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Five steps to winter compost

Composting is easy in summer. Temperatures are high and there's an abundance of soft green material that will break down quickly when blended with woody prunings. By contrast, in winter, the temperature at the core of your heap can drop to the point where decompostion stops altogether.

The rotting process in a well-made heap will generate its own heat. Insulation, such as flattened cardboard, old carpet or polythene sacks filled with straw will help retain this heat. It's also important to stop the winter heap becoming overly wet, so covering the bin is vital.

The secret to perfect compost is to get the right ingredients well mixed or layered. Follow our tips for success, below.

Turning compost

Keep heat in

Covered bins and heaps allow waste to heat up quickly and compost faster. A lid also keeps out heavy winter rains which can chill or overly wet your compost heap. Although garden waste does eventually compost in a heap, a bin is much more efficient.

Even better, use two bins so one can 'cook' while the other fills. Either go for a purpose-built container or make your own using wood, breeze blocks or pallets. Line with flattened cardboard boxes.

Shred woody stems

Chop and shred

Woody material is best added to the heap in small pieces to provide a greater surface area for organisms to work on, which speeds decomposition and generates heat. More woody waste is cut in winter and can take years to break down unless chopped up.

By hand is slow but you can buy, hire or share a shredder to reduce the cost. Large quantities of leaves are best composted separately in a wire mesh container or plastic sack pierced with holes.

Balanced compost ingredients

Maintain a balance

Aim for a roughly equal mix of moist and dry materials – usually referred to as 'greens' and 'browns'. Moist, nitrogen-rich greens including lawn mowings, fresh horse manure and green weeds are in short supply in winter, while plentiful brown matter, such as shredded woody stems, leaves and paper can cause the heap to dry out.

Don't simply dump lots of brown material onto the heap – stockpile it in old compost bags or separate heaps until you have sufficient green material to add in equal quantities.

Turn compost

Turn for speed

Getting air into the heap literally breathes life into it during the winter, boosting populations of organisms so the compost heats up and therefore breaks down more quickly. To turn it, empty out the bin and refill it, turning the sides towards the middle so it composts evenly.

For ultra-fast compost, collect enough waste to fill a bin in one go, then empty and turn it as often as you can manage. If shifting compost by hand sounds too heavy, invest in a tumbling compost bin.

Insulate compost

Add insulation

Worms and other organisms will be more active if your bin is warm in winter, 'cooking' your compost quicker. Cover your bin with flattened cardboard boxes, old carpet or large polythene sacks filled with broken-up polystyrene or straw.

Discuss this plant feature

Talkback: Five steps to winter compost
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Peter Hewitt 11/12/2014 at 19:37

How can I stop worms escaping from my enclosed compost bins at this time of year I am mixing it with greens and browns.

Peter Hewitt

Dovefromabove 11/12/2014 at 19:39

When you say they're escaping, what are they doing/where are they going?  Are they gathering around the top?

Edd 12/12/2014 at 07:52

Worms usually only try to escaping when they have been placed in a new environment or it could be that the bin has become too acidic and they are trying to move away from the bedding material. 

Mix in more brown materials and this will reduce the acidity. Mix the compost up and this will aerate it and stop it turning anaerobic. 

Alan4711 12/12/2014 at 09:34

Peter if they are collecteing at the top of the bin then this problem seems to occur as Edd says and also  if the bin is too wet ,dont put them back down untill you have added more dryer stuff, I added a good load of dry paper and stuff which did the job.Good luck.cold wet miserable so far erein Muns 

Tootles 18/12/2014 at 09:16

Do worms disappear if compost is too cold? I dont seem to be able to warm mine up.

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