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How to start a winter backyard compost

By Karen Ramsey

If you’ve been thinking about starting your own compost pile, it’s not too late. Take advantage of a warm winter day.

Composting in the winter isn’t that much different than any other time of year, and it can help get you garden-ready for spring – especially if you still have leaves on the ground.

If your main goal is to eliminate food waste and you’re not on a timeline for getting finished compost from it, the easiest option is a static pile or compost bin. Basically, piling up (or putting in a container) compostable materials and letting them slowly break down over time. It’s easy, but it will also take six months or longer before you get any compost from it.

What if I want compost for this spring?

That will require a little bit of work. Turning your pile (shoveling the content from the outside of the pile into the middle to mix it all up) will make sure that all of the contents have a chance to be in the middle of the pile where the microbes are working their hardest. It also aerates the pile to adds lots of oxygen for those good microbes to breathe. Generally, you’ll need to do that once a week while the pile is actively decomposing.

Can’t shovel the pile?

Then a compost tumbler might be the best option for you. Compost tumblers are containers that can be easily turned to rotate and mix your materials. This keeps the compost aerated and mixed without having to shovel anything. There are a variety of tumblers available for purchase through home improvement or hardware stores, and lots of resources for building your own.

Starting your compost

Regardless of whether you’re starting a pile or using a compost tumbler, here’s some easy steps for how to get started.

First, if you can, save up those fall leaves because they’re a great source of carbon (commonly called “brown” materials) and if your pile gets too wet, adding leaves can help balance the excess moisture.

Next, set up your pile or tumbler in a protected spot where it’ll get lots of southern exposure for warmth, but be protected from northern winds.

Collect your food scraps (vegetable and fruit peels, cores, eggshells, moldy bread, leftovers that went bad in the fridge, etc.) and add them to your compost pile. These are your “green” materials which are high in nitrogen. Each time you add green content to your pile add about twice that much by volume of brown content.

Turn your pile. If you have a pile on the ground you’ll want to turn it about once a week while it’s active. If you have a compost tumbler, you’ll want to turn it a couple of times a week.

Moisture & smelly stuff

Moisture is critical in a pile. Too much and you get a soggy, stinky mess. Not enough and your dry pile is full of sad, inactive microbes. If the pile looks soggy, or smells stinky, you can add extra brown content like leaves, straw, paper or coffee filters. Too dry? As long as the weather will be above freezing you can add some water to the pile.

Smells happen. If your pile is getting stinky it’s probably too wet, or you have too much green content. Either way, adding more brown will help reduce moisture and balance the green content.

Items like bones, meat or dairy should not be added to a home pile because they’re more likely to attract pests and it’s hard to keep the pile hot enough to break them down effectively.

Additional resources

Karen Ramsey is the co-founder of Food Cycle KC.

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