Cool Climate Composting

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

My DH & I live in Southcentral Alaska where the summer temps seldom get above 75 degrees, so it's a challenge to compost. We also have to do it in a short time, since the summer only lasts for about three months.

At a garden friend's suggestion I started my first compost pile several years ago by alternating grass clippings and goat manure. I had no "bin", so I just started the pile. I swear, at first, I had no idea what to expect..I really didn't even know what compost was. I kept adding things, turning it, adding more layers...brown, green, brown, green... and finally it started getting warm in the center.

I was eagerly awaiting this beautiful "compost" that I imagined would be broken down like soil in no time. I fiddled around with that first batch for two years, until one day, another garden buddy said, "Why don't you sift that compost and start another batch?" So I put a framed screen across my wheelbarrow and started sifting. Low & behold...I had beautiful compost! From that point on, I was hooked.

Last year, my husband took an interest in the compost pile, and now we have this two compartment covered bin behind our garage, and we compost every year from first thaw to first hard freeze. Now I have a waste container with a lid for my compostables and started saving veggie scraps, egg shells, & coffee grounds year round. During the winter months, I keep the waste on the porch in covered 5 gallon buckets where it stays frozen until spring when I can begin my compost pile again. Needless to say, by the time the buckets sit around in the spring, they are already beginning to "work".

In the fall, we rake our leaves and put them in huge piles, and in the spring, we use them to alternate layers of kitchen waste. As the lawn grows, we add grass clippings, and by the time the summer is in full swing, we go down to the docks or the cannery and get fish waste to add, as well. We get livestock manure from friend's horses, goats, and rabbits. Each time we add something green or stinky, we add a layer of last fall's leaves or the winter straw mulch from the flower beds. This keep down the odor that might attract bears or pets, and helps to keep it aeriated.

Since our season is short and cool, we try to break everything down a bit before we put it on the compost pile. If I have a pile of weed material from the garden, I run over it with the lawn mower to chop it up a bit. From time to time we add a nitrogen fertilizer or manure to the pile to keep it hot. We stir the pile a bit with a garden fork, and on occasion toss it from one bin to the next to relayer it.

We built a cover over our compost bins because we have so much rain, living outside a coastal town. We water the compost sparingly, but regularly, keeping the compost about the consistency of cake..not the batter, but actual cake. By the season's end, we generally have compost, but we let it sit until next spring, when we toss it into the next bin and start a new batch. My DH put removable bin boards on the fronts of each bin so that we can add or remove boards as needed.

It's a lot harder to compost in Alaska, but it can be done!

Thumbnail by Weezingreens
Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

Really admire how you work at this in your climate, and your detailed description of how you manage to end up with good useable compost despite it.
Much easier in my climate, but do a lot of the same things you do. Don't need to save my kitchen waste til the big thaw, can pile it on as it happens. Do try and alternate different types of waste eg lawn clippings with prunings that go through my shredder.
Have usually 4 bins on the go at different stages, nothing as neat and visually pleasing as yours - have them 'hidden' behind a box hedge
find turning the stuff from one bin to another works a treat. If things get full up i have even been known to mulch with material that's not completely broken down :O But usually there isn't enough for all the spots i need to use it on.
And don't the birds love the worms when you finally empty a bin - Christmas, birthday and heaven rolled into one!! :o)

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Yes, philomel: we are very fond of our worms up here. When I sift my compost, I aways rescue the worms and put the in my raised beds! A shredder! You lucky dog, you! I could really cut a fat hog in the *ss with that! (old farm expression). I'd love to have a shredder...maybe someday when I'm rich and famous. My DH will be spreading my ashes over the garden before that happens!

My compost bins aren't very clean either. This picture was taken just after DH finished them..before I could muck it up a bit. Now there are garbage cans full of unsifted compost, unmentionable cans of "ingredients", and whatever else got left out before the big freeze. I can keep neat flower beds, but I'm a very messy gardener. Sure could use some of those box hedges of yours!

Some of my finished compost is probably what you would consider "not broken down". We do what we can up here, but it takes so long to get a truly finished product. My only concern with using materials that are not broken down adequately is that the nitrogen in the soil will be used to break down the uncomposted materials before it will go to the plants.

