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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.