Freeze my Grass off! Can I Compost During Winter?

Almost 25% of our landfill is biodegradable yard or food waste. Does that fact alarm you? It should. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because it’s natural waste and that it will decompose anywhere. When food and yard waste are diverted into landfill it is affected by the levels of toxins in the garbage around it and rots away, producing large amounts of methane. Food waste in our landfills is the most significant producer of human based methane, and amounts to 20% of all methane emissions. It also provides a haven for rodents and pests, especially behind homes and restaurants where they can breed and spread deadly diseases. Diverting our food and yard waste from landfill is an easy, and essential, way live a sustainable life, especially as in recycling it produces another valuable green commodity – compost.

Compost is made from organic matter that is decomposed to form ‘black gold’. Rich in nutrients, completely natural and easy to produce, gardeners have been harvesting compost for millennia, using the power of nature to nurture nature. Organic compost provides a great environment for crops to grow and is a carbon zero way of disposing of food waste, yard waste and plant matter. It is the ultimate in recycling.

Using very little equipment, organic matter is collected in a pile, then aerated to help provide all four basic elements of compost – organic matter, moisture, oxygen and bacteria; and also a little heat to help keep the bacteria happy. The bacteria occurs naturally in the organic matter, as does the moisture, but the mixture is needed to be ‘turned’, or aerated, to provide the oxygen throughout the pile. This is easy in the summer and fall, but what about winter. Can you compost in winter? Won’t it change the balance of elements? Yes, it will change the balance of elements, but you can compost in winter.

The average compost bins consists of:

Greens: Things like vegetable peels, fruit cores, left over food, grass clipping, plant matter and other types of greenery.

Browns: This includes raked leaves, dead plants, shredded paper and sawdust from untreated wood.

Heat: The decomposition provides heat as the bacteria do their magic, but that heat is also a requirement for composition to happen.

Moisture: In general the organic matter provides most of the moisture needed, but the contents need to be moist, but not soggy. Sometimes water may need to be added to create a wetter mixture, or drier organic matter needs to be added to stop the compost going soggy. Either of these conditions will kill the bacteria needed for successful compost.

Oxygen: Turning the compost regularly provides all the air needed for the bacteria, but will also give you a chance to see if the moisture is correct.

Providing these basic elements during the winter is possible with a little adjustment to your routine, more importantly, it will provide you with high quality organic compost in the spring when you need it.

KEEP IT WARM!

The biggest problem with winter composting is keeping the pile at the right heat for the bacteria to break down the organic matter. Insulating your pile is essential if the weather drops too cold and starts to freeze, so think about using hay bales, fall leaves kept aside or shredded news print to insulate the sides of you container. A tarp wrapped round it can also shield it from the wind and stop the wind chill penetrating too far.

SIZE MATTERS

Cut your organics into smaller pieces and give the bacteria a hand! In lower temperatures they will be less active and by cutting up kitchen waste, shredding paper smaller or scrunching up leaves to break them down the bacteria have less work to do.

TURN IT OFF!

During the winter, stop turning the pile over. Conserving heat is a more pressing consideration than getting air through the mixture. By turning it over a large amount of heat is lost and drawn away from the core of the pile where the bacteria will settle.

DUMP IT!

At the end of fall, and before winter really sets in, empty your existing compost pile to make ready for new matter. You can turn it over in the soil you have taken you crops from and ploughed ready for spring plating or store it in another container. The composting process will slow down immeasurably during the cold weather so the bin will fill faster and you need to make room for the extra matter.

SAVE BROWNS

Save some brown matter for the winter or spring thaw as your compost is more likely to become soggy when there is more moisture in the air. Raked leaves are the best matter to add during these times so keep some behind to aid in the health of your compost.

KEEP MOTIVATED

It’s easy to lose motivation for being a ‘decomposing Doctor’ in the winter months, after all, you’re not digging or planting in the frozen ground, but by keeping interested you can benefit your life, and the planet, in other ways.

  • You are diverting food waste away from the landfill and reducing deadly methane gases, as well as your carbon footprint.
  • You never get out of the routine of composting so it’s easier to start again in the spring.
  • Your pile is prepared as soon as you start planting again so you do not need to rely on artificial material.
  • You will have compost to share with your friends and neighbors which will help build a solid, green community.

Keeping you pile going during winter is not a massive task, but it does involve depositing the organic matter into the pile or bin. If this is difficult for you, there are alternatives.

VERMICULTURE

Vermiculture is the use of worms to help the bacteria break down the organic material. The worms need similar conditions to pile compost, but with the help of the worms decomposition happens more rapidly, more efficiently and there is no odor from the pile. Because of this, a vermiculture bin can be kept indoors in the kitchen and composting can carry on as normal. If you produce more waste than can fit into a bin, you can then transfer it to your regular compost bin to store it until spring.

BOKASHI

The Japanese invented a wonderful system of keeping an indoor compost bin that pickled your kitchen waste turning it rich compost. Bokashi composting requires more equipment and outlay than vermiculture, but requires less space. You need two bins, one for the working compost, one for the waiting compost and an extra one, I guess, for the magical bacteria infused bran that turns your organic matter into compost. You pop your waste in the waste bin, sprinkle the bran over it and let the bacteria do the rest.

On draw back of the Bokashi system is that it is best to only open up the waste bin once a week to keep the conditions right for the bacteria to work in. If you’re ok with your veggie peelings and leftovers sitting in your fridge for a week, it’s a great option. You also have to drain off the liquid it produces, but this is GREAT liquid compost that can be diluted and used on any plant. You work on filling one bin at a time, then when that bin is full it needs to sit outside for two weeks before use. While this is happening you start on the next bin and work that until full, constantly rotating the bins.

Winter composting is a very sustainable way to dispose of your organic waste, but more than that, it is a way to give back to Mother Nature and treat the earth the way she designed it to be. Constant recycling of organic matter is kind to the environment, produces extremely healthy foods to eat and therefore keeps us healthy. With so many ways to produce ‘black gold’ during the winter, there really is no reason to ‘freeze your grass off’!

 

Resources:

Why reduce food waste in landfill? http://www.epa.gov/foodrecovery/

University of Illinois Botanical Research: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/compost/process.cfm

Using worms: http://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/vermicomposting/

Bokashi bin composting: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/27/bokashi-bin-compost-alys-fowler

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