Thursday, November 5, 2009

Winter Composting

The arrival of winter can render composting an unpleasant endeavor for folks in the northern reaches of the U.S. Here at the Blue Bungalow, we don't care much for trudging across our snow-covered, dog-dropping-strewn back yard with bowls of congealing kitchen scraps. Worse, those scraps are dumped atop a frozen, snow-capped pile that won't decompose until the spring and can't properly be turned. Winter composting outdoors is a task we at our house are likely to neglect once the blizzards start rolling in, as they did last December:

I don't think I could even *find* my compost bin under all the snow that fell during that terrible onslaught of wintry weather!

For me, the answer to the problem of winter composting is simple: we'll rely on our indoor worm bins. When and if the worms get overloaded, we'll add more bins. This way, we'll be able to continue composting our kitchen scraps through the winter, reducing the amount of garbage we send to the landfill and building up a beautiful supply of compost for the spring planting season.

But vermicomposting isn't for everyone. To illustrate, allow me to share an e-mail I recently received from a fellow sustainer in Tosa. He asked the following:

Good Morning Heather, Do you have any experience with winter composting without worms? My wife doesn’t like the worm idea indoors. I found one solution at that sounds pretty interesting. Just wondering your thoughts. Dave in Tosa

I told Dave I've never tried indoor composting without the assistance of the amazing red wiggler. Of course, as a vermicompost enthusiast, I couldn't help but try to convince him to give vermicomposting a shot. I told him:

You know, worms aren’t that bad – esp. if you are very careful to keep a tidy bin and follow vermicomposting rules. Do you have a basement, or some other out of the way area your wife doesn’t frequent? You could try keeping them tucked away in some place so she doesn’t have to see them regularly.

Truth be told, my husband is not a big fan of the worms, but he tolerates them b/c he knows they are little wonderworkers. I used to keep them in my kitchen, which was fine, but at least a couple of times in warmer weather the fungus gnats got out of control. When that happened in the summers of ’08 and ’09, we moved the bins outdoors, where they remained just outside my kitchen door. When it got cold I moved them in again. Now they’re in my basement, which seems to work well. It’s cool down there, which keeps the gnats down, but not so cool that it kills the worms. ...

Do you and/or your wife garden or grow any plants indoors? If so, the worms, I've found, are indispensible in organic gardening. And the "compost tea" that can be made from worm castings and compost keeps indoor plants very healthy and happy.

I should make it clear that while I think every household should have at least one worm bin, the last thing I would want to do is encourage marital discord. IMHO a spouse (or roommate, or child) should never stress over sustainability techniques he or she is not ready for. Hopefully, my friend will find an alternative solution that appeases his spouse if she's still not ready for worms. And who could blame her? Worms aren't exactly the most appealing creatures on first glance.

I asked Dave to let me know if the winter composting solution mentioned in the article above works for him (and his wife). I'll let you know what he reports. Who knows -- maybe I'll try this method myself.

Finally, I'd like to add two comments about the gnat problem that has plagued my vermicomposting efforts since the get-go:

  • A friend of mine, who uses the same style of bins I do, told me she doesn't have gnats because she never feeds fruit to her worms -- she gives them only veggie scraps and coffee grounds. I imagine that a great number of microscopic pests arrive in our kitchens on the peels of bananas.

  • When I was at the 350 carnival a couple Saturdays ago in MKE, vermicomposting demonstrator Godsil of Sweet Water Organics told me that he doesn't have problems with gnats because he absolutely submerges all food waste with carbon-rich material. I've been using strips of newspaper to cover the nitrogen-rich materials added to my bins; Godsil uses finely shredded leaf mulch. This made me wonder if perhaps the hand-torn newspaper strips I'm using aren't fine enough to really bury the food waste. Perhaps gnats are still able to slip through the copious air pockets in the newspaper shreds to get to the food (or from the food, as the case may be) and do their breeding.

  • I think I'm going to gather a bagful of autumn leaves and keep it beside my worm bins this winter for composting. I wonder if the leaf mulch will be healthier for the worms and will do a better job of covering waste. Plus, it's probably better to send old newspaper to the recycling center, rather than into the earth. Aside from the dubious inks and other contaminants in the paper, reusing dead tree matter via recycling prevents further trees from being harvested.


    1. Hi Heather! I just started composting with worms, I got my bin last week. I have a newbie question for you, how important is it to dice/shred your food scraps? I've just thrown a few apple cores in there, and I don't know how long it should take the worms to eat them or if I should have put them through a food processor first. Hope you and the family are well! Thanks,

    2. Congrats on starting your vermicomposting adventure, Fay! I think the answer to your question depends on how quickly you want usable compost. I don't really dice or chop anything, primarily because most of what I put in my bins is already at least partly cut down to size. A typical load of kitchen scraps includes cracked egg shells, coffee grounds, stems of broccoli and other veggies, used paper towels, whole banana peels, and apple cores. The worms tend to break down these things over the course of three months, so if you're not in a rush, you don't need to put your scraps through a food processor. I would focus on making sure you cover whatever you put in well, and I would avoid putting in anything that takes a very long time to break down -- large sticks, nuts, pistachio shells and so on. Hope this helps!

    3. That's good news, thanks for the tip Heather!

    4. Hi Heather,
      To combat fruit flies, I freeze my banana peels for a couple of days before giving them (thawed) to the worms. That pretty much kills any bug eggs that may have snuck into my house. Also, I find that a great carbon source is shredded toilet paper ends (cardboard thingies). I have a few friends who save me their ends. I like having ink-free bedding, too. Although, I like the winter pile of leaves idea...

    5. Hi there! This is a very unique blog and I like what I've read so far.

      It looks like some people are a little advanced in terms of being environmentally friendly. The worm thing is giving me ideas, although like you mentioned, this might cause some relationship stress. But I'll certainly keep on reading to see what small things I can start doing in my own home.