in the summer, since the drums are black that they would generate a little internal warmth. We'll see next year. It might take until July for them to thaw out however.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> Rick, it wouldn't offer enough insulation to make any difference over the winter

I'm sure you're right.

The people who get steaming, 160 F temps in the core of their piles tend to have the smallest dimension 4 feet or more, and sit on the ground. The outer layers insulate the inner layers.

That's not unlike the way the Sun and stars function. They only have fusion in a small section right in the heart of the star. The insulation and pressure provided by the outer layers are the only things that keep them from expanding, cooling, and going out..

I have a faint memory of someone describing a snow-compost volcano, where wisps of steam came out the top of a compost pile that was surrounded by and half-buried in snow. Or am I imagining that?

But what's the smallest dimension of a 55 gallon drum? 24-30" diameter? And supported up there in the cold wind? Naaah.

Of course, until it freezes hard all the way through, those microbes WILL metabolize SOME stuff, since the compost will probably go into the winter 10-20 % microbes by wieght. Not even MY refrigerator gets that funky. They'll just metabolize very slowly. And worms and insects won't do anything if it is too cold. .

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

The hard freeze that breaks up the cells of the organic matter may do a lot of good prep work so that when it DOES thaw, everything can rot fast.

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Good point. both of you. Well, we will see in time. I don't want to give up on the compost. The mulch I will continue to do and perhaps when I mix the mulch in next year it will be already so small it will rot down faster.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Quote from Oberon46 :
Perhaps I should buy a bag of steer manure to add to the bins. Course the idea is that you don't buy anything. Just use what you have from your kitchen and garden. I would love to try raising chickens and keeping bees but that is for next year. There are some chickens that can survive our winters. Or I could just get eggs all summer then use them for meat in the fall.

I never thought in terms of not having to buy anything. My idea is that it beats chemical plant food that does nothing for the soil.

Getting eggs all summer then use the hens for meat is a great idea. But as my daughter found out that is easier said than done----emotionally. It is not so easy to kill an animal that you have raised even if it is just a hen or chicken. Hers are still alive and kicking, even the old ones. LOL!

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Yeah. I thought about that. I get attached to most living things. Squirrels, hamsters, goldfish, frogs. I will talk to them all and quite often say "Hi there little person." For some odd reason my MIL objected and said they aren't people. To me they are. So you could be right. So winter tolerant chickens it is and eggs only. :)

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> The hard freeze that breaks up the cells of the organic matter

Very good point!

>> For some odd reason my MIL objected and said they aren't people.

I may not be able to defend this logically, but depending on the day of the week, I feel several of the following are true enough for me:
Animals are people, too.
Plants are people, too.
Things are people, too.

Of course, considering how mean many of us are to other people, I could imagine plants and animals hurrying to ask to be left OUT of all this please, thank you very much!

There's an old saying that dates back at least to the Theosophists in the (??) late 18800s (??). Dion Fort6une, for one.
Consciousness sleeps in minerals, dreams in plants, wakes up in animals and becomes self aware in humans.

Hmm, Google attribvutes nearly identical sayings to Deepak Chopra, Einstein, the Sufis, Ibn al 'Arabi
and The German philosopher Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854) . Maybe the theosophists got it from Schelling.

I would say that ya gotta have some respect for everything. We humans think we're the top of the pyramid, but so do cats. Considering how many cats have human servants, their claim seems stronger. And there are many gardeners and farmers who go to great lengths to care for their plants, but when was the last time you saw a plant get out of a warm bed to throw a frost blanket over a human? Who's the smartest one there? Plants in a desert space themseleves far enough apart that each can get enoguh water to live, but humans consume every resource they can get their hands on, until they create a dustbowl.

Mark Twain said that "Man is the Only Animal that blushes. Or needs to."
The author of one werewolf novel had one character complain when another character said that a particularly cruel human "acted like an animal". No! Animals mostly kill to eat. Only humans go far out of their way to be cruel or greedy.

I do think that we are unusually large-brained anuimals with the blessing or curse of facility with language. Especially worthy on some Cosmic scale? I'm far from sure. Some people do seem very admirable. Many, not so much.

