Are you wondering if you can compost in winter? You’re not alone! I get this question often from people who live in cold weather climates. After all, doesn’t a compost pile need to be hot to decompose, and won’t it just freeze in winter?
The short answer is you can definitely compost in winter (although composting in winter might not be perfect). Read on for more details and some things to consider if you want to reduce food waste year-round.
As winter settles in (and I post pictures on social media of my compost bins covered in snow), I inevitably receive a handful of questions about whether or not you can actually compost in winter. The answer? Yes. Yes. Yes!
Composting is simply speeding up nature’s natural method of recycling nutrients and preserving the circle of life. While some animals hibernate and certain trees take a rest in winter, nature does not stop surviving, and neither do compost piles.
Collect Frozen Food Scraps Through Winter
If you live in a colder climate, there are plenty of options to continue composting in winter. For the laziest of composters (which includes me at times), we continue adding scraps to our compost pile year-round. Often, the scraps freeze for weeks or months at a time, depending on where you live. That’s perfectly ok!
When the weather warms and the snow melts in spring, the scraps will heat up quickly and the microorganisms that break down organic matter get right back to work. Letting your food scraps freeze for a few months while waiting to decompose is a far better alternative than tossing them in the trash to release methane in a landfill or incinerator.
While all organic matter can be composted, some types of food scraps are a bit more problematic in a basic backyard composting system. Items like meat, dairy, and bones take a much longer time to break down. If you actively manage your compost bin throughout the year, you might be able to add these to your bin even in winter. But if you are a lazier composter like me, letting these types of items land in the trash (or using a pick-up service or alternative composting method) might be a better option.
Large Compost Piles Stay Warm And Active In Winter
If your compost pile is big enough, the heat generated by the microorganisms in the middle of the pile may be sufficient to prevent the pile from freezing. In this case, your pile will remain warm and active despite the cold weather. You can continue adding food scraps and turning your pile throughout the winter to keep the pile warm and working.
Be aware that an active compost pile is also effectively a warm and fully-stocked pantry for small animals. If you have an open pile, it is a particularly attractive place to burrow in the cold months when most food is covered in snow. I also often see birds hanging out on top of our compost pile as it’s a great place to find a bit of warmth and a boatload of worms and bugs.
In the dead of winter, we had one open compost pile that stayed quite warm. While I never saw any animals inside the pile, I found plenty of evidence that a small animal had burrowed into the pile overnight. Our pile is far enough from our home that I didn’t care, but be careful about keeping such a compost pile close to your house if you’re worried about those rodents making their way into your home.
Enclosed Compost Bins & Tumblers
Open compost piles may become occasional snacking grounds for wildlife, but plenty of enclosed compost bins keep wildlife at bay. Raised single and dual-tumblers sit off the ground to prevent rodents from sneaking inside of them. Most enclosed compost bins that sit directly on the ground keep smells in and, thus, don’t attract animals either.
The Subpod, a buried composting container, is also a really great (and attractive!) way to compost throughout the year without the risk of animal invasion. Subpod even sells compostable worm blankets that keep compost and worms warm during the winter without contaminating the finished compost.
Composting In Winter Might Be Slower
With most outdoor residential compost piles you’ll likely find that compost decomposition slows significantly in colder weather. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep adding to the pile, however, and let it all break down into garden gold as the weather warms.
How Can I Speed Up Composting In Winter?
If compost processing speed is important to you, you can increase the speed of decomposition (even in winter) by maintaining a larger pile and keeping it covered with a tarp to help it stay warm. Depending on the size of the pile, turning it may help keep it warm or cool it down. It will stay warmer if there is new organic matter to be processed by microorganisms (they generate the heat), but the action of turning the pile will release heat as you turn.
Can I Ignore My Compost In Cold Weather?
Yes. If you’re not particularly concerned about the pace of decomposition, it’s perfectly ok to pile up your greens and browns and let the microorganisms and worms handle the hard work. In fact, some people effectively ignore their compost pile year-round and let it decompose on its own.
It may take a year or more for a passively managed compost bin to break down and turn into a finished soil amendment. But if you’re not in a rush and can’t or don’t want to perform the physical labor of actively managing a compost pile, feel free to leave it alone.
Compost Indoors To Avoid Winter Considerations
If you prefer not to deal with composting in cold weather, you can also take your composting indoors for the winter months. There are many indoor composting methods including Bokashi, vermicomposting, and electronic composters like the FoodCycler FC-50. I’m not a huge fan of electric composters, but I suppose there is a time and place when they are beneficial for certain people.
No matter how you compost, don’t let cold weather deter you from the mission. Composting is one of the easier ways we can positively impact the health of the planet.
Composting At Home Helps Heal The Planet
Composting reduces municipal waste languishing in landfills and significantly cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming. Food scraps in landfills create methane, a potent greenhouse gas, because they cannot decompose properly. Our landfills are overflowing and our planet is warming in ways that are not sustainable.
Composting also replenishes the soil. Healthier soil produces better quality food, healthier plants, and even pulls more carbon out of the air to reverse global warming relative to depleted soil.
Composting has a negative carbon footprint and increases biodiversity, meaning it actually helps to reverse climate change and make our planet healthier in so many ways! Don’t let cold weather get in the way of composting at home. There are so many options to keep our organic waste out of landfills and use it to replenish our soil.
Want to read more about composting at home? Check out the full resource library for your complete guide to composting at home!
Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.
You can find more of her work at Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.