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When to Compost: A Guide to Composting Through 4 Seasons

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When to compost? You may be surprised to learn that composting is a gardening activity you can and should do year round.

In fact, each season offers its own special composting benefits. Use this guide to find out how to compost during all four seasons of the year.

Composting in the Spring

Rising temperatures in the spring help raise the temperature in compost, whether in a bin, pile, or tumbler.

If you’ve already got a compost pile, then you’ll have added organic matter to it over the winter months.

The new material and the spring season’s rising temperatures are good news for the microorganisms in the pile. They feed on organic matter, which is best broken down when temperatures are between 140°F and 160°F. Your compost pile will start to cook naturally on its own as temperatures get warmer during the spring.

If you’re starting a new compost pile in the spring, then be sure to turn it regularly to allow air into its deeper pockets.

Some bins can create usable compost in as little as 21 days. That means you may be able to use your new compost during the early part of the growing season.

Composting through 4 seasons with Tomato Dirt

Composting in the Summer

Summer is also a great time for composting. The summer sun can help your pile to “cook,” giving it an extra boost.  

If you have an established compost pile, then focus on maintenance during the summer. You can use this time of year to build your compost pile by adding good amounts of grass clippings. Remember to keep your pile or bin a little moist during the dry spells, or the composting process will start to slow down.

If you are just starting a compost pile in the summer, conditions provide the four elements needed to build healthy compost: food, water, air, and heat. Follow best practices for layering green and brown organic matter, sprinkling brown matter (like spent early crops and corn stalks) with green matter (grass clippings, fruit skins, vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds.) Be sure to periodically moisten the pile if rain is sporadic to provide water and turn it to allow good air circulation. Heat is a given.

Composting in the Fall

In the wake of summer growth, fall may be the best time to start composting. Collect your fall leaves to use in your compost pile, layering them with dead or dying flowers, spent tomato plants, grass clippings, and other garden debris as you tidy up the garden after the growing season. Alternate a layer of leaves to the compost pile with other organic material to prevent matting. 

Whether your compost pile is new or established, reserve extra leaves in a separate pile or in a bag next to your compost bin. Use them during the winter as a brown layer in between “green” kitchen refuse.

Keep a tarp ready to spread over the pile during rainy spells to prevent the compost from becoming too soggy.

And don’t forget to turn your compost to let in air pockets! (Here are some tools to use to help you turn your compost.)

Composting in the Winter

You may notice that as temperatures drop, the composting process slows down too. But as long as the temperatures remain above freezing, composting continues. When the temperatures fall below freezing for several days, weeks, or months in a row, the process may come to a complete stop altogether. Microorganisms cannot continue to create compost until the temperatures rise. But never fear. Once temperatures rise, the microorganisms will automatically start the composting process again.

Bottom line: continue to add kitchen refuse to the pile over the cold months. Sprinkle a layer of dried leaves, saved from the fall, in between layers of kitchen scraps to continue the compost cooking process.

One significant plus for your compost pile in the winter: scatter wood ash from your fireplace or wood stove to the compost pile. Be sure to use a tarp to cover the compost pile during heavy rain or snow storms. (Here are some tarps to check out.)

If your bin or pile gets full during the winter, you may consider starting a new one in layers so it is ready to begin “cooking” as soon as temperatures start to warm in the spring.

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