The Winter Compost Pile

Steam rising from the center of a winter compost pile…the only thing that beats that beautiful February sight is paging through seed catalogs on a long winter’s afternoon.

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                     This beautiful photo is at the Solana Center in California.

But, alas—as I stab my pitchfork into the icy crust of last fall’s leaves and plunge into the hole where I have been burying my winter buckets of kitchen scraps, it is frozen through, an immovable chunk of stuff. I trudge  back to the garage, with my pitchfork dragging dejectedly alongside as I scratch my head, wondering how I can fix it.

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Here are a couple of ideas (or things to think about next October when you’re winterizing your pile).

Insulation! Your microbes need continued warmth to stay active. The ambient air temperature affects the outsides of your pile, so you give the inside more of a fighting chance if you put a barrier between your pile and the world. I’m not inclined to get fancy and build a block wall around my pile—shoot, I couldn’t even build one for a fire pit let alone a compost pile. Instead, if your pile’s construction allows it, you can work large sheets of leftover styrofoam into the sides of it (any large appliance order will leave you with some!)

Top it Off! This is something you can do even if you’re in midwinter. Toss an old rug, a tarp, or something to cause water to run off the sides and away from the (hopefully) hot middle of your pile. You can  also throw bagged leaves on top–in the bag–if they’re still around.

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 Carbon-ize it. This is best done in October and November before temperatures have dropped completely below freezing, but if you get a thaw, you can add some carbon to the pile—last fall’s leaves, shredded paper or cardboard–anything you can turn in to help create more air pockets through what becomes a dense frozen mass without them.
Be patient! Rick Carr, Compost Production Specialist at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, has this advice:
“Give it time. Compost happens, you just need to be patient. If you really want to accelerate and unfreeze a pile, try breaking frozen parts with a pitch fork. A large block of ice takes longer to melt than several smaller pieces. Turing would help for sure but it could be difficult if there was extensive freezing. Is it worth it?… How much is your time and energy worth to get a pile going a few weeks earlier?”
Hmm.  Spring will be here soon!