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Jardin du Fort
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Composting in Winter

Hello all you experienced composters! I am planning on starting my new Indiana vegetable garden this coming spring/summer. The soil in my yard has a thin layer of black dirt on top, then quickly turns to red clay, and deeper down becomes a yellow clay. Obviously it will need some serious amendments to become properly fertile for the veggies.

I was wondering if any of you have experience with composting in the winter. Although I don't expect to have a lot of yard prunings at this time of year, there are some that need attention yet, and too there is always kitchen scraps. So... What would I expect if I try to compost in the middle of winter in Indiana? Is it just plain too cold to do any good? Are there methods that would make it work? (Solar warmer, insulated bin, ????)

Thanks for listening! :wink:

tomc
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Jardin D-Fort, this time of year your pile will build up, but not break down much (or at all) till later in spring of 2013.

If you have a shredder for paper, those (shreds) can be used in leu of browns.

Its going to take your home grown collections a year or more to be running at full strength, and to catch up to the size of garden you want to build up to.

You can speed up your raised bed start(s) with mushroom compost at the begining. Buying is always spendier. And then go to home made compost.
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rainbowgardener
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Agree. I compost year around. In typical winters here, the compost pile freezes solid in winter and doesn't do anything. But I still keep throwing my kitchen scraps and fall leaves on it and as soon as it warms up, it all goes back to working.
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ElizabethB
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Jardin -go ahead and start a bin. Even in zone 9b my compost stops working over winter but I keep adding to it. since it does not freeze I can turn it occasionally. Last week I dumped some soil from my summer herb pots in the bins. I keep adding kitchem scraps and coffee grounds. When it warms up enough for it to start cooking I will add rabbit manure. Get it free by the 5 gallon bucket from local breeders.

Clay is tough to deal with. Tilling sand in helps but you have to be careful about the type of sand you use. Play sand and fill sand is too fine and will just turn into clay. You need very coarse mason sand. If your ground isn't frozen yet you can till in manure and mulched leaves along with the sand.
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toxcrusadr
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Definitely pile up your yard wastes next to your compost pile/bin and use some to cover each addition of kitchen scraps. The freeze/thaw cycles combined with slow decomposition when it's above freezing will work better than you might think.

A few years of tilling massive amounts of compost in will help a lot with the clay. You probably won't be able to make enough with your own waste to change the soil texture very fast so you may have to import it, esp. if your garden is big.

Good luck and happy gardening!
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cynthia_h
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Also look into vermicomposting, aka worm composting. The original book in this field was Mary Appelhof's Worms Eat My Garbage. I've gone through three copies of this one (I lend them out and they don't come back). She practically invented the field, or at least put worm composting into the reach of regular gardeners and waste-minimizers.

I've held forth at length here over the past four years about my hard-working invertebrates, but a large % of my writing--and that of others--is currently inaccessible due to a problem with the forum's Search function. :( Worms want temps between 55 deg F and approx. 80 deg F, so in the house is a good place for them. Some garages will work, too. They'll happily live in bedding of shredded newspaper (mine do) and eat those kitchen scraps. Some worms seem to be pickier than others, but if you treat them like strict "fruit and veggie eaters" while you're getting started, you can't go wrong.

Again, Freecycle is the way to go. I've given out a few quarts of well-packed worms on Freecycle as well as two worm habitats, so I know it can happen. :)

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Core
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In my experience I can keep a compost pile from freezing in the winter if it's large enough even then the edges will freeze. Here in zone 5 eastern Colorado if my pile starts out roughly 5x5x5 feet it can maintain heat through February. At that point in time winter is fading away though we could still have blizzards until late April.

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Jardin du Fort
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winter compost, garden soil suppliments, and high culture

Thanks all for the replies. I understand that there is a certain temperature that a compost pile should achieve in order for the working microbes to do their thing with the detritus. I was wondering if placing the compost inside an insulated space and covering it with plastic would help the pile either keep or maintain its working temp during the cold months. Either a "box" of straw bales or a box lined with (oh horrors!) styrofoam insulation should help, and covering with one or two layers of plastic should help solar gain. I was wondering if anyone had tried any of these methods or something similar. I do understand that patience is a virtue, and that compost cannot be rushed.

Perhaps instead of pursuing this thread I should be asking what specifically would be best to add to my mediocre yard soil in order to convert it into decent garden soil. Coarse sand, of course. Manure, within reason, and allowing it to mellow before planting. Compost, as much as possible, but "healthy" compost I'm sure. I can come up with quite a bit of sawdust, and wonder if it can be added directly to the soil, or if it needs to be composted first?

And now another query: I have had two compost heaps in the past. Neither one of them seemed to do much other than take up space. Is something missing? Do I need to add cultures? I would prefer to have highly cultured compost piles than uncultured ones.

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ElizabethB
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Jardin - this may be TMI but the info is research based and applicable to all regions. There are some materials that a) I don't have access to or b) wouldn't use anyway.

http://www.lsuagcenter.com/nr/rdonlyres ... mpost2.pdf

What I found interesting was the temperatures needed to destroy different types of pathogens.

I am fairly casual about my composting. I have my bins. I add mulched leaves, grass clippings, vegetable waste, coffee grounds and egg shells from the kitchen, busted bags of soil that I get cheap and rabbit manure that I get free. Water and turn.

Not a very scientific approach.

If you want to get serious and really get into the science of composting the above link should be right up your alley.


Good luck - hope this helps.

Merry Christmas :!:
Elizabeth - or Your Majesty

Living and growing in Lafayette, La.

When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant. ~Author Unknown

rot
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Redirect

..
WRT the soil question: yeah start a new thread.

WRT to the composting questions: I'd go with tomc. When composting, the worst case scenario can't possibly be anything near a major disaster. It will rot. Relax, observe, adapt. What works best is what works for you. Adapt the process to you and not the other way around. I like: http://sarasota.ifas.ufl.edu/compost-info/ Easy to follow and a good reference.

I saved the URL from ElizabethB. Thanks. I'll use it.

to sense
..

vermontkingdom
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Over the years, I've had a bit of luck with winter composting. I've been able to keep the active bin (4 x 4 x 5), the middle one of a three bin system, working (with shredded leaves, kitchen refuse and horse manure) until January the last couple of winters. However, ultimately the whole thing succumbs to our Vermont winter temperatures. This fall has been unusually warm so maybe a February shut down is within reach.
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Halfway
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Collecting kitchen scraps in plastic coffee cans as well as a large supply if leaves have allowed a pretty active compost pile throughout the winter. It needs watering, and occasionally this can be very difficult if not impossible. When this happens, I carry a 5 gallon bucket of water to the bins and pour on top after I have added the scraps with a leaf covering.

Once it start cooking, its tends to thaw the pile and and "burn" for a few solid days. I also remove the cover when it is snowing or raining to add additional moisture. The cover keeps the sun from drying it out too much.
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rainbowgardener
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Given air, water, and brown and green organics, you get compost no matter what. Depending on ingredients and how it is treated, it heats up more or less and takes more or less long. I do cold composting in winter, where a lot of the decomposition is accomplished by freeze thaw cycles and warm (not hot) composting in summer, where a lot of the decomposition is accomplished by earthworms and other macro critters. My compost never gets very hot (probably because I don't use manure or any other really nitrogen rich materials and don't turn it very much), but it composts just fine anyway.
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Jardin du Fort
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QueenB, thanks for the link. Yes, at this point it's TMI. On one hand though, it may be not quite enough info. I know that there is a breakdown to the chemicals used for weed killers, but don't know if the composting process is sufficient to neutralize the toxicity of those noxious compounds. Again, I'd rather be safe than sorry, so will not be using the city compost for the veggies. The article does answer some questions I had as to managing the process. Due to the inherent need for thermal reactivity to successfully decompose much of the material, I think it is wise to at least not START a compost pile in the winter. Maintaining an existing pile, perhaps.

Thanks to RBG, the QueenB, toxc, cynthia_h, Core, rot, vermontK, and Halfway for your contributions.
:D

tomc
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I built covered bins in Henniker (NH) and fed them goat manure monthly through new england winters. Those piles slowed in the winter, notwithstanding they did not freeze.

I think now is a fine time to start. Providence and decay will catch up to your need with dilligence.

Every new composter wrings their hands till the pile catches up.

I knew of one Alaskan composter who did line his bin with styrofoam, are you expecting -50 °F winters?
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wormsrus
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I understand that the AeroBin compost bin does have insulated walls, so that it can help maintain its internal core temperature in winter. Food or compost for thought. Heat level is important in aerobic composting to help maintain the exothermic biological reactions that occur within the compost matter.

toxcrusadr
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Heat is important, but not essential. Those of us in temperate zones have been composting for years through the winter. When it gets too cold, it slows down or stops. In spring it starts back up. Ma Nature does not need insulation to turn organic waste into compost. She certainly doesn't need a $300 insulated plastic bin. JMHO.
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wormsrus
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As much as I largely agree with that, also mother nature doesn't store compost in a bin above ground. As soon as one deviates from mother nature, the rules start to change. Air above ground can get cold, however again I agree compost bin insulation is not essential, however could yield better composting performance in cooler climates.

Compost bins, like any other man made thing and all their bells and whistles are for convenience, rather than for emulating mother nature to the letter. For better or worse, we live in a world of human made things, which are an extension of the innate creativity of humans. The value humans place upon such creativity, is a subjective and personal thing.

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rainbowgardener
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I'm with tox...

I compost all winter in uninsulated, open-air bin, and all the materials I put in do keep reducing in volume through the winter, through the action of freeze-thaw cycles, etc. Not as fast as in summer, but clearly something is happening. My ground is frozen and nothing is growing, so it is not like I have any use for finished compost right now, anyway.

By the time the ground is unfrozen and I could plant anything, the compost will be unfrozen and there will be finished compost waiting for me.

" I agree compost bin insulation is not essential, however could yield better composting performance in cooler climates. "

Depends on how you define better performance. If you mean faster, or a bit warmer, perhaps (not that it is likely to stay hot in sub-freezing weather, insulated or not). But when I start having a use for finished compost in spring, I will have it and there isn't any quality difference.
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Maybe when it comes to compost we shold say FREEZING IS BELIEVING which means that there is always activity in any half decent size compost. Just like the grounf only freezws so far down the compost works the same way and is working from the bottom up! On the coldest day lift up a rotten log in the woods and you will see all kinds of live worms under the mini composted log!
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The woods is a huge compost every day! Leaves compost as they insulate! Actually the whole world is a giant compost if you think about it. The result is the original locked up an store heat from the sun makes itself know through the composted reactions!!
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applestar
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Compost making/compost bin building can be a hobby in and of itself, and I think a lot of enthusiasts have tried many different designs and tending schedules. Different methods yield different results in terms of speed, nutrient levels, micro- and macro- organism activity, perceived "quality", personal satisfaction, etc.

But in my experience, the "best" method -- i.e. what you will continue to use for more or less the rest of your life as part of your routine -- is what suits your lifestyle and philosophy the best, yields results that you are happy with, and what is most comfortable for you -- it's all highly individual.

So read all the replies, and pick what would work best or you. Especially when starting out, you will have many questions and feel anxious about doing things "correctly" but in the end all you can do is listen to and try the different variations until you find what you like. Benefit of this forum is that by reading various members' posts you realize you relate to certain (gardening) lifestyle.

FWIW, I tend to be a "lazy" gardener, and believe in leaving the Cool temp microbes and fungi to do most of the work during winter -- which ties in well with the fact that I can't/don't want to turn the pile much in wintertime since they need to remain undisturbed, and won't bother to provide them with any man-made comfort except what they can get from piled up leaves and separated "flakes" of strawbales and haybales IF I happened to have any on hand -- which I don't this time. I did make a big pile of fallen leaves which I use to cover the kitchen scraps that are casually dumped in a covered black plastic compost bin (dash out, yank open the lid, toss in the scraps, grab double armload of leaves, secure the lid and dash back inside :lol:) . I also put a good portion of the kitchen scraps in the indoor worm bin, and I'll start up a Bokashi bin for what can't go in the wormbin when it gets way too cold to go outside very often. :()

Hmm... Not sure where to put this but I also put used paper napkins, paper towels, TP and PT rolls and pulp egg cartons as well as brown paper bags in compost piles and worm bins.

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