Whether you have a sudden supply of old newspapers to get rid of or you need to clean out your horse barn, compost heaps provide an inexpensive way to convert organic waste into compost. According to Deborah Martin, co-author of "The Rodale Book of Composting," starting a compost heap in winter poses special challenges, including cold air temperatures that decrease microbial activity. Minimize slow decomposition rates during winter by taking extra time to choose a location and prepare your organic materials.
Select a compost pile location with care, looking for one that has plenty of drainage. Avoid areas that have standing water, frozen puddles or snowdrifts. Opt for a sheltered location that doesn't have high winds, which could whip cold air across your compost heap, lowering the pile's temperature. Shovel away any snow at your composting location to expose the bare soil.
Place a 4- to 5-inch layer of carbon-rich organic waste, like straw, newspaper, sawdust or old hay, across the bare ground in a 3-foot by 3-foot area. Tear or shred large pieces of waste, such as newspapers, into smaller sections to decrease the amount of microbial activity necessary for breaking down the waste. Dampen the dry waste with a trickle of water from a watering can or bucket, since your garden hose will freeze up during the winter. Moisten the waste until it's about as wet as a wrung-out sponge.
Sprinkle a 2- to 3-inch layer of nitrogen-dense organic waste, like cow manure or food scraps, over the carbon-based materials. Add several handfuls of topsoil to increase the microbial activity in your winter compost pile. Spread another layer of wet carbon waste on your heap, followed by a nitrogen layer. Repeat these alternate layers until your winter compost heap measures 3 to 4 feet tall.
Cover your compost heap completely with a large plastic tarpaulin to help maintain adequate heat and keep snow from adding too much moisture to your organic waste. Keep the tarpaulin in place by weighing its edges down with large stones or bricks. Let the heap sit to warm up for one to two weeks.
Remove the cover from your compost heap and mix the layers together with a manure fork to provide fresh oxygen for the millions of aerobic bacteria decomposing your organic waste. Squeeze a fistful of compost waste tightly; according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, you should be able to wring out only one to two drops of moisture. Add fresh carbon-based waste to soak up any excess moisture to keep your pile from freezing, if necessary. Replace the cover. Turn the pile and check moisture levels once every four to five weeks to produce finished compost available for use in your spring garden.