Why (and What) You Should Compost Over Winter

Photo by Linda Ly
Photo by Linda Ly

Southern Californians are lucky in that we can garden year-round. Our mild winter is equivalent to the spring and fall seasons up north, and unless you live at elevation, those frost dates on your seed packets are never a concern.

Still, many people take a break from gardening over winter ... but that doesn't mean you should take a break from composting. If anything, composting over winter is the most productive thing you can do if you only do one thing for your garden this season.

If you start a cold compost pile, there's not much you have to do aside from "feeding" it with your kitchen scraps. All those browns and greens (remember to keep a 3:1 ratio) will break down over winter and become garden gold by the time you start planting again in spring.

With all the cooking that happens over the holidays, that means you'll have mounds of onion ends, carrot peels, pumpkin guts, and other "tops and tails" from your vegetables that might ordinarily get sent down the sink disposal or into the garbage. Set them aside as you cook, then chop them into smaller pieces to add to your compost.

If you've just finished juicing a basket full of oranges and grapefruits, all those peels are prime compost material. But they can also make your compost heap very acidic, so you can neutralize the pH with a thin layer of wood ash sprinkled on top. Yes, wood ash — the same stuff that comes out of your fireplace, fire pit, or wood-burning stove. A couple things to keep in mind: Use wood ash from untreated wood, and use only wood ash, not charcoal ash or Duraflame ash, which contain chemicals that could be harmful to your soil.

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What about wine gone bad or warm beer left at the end of a party? Yes, both are compostable! The yeast in wine and beer actually works to activate the microbes in new compost heaps and start the rotting process sooner. Don't dump all your booze into the compost bin however; you still want to keep the dampness level in check. Healthy compost should be moist but not wet; drowning all those kitchen trimmings in liquid will only make them start to smell.

It's important to balance all that green matter with brown matter, and the easiest source of brown matter in the fall is a pile of dried fallen leaves. Even if you haven't been raking up leaves in your yard all season, chances are, you know some neighbors who have ... and they probably wouldn't complain if you offered to take all those leaves off their hands. Pile them up next to your compost heap, and throw a few handfuls on top each time you add a layer of kitchen scraps.

If you start your compost now in November, and don't even turn it once (just let Mother Nature do what she does best), you'll have fine, crumbly compost that resembles rich, loose soil by April -- the same time you'll be getting next season's delicious tomatoes and peppers in the ground.

To get started, check out our previous article on how to compost the lazy way.

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