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Compost Piles and Winter

Compost Piles and Winter, Acreage Insights for November 2017,
If active, the piles center will feel warm and/or steam can be seen around the pile on cold days.

Plant and kitchen waste can be composted to produce a soil amendment for gardens. Compost is referred to as black gold because of its many benefits in improving soil structure for plant growth.

Composting in Winter
Decomposition in compost piles can continue during winter if a few steps are taken. Decomposition will occur at a slower rate; however, if a pile was active prior to winter then decomposition can continue during winter.

An active pile is one where microbial decomposition, the process that produces heat, had started prior to cold temperatures arriving. If active, the piles center will feel warm and/or steam can be seen around the pile on cold days.

Compost Pile Management
On actively decomposing piles, speed winter (and summer) decomposition by turning the pile and checking for moisture content at least once a month. And don’t overlook adding the right type of safe organic waste to fuel microbial activity.

A compost pile is turned when un-composted material is moved from the top and sides of the pile to the center. Turning compost provides fresh fuel and oxygen for microorganisms. Turning insures composting continues and all material is composted.

Decomposition occurs more rapidly at the piles’ center due to warmer temperatures and increased moisture. When turning compost, check the moisture content by squeezing a fistful in your hand. It should feel moist but no excess water should drip out.

If dry, add just enough water by sprinkling with a watering can to barely moisten the pile. A compost pile should never feel wet; only as moist as a squeezed out sponge. If too much water is added, the pile may freeze and stop microbial activity.

Ideal Compost Pile Size
The right size pile helps maintain warmth. A compost pile should be at least 3’ x 3’ x 3’ and no larger than 5’ x 5’ x 5’. Smaller piles have difficulty staying warm. Larger piles may hold too much water, allow too little air into the center, or be difficult to turn effectively.

Managing Winter Conditions
To maintain warmth, cover the top two-thirds with a dark-colored waterproof tarp to keep out excess moisture, absorb sunlight, and provide some insulation from the cold and wind. Leaving the bottom third uncovered allows for airflow. For extra insulation, place bales of hay around the compost pile. 

Compost Materials
The right balance of organic waste speeds decomposition. Organic waste needs to consist of a mixture of shredded browns (dried leaves and grasses) and greens (vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps, coffee and tea grounds, egg shells, and stale bread). 

With live Christmas trees and greens soon to be recycled, avoid placing highly resinous wood and needles from pine, juniper, spruce and arborvitae in compost piles. The resins protect these materials from decomposition and extend the time needed for composting.

Animal wastes (meat, bones, grease, whole eggs and dairy products) may cause odors and attract rodents. Do not add these to compost piles. Human, cat or dog feces may transmit diseases and should not be used. Do not add wood ashes to compost piles as they can negatively increase alkalinity of Nebraska soil./p>

Source: Colorado State University

Kelly Feehan
Kelly Feehan
Extension Educator - Horticulture
Kelly has been a horticulturist with Nebraska Extension since 1982. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture with a focus in urban forestry from North Dakota State University; and a Master of Arts degree in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her focus is sustainable horticulture and water-wise landscape management for vital communities.

Contact Kelly at:
Platte County Extension
2610 14th Street
Columbus, NE 68601
(402) 563-4901