Burrr! Winter is here it seems. Plants are dormant, gardens are sleeping, but under the leaf litter there is still life busily working to recompose stored nutrients from the summer sun! In fact, Dr. Elaine Ingham of Soil Food Web Inc says that the greatest rate of decomposition anywhere on the planet is under a blanket of snow in the cold northern hemisphere’s winter.
Dedicated decompiculturists know that winter composting outdoors can be a lovely warming activity as internal pile temperatures reach 160 degrees when properly maintained. Imagine the burst of warmth, like a personal sauna, as you turn that heap and engage with the billions of bacteria digesting your organic matter! In order to achieve this year-round outdoor thermal pile, composters must protect busy microbes from wind and precipitation. I cover my hot piles with a hearty quilt recycled from goodwill, some burlap coffee bean bags, and a tarp loosely secured to keep off the moisture (make sure you don’t cut off air flow entirely). If the pile has the right amount of nitrogen (the greens, or foods for bacteria), it will continue “cooking” just like any other time of year!
Some of you may not want to march outside in the snow to measure temperatures and maintain moisture levels, so I’d recommend a couple other winter composting options:
- Before everything freezes, create a huge pile of carbon: start with big logs and sticks on the bottom for airflow, then pile on woodchips, leaves, shredded cardboard, dry weeds, straw, etc until you have a mountain of mostly carbonaceous organic matter. Cover the pile with a blanket and a tarp. Throughout the winter, collect your food waste in a small indoor bucket and when full, make deposits throughout the pile. Make sure you deposit the food scraps in a different location each time. In the spring, you can hot compost this whole pile to make sure weed seeds and pathogens are killed by adding a high nitrogen source like your first grass clippings of the season, manure, or coffee grounds collected from local coffee shops.
- Indoor vermicompost bins! Simply acquire two nesting plastic bins; make one into a sieve and fill it with woodchips, shredded brown leaves, shredded cardboard and newspaper, paper egg cartons, etc; nest the hole-punched inner bin and bedding materials into the intact outer bin and soak with water for a day or more. Drain. Add a *small* pocket of food waste and about 500-1000 red wiggler worms (purchased locally or from a reputable source like Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm). Get to know your worms and only give them enough food so that it can be entirely consumed within 3 days. And make sure you keep them hydrated at about 50-70% moisture!
- Try out a bokashi, or anaerobically fermented, method explained here on page 37: Introduction to Asian Natural Farming
- For the extra adventurous, check out this page for a how-to on composting cat and dog waste using mushroom mycelium!
Feel free to get in touch with questions about any of these methods or to request a workshop!