Are people especially favored by God (if any)? The strongest argument I see there is that He hasn't wiped us all out and started over (mmm, since the Great Flood of legend, anyway). This shows great rerstraint and patience on his part!

We associate consciousness and/or souls with mamalian brains, but it is entirely unproven that that's the only way souls or consciousness interact with the physical universe. When we don't know, we DON'T know, and a little humility and open-mindedness might be wise, until we find out whether God is animal, vegetable or mineral ... because my guess would be "none of the above", and angels, if any, are probably amused at our mammal chauvinism.

I suspect that most of my plants feel superior to me, and delight in playing with my head. We think they have no minds, but what do they think about us? We don't think Sequias are poets or philosophers becuase they don't publish papers and chatter ceaslessly in languages we recognize.

Their behavior is more productive, sensible and goal-oriented than my new next-door neighbor's behaivior. She's crazy as a loon. My apologies to loons everywhere.

I seem to fallen into thread drift yet again. It's late.

Tobyhanna, PA(Zone 5a)


I loved your above post. I consider myself a "people person" but there are times when I'd rather just hang out in the woods with the trees. :>))

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

I'll second that motion. But you make a lot of great points (even if slightly plagerized lol). Who is the master and who is the servant? Man versus cats, dogs, our gardens, our fish and frogs.... I'm with PAgirl. There are days I prefer and DO go commune with me back yard to dealing with other people. Um, might not be a good commentary on myself. Talk about far afield.

I asked the neighbor for all of his bags of leaves. I will have to keep them til next year as the grinder has been torn apart and cleaned for this year.

Iowa Park, TX(Zone 7b)

Does anyone else think it would be fun and educational to see what other folks compost "bins" look like? I'm game for sending a couple of photos if there is interest...

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Sure. I have pics of my bins. Not too exciting.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> there are times when I'd rather just hang out in the woods with the trees. :>))

Absolutely! Alone-time is precious.

>> (even if slightly plagerized lol).

Guilty! Always borrow from the best ... but call it "research*

* Tom Lehrer
"Let no one else's work evade your eyes, but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!
(But always to call it 'research'!"

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Te salute!!! You are so well read. I so much enjoy your --- um, well, what? Anyway, I enjoy the reading and learning....

Union, WA(Zone 8b)

Heres a picture of my composting bin. And no I didn't place it in the shade and will be moving it soon.

Thumbnail by Willowwind2
Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Thank you very much, Mary.

This was my compost heap in mid-june of this year, right after I chopped up a lot of low-growing juniper with my lawn-mower and fed the shreds to an existing small heap. I've been adding to it ever since, and screened out a few wheelbarrows-full of black gold, maybe 3-4 weeks ago..

I keep adding scraps and green yard clippings to the woody and other uncomposted bits. Recently I picked and raked out most of the coarse stuff, again to the left. The right half Is about ready for another screening.

At that point I'll move the uncomposted bits on top of some chopped bush-trimmings I cut just today. That pile of trimmings is probably too close to a tree and a fence, so I'll probably move the whole heap back to the right for a few turnings.

Lately this "continuous" process seems better for me than trying to get one pile to go "all the way". Since I always have some wood in it that is too coarse to decompose quickly, I figure I should take and use what IS ready, as rich and fresh as possible, while the "undercooked bits" go back into the pot to simmer longer.

But it is nice to have two heaps at the same time. I can rake the dry and woody outer bits off the surface of the older pile and throw those right onto the younger pile. It seems that rain washes anything black and comosted out of the outer layer, and it winds up in the middle of the pile (or oozing out the bottom), and the hard dry stuff stays on the surface.

This message was edited Oct 21, 2012 10:11 PM

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Opps! Here is the photo of the mostly-juniper-chips stage.

And a shot of the time I was using a lawn mower and screens to chip the juniper as small as practical.

Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA
Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Don't want to sound like a party pooper or thread police, but a new thread on this completely new subject might get more interest.

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Not at all. You are quite correct.