Since I have lots of space here an lots of leaves, I pile weeds and leaves in piles I can access with a year or two. Once I get down past the first layer or two, I'm into compost. My theory is, if God wants to compost, let him!

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

so pleased i'm not the only one to spread compost before it's use from date!

Richmond, KY(Zone 6b)

>My only concern with using materials that are not broken down adequately is that the nitrogen in the soil will be used to break down the uncomposted materials before it will go to the plants.

Not if you're using it as a mulch.

I used to worry about this. But then, as my own experiences with sheet composting grew, and as the whole "lasagna" composting thing became popular, I realized what the problem was.

If you mix uncomposted materials into the soil, you might create a situation where the browns would deplete the nitrogen. Laying the stuff on the surface, however, barely effects what's in the soil.

That's why, for instance, you could lay new manure on the surface, and, so long as it doesn't physically touch a plant, you'd not have problems. But if you incorporated that same manure into the soil, you could burn the plant roots.

Also consider this. If you have a good mix of browns and greens, and incorporate it into the soil, they will feed on each other (so far as nitrogen and carbon are concerned), and not deplete the nutrients already there.

What I'm saying is, not-fully-broken-down compost is not a problem most of the time.

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

Thanks Brook. I feel better now:)

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 6b)

Brook, Thank you for your info on composting. I love this kinda talk.

I read everything I can find on composting, but getting this kind of info straight from other gardeners who are big into composting is the BEST.


Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 6b)

Weezingreens, What a great composting story.
I lived in Saskatchewan for 10 years and wouldn't have dreamed of tackling composting in that climate.

I am VERY impressed--such tenacity. And what a reward you get for all that labor--good stuff.


Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

Weezin, if you insulated your bins with straw bales could you extend your composting season appreciably? I know you want air circulation in the summer months, but when it gets cold, I'd be tempted to stack straw bales snug up against the outside of the bins, and try to eek a few more months of work out of that stuff - might help get it jumpstarted in the spring, too - just a thought.

Richmond, KY(Zone 6b)

Philomel & TomatoQueen: Sometimes we get awfully involved in things that don't need it; with all sorts of scientific and technical approaches. Composting can be one of those. My basic approach is to do it like God does. That is, pile the stuff up as it happens, and let time do the rest. I can't remember the last time I turned a compost pile, for instance, let alone worried whether the browns and greens evened out.

Go-Vols: Two things about your straw-bale suggestion. First, I think it would work, helping the pile stay hot for quite awhile longer than it now does. Second: Why bother? She's getting usable compost now. And, if the materials aren't all composted when she incorporates them into the garden, they still add the tilth and nutrients she's looking for.

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

i only turn if i'm short of space and want to speed it up. Nothing very scientific about my heaps LOL, let the worms do the work.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Turning the compost is less important for us if I allow a few branches to accompany the leaves. Otherwise, it begins to compress and the it loses its heat. You have to remember that we are dealing with overcast days, rain, and temps that seldom go above 70 degrees. The roof helps to keep the compost from becoming waterlogged by rain, as well.

A pile of compost, left to God, can take about 4 years to compost, which is but a blink of an eye for him, but a bit longer for us. That is why I do that kind of composting on the back part of the property where it can take its own sweet time.

Yes, worms are our friends up here when it comes to churning the soil and enriching it with their casings. I guard my worms like gold, and feel like chasing down the robins and retrieving the swiggly little fellows from their beaks!

I have a friend that extends her compost time by banking her compost bins with leaves in black garbage sacks. This is much more economical that bales of straw here, since it sells for about $10-$12 per bale. One of our big problems is getting to the compost pile once the big snows hit.

Using unfinished compost for cover mulch makes sense, but I have to be careful of mulching around here, since it often harbors slugs. I guess it's just one of those trade off situations, but you guys have given me food for thought!

