How to Start a Compost Pile in the Winter


Winter composting in some southern states isn't much different from summer composting, but most regions of the United States develop cold and snowy conditions that make composting more challenging, especially for new composters. Frigid winter temperatures cause microbial activity to decrease or cease, according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension. This leads to drastically slowed decomposition rates. Plan and build your compost pile carefully to encourage microbial activity in the center of it. If you maintain the heap properly, the activity will continue even with single-digit temperatures.

Step 1

Place your compost heap close to your house or garden so you can avoid trekking through snowdrifts just to dispose of a bucket of potato peels. Find a somewhat sheltered location that keeps your pile out of direct winter winds. Avoid positioning your pile against a building because of potential moisture problems caused by melting snow from eaves. Check for--and avoid--frozen puddles of water that might indicate poor-draining soil.

Step 2

Shovel away any snow from your compost site. Spread a 4- to 5-inch layer of dry, brown, carbon-rich waste across a 3- by-3-foot bare patch of earth. Use materials that are typically readily available during the winter, such as dead leaves, straw bedding, shredded newspaper and cardboard.

Step 3

Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of moist nitrogen-rich organic waste, such as animal manure, fruit scraps and vegetable peels. Toss three to five handfuls of plain topsoil over the nitrogen waste. The topsoil jump-starts the composting process by introducing additional decomposing bacteria to the heap. Dampen the layers with water. Add just enough water to make the compost materials about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Step 4

Build your compost heap up to a height of 3 to 5 feet, alternating the layers of carbon- and nitrogen-rich waste to encourage more microbial activity. Dampen each layer of waste after you add it to the heap. Cover your compost pile with a large plastic tarpaulin to hold in the compost heat, weighing the edges down with bricks or cinder blocks to keep them from whipping open in the winter winds.

Step 5

Pull off the tarpaulin and turn the composting waste with a manure fork every two to three weeks to provide fresh air for the decomposing bacteria. Squeeze a handful of waste each time you turn the pile to check the moisture level; if you can't squeeze out one to two drops of liquid, add water to the heap. Mix fresh waste into the center of your compost heap each time you add waste to the pile.

Tips and Warnings

  • Never add manure from meat-eating animals such as pigs and pets to your compost pile; this manure may contain pathogens that could infect humans.

Things You'll Need

  • Snow shovel
  • Carbon-rich organic waste
  • Nitrogen-rich organic waste
  • Plain topsoil
  • Water
  • Large plastic tarpaulin
  • Bricks or cinder blocks
  • Manure fork


  • University of Illinois Cooperative Extension: The Science of Composting
  • "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide"; Barbara Pleasant & Deborah Martin; 2008
  • Texas A&M University Extension: Composting in Winter? You Bet!
Keywords: winter compost, compost piles, starting winter compost

About this Author

Regan Hennessy has been writing professionally for 11 years. A freelance copywriter and certified teacher, Hennessy specializes in the areas of parenting, health, education, agriculture and personal finance. During her time with Demand Studios, Hennessy has produced content for Ehow, Answerbag and Travels. Hennessy graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.