Iowa Park, TX(Zone 7b)

Good idea. Thank you Rick and Willowwind for sending pictures - always good to see how other people deal with composting. I'm having trouble getting my pictures onto the computer -need to take a class or something on how to do these digital cameras, sigh.

Since the sun is so intense here we grow castor bean plants for the shade at various places in the gadens. In the fall I start thinning them out and cutting them up for the compost (which is challenging) since they will die with a freeze soon anyway. The compost pile turns out being huge with castor bean plants sticking out all over - not so pretty... but don't have much choice. The pile is on the north side of the garden to block some of the cold wind and allows us to grow lettuce south of it. I'm curious if anybody else composts any large plants like castor beans.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

I tried throwing large stalks of Canna into my compost one year. Those darn things are very fibrous so I had slimy but still mostly intact six foot long Canna stalks to wrestle with for months. Not fun!

I have one Castor plant which I will compost but I will have to chop it into pieces first. - the stem anyway. I have dropped a few whole leaves into the layering of brown tree leaves.

I like your plan of placing the pile to shelter and grow lettuce- nice.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I like to chop stiff stems shorter until I get tired. It's a wate of enrgy if the stems are soft enough that they will fall apart in a few weeks, but I think stiff or woody stems compost much faster (and make the pile easier to turn) if they are shorter thasn 3-6 inches.

Long stems stick out of the pile or "come to the surface" as compost washes away from them, dry out, and never rot.

Long stems make it hard to turn a pile or rake off the dry outer layer so you can re-bury it in the smae pile or a younger pile.

My theory is that tough and woody stems rot better from cut edges inward, rather than from the bark inwards. The smaller they are cut, the sonner you don't need to screene n them out olf the pile so you can use what IS composted.

Finally, if tough stems are cut down to 1-2 inchers before composting, you may be able to use the compost before the stems rot fully, withOUT screening. SHORT lengths of partly rotted stems in your soil contribute some drainage and aeration without making the soil unworkable.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Quote from RickCorey_WA :

... My theory is that tough and woody stems rot better from cut edges inward, rather than from the bark inwards. ...Finally, if tough stems are cut down to 1-2 inchers before composting, you may be able to use the compost before the stems rot fully, withOUT screening. SHORT lengths of partly rotted stems in your soil contribute some drainage and aeration .

Without a doubt. and ditto to other points mentioned there.

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Both of my drums are frozen solid. We had our first snow that will stick yesterday. Composting is really off the board til I see what happens next year especially with our adventure into mulching our garden cuttings and spreading them in the garden. I expect that it will be next spring just like it was when we spread it this fall. but over the summer I am hoping with a little digging and such it will work into the soil. Composting is a whole nother issue. It simply doesn't 'compost' fast enough. Or maybe I just need to build a critical mass of bacteria, worms etc to get a good working pile to feed the new stuff being added.

This message was edited Oct 31, 2012 6:07 AM

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Years ago, I composted in a hole I dug about 3 x 4 ft and 1ft deep. Here I threw all my kitchen scraps, etc. What i like about this way was that worms helped break down the stuff. Also easy to turn. I had no problem with wild life. I live in a town in Massachusetts where rains were plentiful. If I had problemss, I would have thrown chicken wire over. I added some soil on top to help the rotting process.Black plastic oveer it helped " bake" the stuff during the summer.

(Mary) Anchorage, AK(Zone 4b)

Maybe I should add soil, although I do throw plants I have decided to remove (after having beaten most of the dirt out which I suppose also removes most worms) that have some residual dirt in them. Also I wonder if I draped black plastic over the drums if it would heat that up. They are black on their own but the double layer might help. I know that when it rains water seems in through the joints of the sides so I do get moisture. And I can add brown stuff if it is too moist. I wish I had a spot where I could try your method though. Sounds like nature would help the process along being in the ground and all.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> Both of my drums are frozen solid.

Ouch. My average first-frost-date was a week ago, but we haven't gone below 41 yet, seldom below 45, and still lots of 50-55 nightly lows.

Unusual weather now seems to be the rule.

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