Compost Pile

Compost Pile



 Steam rising from a compost pile in the middle of winter is sure to an organic gardener happy. It’s a  sign that when spring comes, you’ll have a batch of fresh compost to use for getting seeds and  transplants off to a good start in your garden. Frigid weather outside can slow the decomposition  process, but you can maintain a core of heat, which indicates that microbial activity is occurring inside  the pile. The outside layer of the pile will be the same as your ambient temperature, but if things are  right, the inside of the pile will be hot.

Microbe Management
Even in winter microorganisms such as bacteria and fungus, account for most of the decomposition activity in a compost pile.  The microbial action in decomposition creates heat which is a natural result of the chemical process of your organic material breaking down.

Spontaneous combustion can occur, even in winter. This is when the internal (core) temp reaches a point where it is hot enough to ignite. This is why you don’t want to locate your compost pile close to a building or any other combustible material. Whether it’s winter or summer, there’s hardly anything more embarrassing than having to explain how your compost set fire to your greenhouse or the neighbors barn or tree—you get the idea.

Compost food

Compost food

 Feeding. Microbes need a mix of carbon and nitrogen rich materials (browns and greens). Kitchen  scraps, such as vegetable and fruit cores and peelings, coffee grounds, etc. are handy sources of  nitrogen-rich ingredients. You can also compost eggshells and even stuff like shredded newspaper—–  you only want to use the regular pages of the paper NOT the glossy sections which resist  decomposition and contain material you probably do not want in your compost. Manure from  chickens, llama, alpaca and rabbits contain a goodly portion of heat-generating nitrogen. You can  sprinkle in some blood meal to give your pile a nitrogen boost if you can’t scrounge up some of these.

For carbon-rich ingredients, use straw, fallen leaves, shredded newspaper, or sawdust. You can toss in  small amounts of ashes from your fireplace or woodstove, which also enhance the calcium, phosphorus, and potassium content of your finished compost.

Do not throw in table scraps such as bones, grease, meat etc. It not only attracts more rodents but doesn’t help much with decomposition.

Seedlings in compost

Seedlings in compost

 Also—when adding in cow or horse manure (in particular) be sure to cycle it in so it gets and stays hot  during the decomposition process. These are both full of undigested weed seed and will contribute  significantly to your weed problem during growing season. The combined heat and moisture will rot  the seeds, which of course takes care of their growth potential.

 Particle size. Help chilly, sluggish microbes by doing some of the work for them—chop or shred  both browns and greens before adding them to the pile. The pile heats up uniformly, and the small  particles form a kind of mat that shields the pile’s warm core from outside temperature extremes.

Layering. During warm periods, you can just add ingredients to your compost pile as they become available. But in the cold season, take time to add layers of brown ingredients to your green materials. The layers help insulate your pile, trapping heat and gases inside. This is a good time to cycle in that horse and cow manure we talked about earlier.

Moisture. Winter winds and low humidity suck the moisture out of your compost pile. The microbes need moisture to survive. During warm spells, water the pile. You want to have it damp, but not soaking wet.

Air. In warm weather, frequent turning is the best way to keep microbes well supplied with oxygen. But in winter, you want to cause as little disturbance as possible to the layer of insulation. Unless you’re going through a nice warm spell you want to wait until spring to turn the pile.

Helping your pile to keep warm.

Solar power.  Locate your compost pile in full sun.

Snow. A blanket of snow acts like an insulator and helps protect compost from deep freezes, but it also slows down thawing. Leave it on the compost pile when you’re not adding new material; scrape it off when adding fresh material.

Tarp. Covering your pile with a canvas or plastic tarp prevents heat and moisture loss better than snow. Remember to add water to the pile on a regular basis when you’ve covered it. Use a UV resistant plastic or tarp so it won’t break down so quickly from the prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Trenching. Dig a trench and fill it with compost ingredients using the ground as a natural insulation. Just remember one thing if you consider this method—you need to dig it back out again when it comes time to use the compost.

Small area composters.  I’ve seen ads for small composters and they’re fairly expensive from what I remember.

You can make one for the cost of a 35 to 50 gallon plastic trash can with a lid.

Locate your can in a sunny area where it’s easy to get to—this encourages you to use it.

Cut out the bottom. Drill or cut a few fairly large holes near the top to allow for air circulation—6-8,  ¾ or 1” dia. holes will work. Dig a hole about 1 ft. deep and set the can into the hole.

Place a 4-6” layer of decent top soil in the bottom. (the top soil already has some of the microorganisms in it necessary for creating compost) Insulate the can if you can, with straw, leaves, grass etc. Start adding in the green and brown material as it comes available keeping the lid on between adding material.

For harvesting the compost simply lift the can out of the hole—take what is ready and put the can back in place tossing the top layers on the bottom and let it start over again


Some schools of thought contend you can safely decompose and break down toxic plant material as long as you keep it hot. There’s more, but I’m not going to go into it.

Ok. For my .02 worth—I won’t throw toxic plant material into my compost heap and I would advise you to follow suit.  

 More on Composting


Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks