Composting in winter

by Kate Bradbury

My compost bin fills up every winter ... with all the freezing temperatures of late the composting process has come to a complete standstill.

Compost heapI don’t think my garden could look any worse. The borders I left to rot into themselves have tumbled all over the lawn, the patio is covered in pigeon poo, and there’s now a temporary cardboard compost bin outside my back door because the real bin is full. Hurry up spring.

My compost bin fills up every winter. It’s a lovely wooden beehive type that looks perfect in our tiny garden. It’s sited against the south-facing wall and gets really hot and steamy in summer. The frogs love it and it’s full of worms, slugs and beetles. But it’s too small, which is bad enough in summer, but with all the freezing temperatures of late the composting process has come to a complete standstill.

Compost heaps break down quicker in summer because the bacteria involved in the decomposition process work better in warm temperatures. Worms are also more active in warm heaps, eating and tunnelling through more waste. My bin is like a fridge at the moment. If I had X-ray eyes I'd probably find the worms and frogs huddled together at the bottom of the heap, taking advantage of what little warmth is left. It's so full the lid won't fit on properly (which is only adding to the problem). I have abandoned it in favour of the battered cardboard box outside my back door; if that fills up I'm in trouble.

Compost heaps can be encouraged to break down in winter with a covering of thick insulation, such as a layer of cardboard, carpet or even an old duvet. Compost bins can be wrapped up - they will look ridiculous but at least they'll produce compost for spring.

Wormeries also need insulating from the cold. In winter, worms tunnel to the centre of compost heaps (earthworms tunnel deep in the ground), but wormeries tend to be a little more exposed and the worms can freeze if they're not insulated. If you can't bring your wormery indoors (a shed or greenhouse will do), wrap it up with bubble wrap or other suitable material.

I'll be doing my best to insulate my compost bin this weekend - at the very least I'll put the lid back on properly. But I fear the horse has already bolted, it will take ages for it to heat up again.

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Gardeners' World Web User 17/12/2010 at 18:34

"hurry up spring"? We ain't even in winter yet!

Gardeners' World Web User 18/12/2010 at 21:25

Had to give up on the compost bins after massive rat activity. Everything goes off in the Southwark recycling bin now, to feed their rats. We'll start again in spring.

Gardeners' World Web User 19/12/2010 at 10:14

Any tips for keeping the lids of the green wheelie bins and compost makers(what I call my green Daleks) from freezing to the body so you cannot put any compost in them, Kate? Every now and again when it is possible to brave this weather I go and gather some dead material like the tops of the crocosmia which is now slimy and unattractive and find I cannot tidy it away in the compost bins.

Gardeners' World Web User 19/12/2010 at 10:39

I think a regular supply of pee can help as mentioned above but it doesn't have to be man pee - lady pee is fine too!

Gardeners' World Web User 19/12/2010 at 15:14

Compost kid - are you in the southern hemisphere? It's definitely winter here. Briony and paulewatts - no men in my household. Not sure how the frogs would get on with all the recycled Christmas sherry so I might leave it for now, but thanks! Richard - do you fancy joining the rat debate over on my rat blog? Opinion is divided and Grannyanne was wondering what your opinion was. Happymarion - Cover the lids with an old towel or similar material? Kate

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