Heating Up Cold Weather Compost

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Composting outside now, in light of the weather, can stink.  But don't just scrap it because your hands, feet and nose are freezing.    

Still, continuing to do backyard composting over the winter is a cool, year-round green activity, especially for urban gardeners like me, who tend to lean organic.   

All right...call me nerdy.  The sight of steam rising from a compost bin in sub-zero temps in the waning days of 2013 has been warming my heart - and ungloved hand - every time I take the time to see it.

It's the science of it all that for me is so thrilling.  According to the University of Illinois Extension, "Composting [is] a biological process that decomposes organic material under aerobic [meaning oxygen is required] conditions.  [Backyard] composting speeds up the natural process of decomposition, providing optimum conditions so that organic matter can break down more quickly."

Beyond that they say that aerobic bacteria heat up a compost pile when they eat, through the chemical process of oxidation. So, in essence, those little guys especially love pigging out on the carbon-rich (often called brown) materials, which give them energy. Nitrogen-rich (often called green) materials, help the bacteria grow big and strong and reproduce. And,with some attention paid to the science here, a "contained pile" will cook at the core over winter...or eventually turn into humus on its own, because compost does just happen, as well.

How quickly the process goes depends on the materials used, and the effort extended.  

This week, in the early AM,  I was reminded how in late December my enthusiasm for doing this in cold weather got up and left.  And, how as the super cold temps have settled in, the contents of my compost bin naturally melded into a frozen mass of vegetable garbage I now should resolve to fix.


As a boost to heating it back up, if I had it on hand, either manure from chickens or rabbits, loaded with heat-generating nitrogen, would work.  In lieu of that, I might pick up some alfalfa pellets (sold as rabbit food) or blood meal.

For now, though, in the spirit of my New Year's resolution, and a "best of" offering, here's a Deb's Big Backyard "On the Road" video all about backyard composting I did earlier this year at Garfield Park Conservatory

The only thing left to say now is this:  Cheers to more green living for everyone in 2014 AND Happy New Year!

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