Can you keep composting kitchen and garden materials in winter?

Of course. As the bumper sticker says, “Compost happens.”

Composting may happen slower or even take a break during the freezing temperatures of winter, but that’s no reason to stop adding organic materials to your bin or pile. Here are some tips to make the process easiest on yourself:

• Have a compost bin close to your house.

Trudging through three feet of snow in winter to dump a bucket of kitchen scraps can be tiresome. The closer the bin is to your house in winter, the more likely you are to use it.

My son made a compost tumbler for my birthday and we placed it just outside the front door, within easy shoveling distance of the house. A gardener in Belfast has a tumbler so close to her back door that she can probably reach it without stepping outside.

A black plastic trashcan with holes about one inch in diameter drilled in the sides and bottom can substitute for a tumbler.

If you don’t want a bin close to your house — if you want to keep it in the garden, for instance — get some snowshoes. After a couple of trips to and fro, you’ll have an easily walkable path.

• Insulate the pile.

Surround a compost bin with bags of leaves or bales of straw or hay to hold in any heat generated by the microbes that decompose organic matter. In fact, you can make a bin from eight bales of hay, placing compost in the center of the two-bale-high bin all winter. Add a layer of leaves, stored in a trash can, for instance, after each few additions of kitchen scraps to maintain a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and a good moisture regime.

Cover the bin, too, with a black tarp, a piece of plywood or other material that will help warm the pile and hold in heat. Snow will help insulate the pile in many winters.

• Place the bin or tumbler in a spot that gets as much sun as possible.

Ours is on the south side of the house.

• Make sure the pile is moist but not soaking going into winter.

Decomposing organisms need water and air.

• Keep adding organic materials to the pile or tumbler all winter.

Even if the pile freezes and stops actively composting, the materials won’t be wasted. When temperatures begin to warm in late winter, decomposers will be active again. Often, when I put kitchen scraps on top of a snow-covered compost pile, their dark color absorbs heat and helps melt the snow. The power of coffee grounds!

When spring arrives, your compost will start decomposing quickly again. One gardener friend puts a sheet of plywood on top of his very neat pile, puts hoops over the pile, plastic over the hoops, and uses the structure as a temporary, waist-high greenhouse for seedlings. The composting process provides bottom heat for the seedlings; the sun provides top heat. A system like this requires attention so that temperatures don’t get too hot for the seedlings…

If these ideas don’t meet your composting needs, consider using a worm bin and worms to cycle kitchen scraps. For information on and supplies for “vermicomposting,” see:,,


Jean English lives in Lincolnville.