How to Compost Year ‘Round. Even in winter!

Food scraps add so much unnecessary waste to our already crowded landfills. If you’re like me and live in a cold climate then you might be wondering if you can compost in winter when everything is frozen. I did a little research to see if composting works in winter and this is what I found.

Yes! You can keep composting in winter even if you live in a cold climate. When there are below-freezing temperatures for months at a time the composting process may slow way down or even stop. But you can keep adding to your compost bin or pile all winter and it will start working again when the temperatures warm up in the spring.

Read on for 10 key tips you’ll need to remember to have a successful compost pile year ’round.

How to successfully compost throughout the winter.

When it’s cold there’s no question that the composting process slows down and may even stop. But that doesn’t mean that you need to stop saving your food scraps for composting.

In Wisconsin winter weather you need a compost pile of about 64 cubic feet (that would be 4 feet wide, by 4 feet deep, by 4 feet high) to keep the innermost area of the pile from freezing, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

So if your pile is that size, or if you live in a less severe winter weather climate than Wisconsin some decomposition action may be taking place over the winter. But the pile wouldn’t be what you would consider “hot composting” during the winter.

An insulated bin or a much larger pile might allow you to “hot compost” over winter. But it’s O.K. if you don’t have more space or a larger pile or an insulated bin. Here are 10 must-know tips to keep your composting habit and compost pile on the right track over the winter.

1. Chop food scraps.

Colder temps make it harder for your compost pile to break down compost material like food scraps. If you chop scraps up a little bit before you add them to your compost it will help with the breaking down process and get you off to a better start in the spring when things start to heat up again. Less than 2 inches in size is good.

2. Keep a pile of leaves handy.

During the winter in Wisconsin and other cold areas of the country, we don’t get additional plant material to add to the compost pile throughout the cold season because everything is pretty much dormant. (Including me when it’s really cold!) The leaves have usually all fallen, and if they haven’t it’s tough to rake them up when they are buried in or blowing across the snow.

So you’ll basically just be adding “greens” to your pile during the winter.

“Greens” are the high nitrogen items – as opposed to “browns” which are high carbon items that you add to your compost pile. Pretty much all food scraps are considered “greens.”

The ratio of greens to browns that seems to work well (again according to the WI DNR) is 2 parts browns to 1 part greens.

To make it as easy as possible to keep composting over winter, save some of your fall leaves and keep them handy so you can keep adding “browns” as you add your food scraps from the house.

What works as “browns” or carbon-rich material aside from dry leaves? Wood chips, twigs, paper scraps, pine needles (in small amounts – less than 10% of your content), corn stalks, corrugated cardboard that isn’t coated, and straw.

3. Pay attention to the size of your brown/carbon materials.

As mentioned with chopping the food scraps above, if you can shred your leaves with your lawnmower a little bit before you put them in your “leaf pile” for the winter, that can help speed up the decomposing process as well.

But, you don’t want to make the pieces, too small. Those “fluffy” leaves help keep air circulation in the compost which is key.

You also don’t want to add big or thick branches to your compost pile. Those will take much longer to turn into compost and you’ll end up having to pull them out when your other compost is ready to use. So when you are thinking “twigs” make sure they are 1/4″ or less in diameter. For reference, a standard-sized pencil is about 1/4″ in diameter.

4. Turn less often to keep the heat in.

When it’s cold out you’ll want to turn your compost less if it’s in a pile because that way, any heat that’s in the center of the pile working for you will stay there. If you turn it you’ll essentially be opening up the pile and letting that warmer core cool.

This was kind of a relief for me when I found this out because it can be tough to turn a pile when it’s covered with ice or snow or part of it is frozen.

5. Make a little shelter for your compost.

If you have a compost pile rather than a compost bin, and you are interested in trying to keep it going longer into the cold weather, in the fall you can surround it with straw bales to help keep the contents corralled and provide some insulation.

When you are looking for bales you may be able to get good deals on them (or even get them for free) by visiting locations where they have had Halloween hayrides and corn mazes, etc. after that season has passed and they are cleaning up. They often have bales they won’t be using anymore.

6. Don’t let your compost get too wet.

If you live in an area that gets rain mixed with snow or where there is snow, then a melt, then more snow, as is happening across more of the globe, then you’ll want to try to keep your compost from really getting soaked during the winter.

Some moisture is needed for composting, but too much will end up making your pile smell pretty bad come the thaw. If you can avoid getting your pile too wet then that will make everything easier.

If you’re working with a compost pile, then consider covering it with a tarp or if you’re using bales to keep your compost corralled and a bit warmer you might be able to put a piece of plywood or something like that over the top to act as a makeshift roof.

