Questioning Compost

December 7, 2009 at 4:56 pm

A friend asked me recently whether she should move her compost tumbler into the unheated garage for the winter or stop adding to it during the cold months. This got me fantasizing about next year’s soil preparation.

I’ve already dumped the remainder of 2009’s digested compost onto the garden beds and covered that with the leaves that blew into the backyard this fall. Whether the leaves will insulate the soil and give me an few days’ head start planting around Mother’s day 2010 remains to be seen. I do know that those leaves will help form the following season’s compost. In the high sun of summer, the pile in the large, green tumbler gets pretty warm, and I give it a spin almost every time I pass by to keep it from overheating.

In the winter, however, the gooey mass freezes to the inner sides of the cylinder. Turning it means rotating 50 lbs. of icy refuse, which may or may not release from the tumbler wall and crash to the bottom. So I don’t bother. I just keep adding more stuff all winter long until things begin to warm up again.

I suggested she leave the tumbler where it is and keep adding her family’s vegetable scraps to it indefinitely. The only thing I’ve found (except for salty or oily foods) that doesn’t decompose in short order are branches, which really should be cut into smaller pieces before composting anyway.

Unlike many other aspects of growing food, composting is nearly a no-brainer. You have to work hard not to encourage food to rot. It’s true that much of my family’s compost comes from far-away sources (produce that originates out of town). But by creating our own home-grown fertilizer, many of the nutrients we consume in harvest season travel no more than a few yards from soil to vegetable to person. No petroleum is burned; no taxes are paid, and our garbage can remains mostly empty week after week. And unlike the rest of my backyard farm, adding things to my compost heap makes me feel like I’m doing some sort of gardening in the winter.



  1. Rob Gardner says:

    I was thinking some of these things the other day as I tried to turn a mostly frozen bin of compost. I’ve heard that the heat of composting will keep things toasty within, but that was not the case with our ever full pile. I’m not sure really, either what to do. I know that the eat local lifestyle makes for much food waste.

  2. Brad Moldofsky says:

    I’m not sure the center of the pile will be toasty, but it is likely to be warmer than the outside of the pile, and as we get those unseasonably warm January days, the decomposition will continue.
    The big downside of the enclosed compost tumbler, IMO, is that it’s not as conducive to growing worms as a compost heap in contact with the ground.

  3. Monica says:

    Love the Blog.

    What I have found with my tumbler is that it’s fine. Freeze/thaw cycles help to break down the compost. I also have a poking stick, that helps to aerate and break down waste into compost. The outer layers may freeze, but the center will remain warm. Just poke up bits and pieces, and everything will be fine.

  4. Brad says:

    True enough, Monica. Something about the pointy ice crystals punching through cell walls, which is also the reason why some vegetables taste badly when you freeze them.
    I like the phrase “poking stick.” Sounds very Simpson-esque. Me, when I’m feeling in need of exercise, I’ll spend a few minutes chopping up the larger chunks of food with a sharpened spade. Yet one more reason why I wouldn’t want worms in there!

  5. Rob Gardner says:

    Bundled up for shoveling, I decided to tend to the compost too. There was plenty of gooey, black goo under the layer of snow, so all is well. Well as well as a calamity of frozen earth worms can be well. Will they thaw a la Ted Williams?

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