Fall is nearly over, the final cool-weather veggies have been harvested and the garden has been put to bed under a cozy layer of mature compost topped with a blanket of straw. Before the ground is completely frozen, it’s time to prepare your compost for its own long winter nap.
Composting is an essential part of gardening, and you want to preserve and protect that black gold you’ve worked hard all summer to accumulate. Ensuring that the nutritive value of your remaining/still uncured compost is protected takes some planning and preparation. Here are three fool-proof steps to simplify the process.
Repeated exposure to freezing temperatures and snow can affect the well-being of your compost, so you want to prepare it properly to overwinter. Decomposition doesn’t stop in the colder months, it simply slows down, but there is no need to let it go completely dormant. Ideally, you’ll want to keep your compost in conditions that maintain its optimal moisture, warmth and nutrients throughout the winter.
Give your compost a really thorough turning to fluff it up and add some air for oxidation. Add a final layer of green nitrogen-rich compost, including some chicken manure, steer manure or blood meal to help keep your compost warm. As you clean up the fallen leaves in your yard, finely mulch them by running through the mower and sprinkling over your compost as a carbon-rich brown top dressing to help retain moisture in your compost pile. This top layer should be at least 2-3 inches deep to ensure a good insulating blanket.
If you have a large compost pile, you’ve probably already crafted a compost bin in a sunny spot, and you can winter your compost right in its container by insulating it with a cozy surround of hay bales or snug bags of leaves. Cover with a hefty canvas duck or plastic tarp and weigh down or secure the edges to keep the winter winds from tearing it off the pile. Or, with a bit more finesse and planning, you could build a metal or wooden hinged lid over your pile to keep even further reducing exposure to rain, sleet and snow.
You can also winter your compost by moving it into storage containers such as plastic or galvanized steel garbage cans punctured with air holes to aerate the compost inside. These containers can be sheltered in a basement, garage, greenhouse or storage shed away from the outdoor elements. Secure the lids with bungee cords to allow laying them on their sides for a periodic roll to add air and stir things up a bit.
Another easy method for wintering your compost outdoors is to store it in thick black-plastic construction bags. Place the bags in a sunny spot, and as the black plastic absorbs the solar rays, it retains and raises the temperature of the stored compost. You’ll want to poke a few small holes or leave the tops open to allow fresh air to circulate a bit to keep your microbes happy. To keep the contents from getting too damp, you can tie off the tops on really wet or snowy days.
Lastly, you will need to keep your compost well-fed throughout the long winter months to help maintain the nutritional value. During the coldest months, you can increase activity by adding nitrogen-rich green materials and turning the pile frequently (1-2 times a week) to mix in oxygen and keep the compost moist and warm. You will need to finely shred your kitchen waste during these cold months. Smaller particles deliver more surface area for the microbes to do their work and help to keep them warm as well. You can also kick off the cold season by adding a compost accelerator such as Bokashi bran to the middle/bottom layers of your pile to super-charge your compost. This microorganism-saturated bran only works in the absence of air so avoid turning it for a week or so after adding. Packed with billions and billions of hardy tiny microbes, this is a terrific addition to your compost and will help keep your pile from struggling during the long cold winter.
Keeping your compost dry, warm and well-nourished throughout the winter months may take a bit of work but just think of the payoff! Come spring, you will be rewarded with rich, dark, microbe-rich compost to create a healthy, happy garden for your next season of growing good things.
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