If you are using a compost tumbler you’ll have much less of a problem with your compost getting too wet. As an aside, don’t expect to be able to turn your compost during a “deep freeze” when you are using a tumbler. Once your compost material has sort of frozen in a clump, it will just stay that way until it thaws. So don’t worry about it.

7. Avoid unwanted wildlife by taking the right precautions.

To keep from attracting animals you’d rather not have in your yard to your compost pile, be sure to bury food scraps as you add them to the pile. The best place is the 8-10 inches in the center of the compost pile. But just do what you can. At a minimum, be sure to cover your pile with more leaves after you add kitchen scraps especially if you’re in a “freeze/thaw” cycle.

Once food scraps are frozen they won’t smell, but if they thaw, they might. So bury them well otherwise animals in the vicinity might think this is a buffet you put out especially for them in the dead of winter when it’s hardest to find food.

8. Don’t add these materials to your compost pile.

If you have a super hot compost pile you might be able to get away with adding some of these items. But in winter when the decomposing action going on in your compost pile is almost zero, you REALLY want to avoid these items. AND I would advise, if you want to get the healthiest and least smelly compost, do not ever add these to your compost pile.

  • Milk or milk products
  • Meat, fish, or the bones from them
  • Eggs (although eggshells are O.K.)
  • Fats like oil or grease
  • Plants or grass clippings that have been sprayed with pesticides
  • Plant trimmings from diseased plants (the disease could end up spreading when you spread you compost)
  • Pet waste from dogs or cats, or cat litter. Home compost piles aren’t hot enough to kill off any parasites or bacteria that may be harmful to humans. (Even sewage treatment plants are often not able to kill off harmful bacteria from pet wastes so don’t flush your pet waste either.)

9. Make Composting Convenient.

If it’s too hard you won’t end up doing it (or is that just me?!?). So to make composting easier even in the coldest weather, keep a tightly covered pail or container close by (like on a back porch or back deck) to put kitchen scraps in so that you don’t have to trudge through deep snow in freezing temperatures to get to your main compost pile or bin as often.

Using a 5-gallon bucket with a tight sealing lid, like a Gamma Lid works really well for this. Whatever kind of container you choose, be sure animals can’t get into it, but that you can if the weather decides to sleet and freeze all over your pail.

Also, be sure you don’t choose buckets or containers that are so large that it will be difficult to lift them when they are full of scraps and carry them and dump them where you need to. What’s easily manageable on a fine summer day can be more difficult when you’re navigating ice and snow in heavy boots and a bulky coat.

10. Choose your site carefully.

This goes along with the idea of making your composting easy, especially in the winter when it would be a lot easier to just throw your food scraps in the trash.

You want your compost pile somewhere you can reach it with a hose for times you will want to add water to the pile during the warmer months and somewhere you can get to it if you’ve got 3 feet of snow on the ground. Yet, you don’t want it too close to any building (3 feet away is a good minimum) or any window.

Compost piles, even the best-kept ones can look less than appealing and may have an odor from time to time if you don’t have the right brown to green mix or your pile gets too wet.

Also, keep in mind that the winter landscape can be little bleak, so it’s best to not put your compost pile where your neighbor will have to be looking at it directly when the plant cover has died back. Good neighborly relations are always important to consider.

Related questions:

Do I need a permit to compost?

This can vary by the state, county, or city that you live in. For example, in Wisconsin, if you are composting yard waste and food scraps and if you have one compost pile that is less than 50 cubic yards in size then you don’t need a permit from the Wisconsin DNR.

It’s important to make sure that your pile isn’t a “nuisance.” This is where siting it correctly and taking care of it properly comes into play. Because if it is considered a nuisance to neighbors, you may not be allowed to have it.

But, even though the WI DNR doesn’t require you to have a license, your local municipality may have rules or guidelines you need to follow. So it’s always a good idea to check.

What can I compost?

We talked about things that should NOT be composted. Here’s what you can and should compost according to the EPA:

  • grass clippings
  • leaves
  • sawdust
  • wood chips
  • hay and straw
  • fruits and vegetables
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds and filters
  • tea bags (take out the staple if there is one)
  • shells from nuts
  • cardboard
  • paper
  • houseplants
  • cotton or wool rags
  • dryer lint
  • fur
  • fireplace ashes (but not charcoal ashes!)

Where can I learn more about composting?

Your local state agriculture extension or state department of natural resources will likely have great information for you.

The University of Wisconsin actually has a Master Composter Home Study Course that’s free and you don’t even have to live in Wisconsin to get it. There’s a 72 page downloadable PDF to give you all the dirt on making your dirt better and saving hundreds of pounds of landfill waste each year. You can get it by clicking here: Master Composter Home Study Course


Thanks for reading and thanks for caring about our planet. The less waste we put into our landfills the better! Every choice we make can make a difference!


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