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

Do you have the special smaller, livelier, redder little fellows in your compost Weez? In the UK we have a different species in the heap to the rest of the garden. They revel in all the decaying matter. I didn't realise til a few years ago when i read an article. Went to look in my heap and, sure enough, there they were. Thing is, when i spread the compost, the birds have a field day - poor worms :(
Lucky birds:)

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Hi, Philomel: No, I don't have the red worms. Some local folks use them for worm composting, but they don't generally make it through our winters outdoors. If I could keep the compost warm all winter, it would be no problem.

The red worms are available by mail order, but most places don't want to mail to Alaska.

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

Might be worth taking some indoors?? Is it legal to send you some? Probably not, what a shame.
It's big business supplying them over here - but it's a con in my opinion, as they occur naturally. If you have a compost heap they just turn up, certainly in my part of the UK

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Dennis & I have been thinking about putting in a worm barrel downstairs with a tap on it. My only concern is that they can draw gnats into the house, but the juice is great fertilizer!

Belfield, ND(Zone 4a)

Reading this thread makes me realize I have a lot to learn about composting!

I just pile everything from weed seedlings, spent veggie plants, leaves, grass clippings, toilet paper rolls, paper towels, newspapers, coffee grounds etc. into a huge pile or piles and leave it there until the next year. By the next spring it's pretty much broken down, so we go in there with a shovel and pitch it all over the veggie garden and till. Start a new pile or piles in different places for the new year. I know, I want to eventually get away from needing to till, but I still do need to until I get this sandy soil built up.

Since we have a bunny this winter, I've been scattering the 'cage cleanings' on the garden too, which will also be tilled into the soil if spring ever gets here.

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

I tried a special container (home made to plans), but it was such a faff getting everything just right i just leave them in the heap now. But if they don't survive your winter it might be worth it. You could have them in just in the coldest months perhaps. That might avoid the gnat problem?
I tried it at a time when i didn't really have the time to spare, so it may be unfair to say it's a faff.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Philomel: We have freezing weather anytime between October and early May...the little buggers would be so used to the indoors they wouldn't want to go back outside. They'd be clinging to the door frame as I carried them out!

JoanJ: If your compost breaks down over the winter, I'd say you're doing fine! Here it takes longer and I have to add lots of nasty things to make it simmer..old fish heads, My Aunt Hatty...whatever works! I've heard from many gardeners up here that rabbit poop is the best! I've been thinking about purchasing a bunny just for the poop crop.

Castelnau RB Pyrenée, France(Zone 8a)

Just make sure it doesn't escape LOL. They need a fair input for poop production and have a preference for all your favourite plants!

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

I'm afraid we have a few escapees in the area. Some well-meaning but misguided soul in or neighborhood let his rabbits run free over the winter. Every once in a while I'd see one hopping about. I didn't see them since last winter, so maybe the didn't live through it. They weren't brown rabbits, but rather little gray and white bunnies. As much as I love little furry creatures, I'd be relieved to know they didn't survive!

Belfield, ND(Zone 4a)

Those bunnies are master escape artists too. 'ol Butch gets out on a real regular basis, avoids the cats and all until we can capture him again. I'd let him out of his bunny condominium permanently, only I worry for his safety. Plus, how would I know where to leave his carrots, broccoli, alfalfa and fresh water 3 times a day (once in the middle of the night) so that he would find it before it freezes?

And...Butch is the reason I won't grow any poisonous plants, except my baby brug and I'm not sure if it's poisonous? The brug or brug(s), if more germinate, will be planted in a place Butch cannot get to.

Richmond, KY(Zone 6b)

Joan J: You're my kind of gal.

Just pile it and let it rot. Nothing scientific or technical about it. And you've got usable compost the next year.

I'd say you know all about compost making that you need to know.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Dennis here, thought I'd butt into Carols post and add a couple of things.

To help with the nitrogen depletion problem, I add ammonium
nitrate between the layers of greens and browns.

Was looking through a greenhouse catalog and spotted a compost thermometer, only problem was the $90. price tag.
I spotted a BBQ fork with a digital thermometer,at the local food store, price $14.

Scoop out a little hole in the pile, ram it the fork and push the ON button.

With this little tool, I was able to keep a better eye on the needs of the compost. As it was, we kept an average core temp of 147*F last summer

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