Even if you live in the snow belt you can still compost all through the winter — I did for 15 years in a homemade three-bin composter west of Boston. A good overview will show you the basics, such as proper materials, layering, air and moisture and, of course, what can and can’t be composted. Still, composting in bitter climates requires a few techniques.

Composting will continue, albeit slowly, as long as your piles are above freezing. If your piles are big enough, they will generate their own heat, but usually not enough. My piles certainly worked, so they were generating heat but it wasn’t until I moved to the Southwest that I realized how fast the process could occur. So the secret is adding and conserving heat. Use as much solar energy as you can by orienting your bins to the south. Consider covering your bins with translucent plastic to capture the sun’s heat, but remember to add some water to the piles and provide some ventilation. You won’t be adding as many materials or turning the piles as much as you do in the growing season.

People make compost in Alaska, but in a small glass or plastic-sheeted greenhouse heated by a light bulb. If you have cold frames (hot boxes) consider using one or more for compost; just don’t open the top except to add more materials and to ventilate once in a while. I made mine by salvaging old storm windows and scrap plywood. I insulated them with one-inch extruded foam. If you are using worms to speed the process, a cover will keep them dry. Trench composting is another alternative, but not where frost penetrates deeply.

I tried a heating strip under my cold frames. It was too weak and used too much electricity. A 25- to 40-watt light bulb supplied more heat. Besides composting, the cold frames were great for an early start to the growing season and also for rooting plants such as some rhododendrons that required a long time and just the right conditions.

In cold winters, be resigned that composting will not happen very quickly. Then realize that, while winters are long in the North, with a little help you might lose only two months of good decomposition. If the pile is warm, it will keep composting going as the temperature drop. With a little heat, you can speed up the beginning in the spring.

Just keep in mind the advantages of good compost in the North: besides every other benefit, it helps plants take better advantage of those long growing days!

This is a guest post of Peter Nolan.

Image credit – Untamed Gardener

Categories: Home and Garden


Joe · June 6, 2021 at 1:23 pm

Another option for composting in the winter is get an indoor composter – NatureMill Automatic Indoor Composter is probably the best one out there.

There are several options for indoor composting: Bokashi, verimcomposting, and NatureMill. Bokashi require you to dig a hole in the backyard to burry to the foods and digging a hole under 2 ft of snow is not an easy task. Verimcomposting require you to feed the worms, and having a bucket of worms in the house is gross!

The NatureMill composter is the only one that doesn’t requires much work….no hole digging, no worm, and no mixing and turning! This composter does all the mixing and turning automatically; it does all the composting work for you. All you have to do is throw in the foods, balance the green and brown ratio and a few weeks later you get some compost. That’s why is the best indoor composter out there (at least to me personally).


Have fun composting!

    Peter Nolan · June 6, 2021 at 1:25 pm

    How much volume can indoor composters handle? I had a 24 x 24 foot veggie garden, plus 15,000 square feet of flower/ground cover gardens. That produced a lot of waste to compost. Even my initial 3 x 3 x 2 bin was easily filled after the harvest.

    Phil · June 6, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    Volume has always been my problem.

    I haven’t seen my compost bin (3′ x 6′ x 4′ deep) in quite some time. Kitchen compost just gets thrown on the top layer of snow (33.8″ in my area for the last storm; more on the way tonight), to wait for spring.

    It’s currently pretty full from our 20’x’24’ garden and some yard waste – but I’ve mostly given up trying to compost leaves locally. Most years, I end up with 4 to 8 cubic yards (chopped and firmly packed) that goes to my county’s compost facility.

    Joe · June 6, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    With the volume that you are talking about, you might need a few indoor composters. I know that each NatureMill indoor composter can handles up to 120 lbs of food scraps per month so it’s about 4 lbs per day. Keep in mind that the NatureMill composter requires to cut the stuff to 1-4 inch pieces but the nice thing about it cranks out compost really fast. If you constantly need compost for your garden, it’s a great benefit.

    I don’t know how fast the worms eat but I guess all you need to do is get a few extra buckets of worms. The only thing is they need to be fed constantly even in non-harvest season. As for bokashi, I supposed you just have to buy more bokashi starter and dig a few more holes in the ground. The problem with that is stuff bury underground don’t really compost in the winter.

    I don’t have that much volume and I compost mostly left over and kitchen scraps so the NatureMill works out perfectly for me. When I have more stuff to compost in the future, I’ll just get another NatureMill. I’m all for speed and convenience.

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