Make Compost Easily with Cold Composting

By Lauren Landers

If you want to get started with outdoor composting, but don’t know where to begin, this beginner’s guide to cold composting is for you.

Cold composting is the easiest composting method around and relies on the natural processes of nature to produce large volumes of compost for your garden. It requires very little in terms of equipment, minimal effort and can even be appropriate for small yards.

So, if you’re ready to start composting, read on!

What is cold composting?

Pretty much everything in nature is subject to the powers of cold composting. Leaves, twigs, dead things, that apple core you threw out of your car window once — whatever it is, it will eventually naturally degrade when exposed to the elements. Slowly but surely, your apple core will dissolve back into the soil that made it, becoming part of the soil web once again and lending its valuable nutrients to support new plant growth.

The same concept can be deliberately applied in your backyard to create large volumes of nutrient-rich compost for your garden. All you need to do is form a compost pile, add kitchen scraps and yard waste to it, and wait.

Cold compost piles will take anywhere from six months to two years to finish composting but, at the end of it all, you’ll have shovelfuls of rich compost to add to your houseplants and garden beds.

Benefits of cold composting

  • Lots of compost. You’ll produce large volumes of garden-ready compost.
  • It’s flexible. Cold compost piles can handle almost all kitchen and yard waste with ease.
  • It doesn’t require much work. Requiring little active effort, cold compost piles don’t necessarily need to be turned, which is great news if you have a bad back.
  • It’s budget-friendly. Cold compost piles require little to no materials to create so they’re easy on your wallet.

Drawbacks of cold composting

  • It’s slow. Cold compost piles take longer to produce finished compost than any other composting method. Piles can take up to two years to finish composting.
  • The potential for weed seeds and overwintering pests. Because no heat is generated, compost produced using cold composting methods can still contain weed seeds and plant pests and pathogens.
  • It may attract pests. Unless you contain your cold compost piles in a DIY or premade bin, they can attract rodents and other pests.

Composting Basics: Green Material vs. Brown Material

Most composting methods, including cold composting, require two essential ingredients: brown material and green material. A properly run composting bin will always include both at a ratio of approximately 3 parts brown material to 1 part green material.

Brown material, also known as carbon-rich material, is relatively dry and helps your compost bin not get super mushy or smelly. Examples of brown material include:

  • Brown autumn leaves
  • Twigs, barks and sticks
  • Old dried weeds
  • Sawdust
  • Shredded paper (no colored inks or glossy paper)
  • Paper bags
  • Paper egg cartons
  • Chopped cardboard

Green material, also known as nitrogen-rich material, contains a higher moisture content and helps speed up the composting process. Examples of green material include:

  • Vegetable peels
  • Fruit cores and pits
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Loose leaf tea
  • Grass clippings
  • Green leaves
  • Fresh weeds
  • Chicken manure
  • Rabbit manure

Choosing the right cold compost bin

Cold composting can be as simple or elaborate as you like. If you want to keep things easy, just select an out of the way location in your yard and start piling food scraps and yard waste right on the ground.

While this setup works, it can attract pests, so may want to use a compost bin instead. A simple DIY compost bin is super easy to make with some wooden pallets or chicken wire and wooden stakes.

Or, for a fancier set up, you can purchase a premade compost bin.

Make your own DIY cold compost bin with wooden pallets

If you like DIY, you can also make a homemade compost bin with just 4 wooden pallets, a handful of screws, an electric drill, corner brackets (optional) and cord.

To make your own DIY compost bin with wooden pallets, simply screw 3 wooden pallets together vertically to form the back and sides of your bin using long exterior grade screws, or corner brackets for greater security. Then tie a fourth pallet with cord to the front of your bin to form a “swinging door” of sorts. And that’s it!

Note: For safety, only use wooden pallets, marked with “HT,” which stands for “heat-treated.” Pallets stamped with “MB” have been treated with methyl bromide, a chemical that is not safe for garden use. Unmarked pallets may or may not have been sprayed with chemicals, so it’s best to avoid them entirely.

Getting started with cold composting

Once you’ve figured out your compost heap or bin, you’re ready to start adding your organic matter.

For ideal composting, you’ll want to aim for approximately 3 parts carbon-rich, “brown” material to 1 part nitrogen-rich, “green” material. The ratio doesn’t need to be exact, but too much brown material will create a pile that refuses to decompose, while too much green material can make for a stinky pile. Just keep layering your green and brown material in your pile as yard and kitchen waste accumulates.

To improve decomposition rates, wet your pile from time to time, to keep it approximately as moist as a wrung out sponge.

After that, how much you want to work your pile is really up to you. The more you turn your pile, the quicker you’ll produce finished compost, but if you don’t want to turn your pile, don’t. Sooner or later you’ll have finished compost either way, it may just take a bit longer.

Within six months to two years, depending on how much you work your pile, you’ll have finished compost that you can add to your garden as a topdressing, dig around the base of new transplants and existing plants, or turn into a compost tea for your houseplants.

What can’t you cold compost?

While you can compost most organic matter with cold composting, there are certain items that you don’t want to place in cold compost bins.

Because cold compost piles don’t generate heat, they don’t achieve high enough temperatures to kill off any plant pathogens or pests in diseased plant matter. They also cannot sterilize compost so you won’t want to put anything really yucky in your pile.

For example, things to never put in your cold compost pile include:

  • Household pet poo (specifically from cats and dogs). While you can compost chicken and rabbit manure with this method, it is not safe to compost manure from carnivorous animals with cold composting.
  • Weed seeds
  • Diseased plant material
  • Paper with colored inks or a glossy sheen

Some people also avoid placing meat, dairy and bones in their piles as these are more likely to attract pests, so use your discretion.

Trench composting: a cold composting method

Trench composting is a method of cold composting in which food scraps are dug directly into your garden beds, added to the base of new transplants, or dug around the roots of existing plants.

To begin, simply dig food scraps into the soil around your plants in 10 to 12” deep holes or trenches. Any kitchen scraps can be used in trench composting, other than meat, dairy, and bones (because they attract pests).

To further reduce the chances that pests dig up your scraps, I recommend bokashi composting your scraps first to make them that much less desirable to prying noses. If you choose to bokashi your scraps prior to trench composting, just be sure to allow your bokashi to finish composting for a total of six weeks before use to allow pH levels to stabilize and prevent damage to plants.

Frequently asked questions

How do I keep garden pests out of my compost pile?

Unfortunately, if you’re adding kitchen scraps to your outdoor cold compost pile, you might attract rodents, raccoons, and other animals. Containing your cold compost pile in a DIY or premade bin can help deter pests. I also like to combine cold composting with bokashi composting to eliminate pests.

(Bokashi composting is an indoor composting method that pickles and ferments kitchen scraps. This process makes food waste highly acidic and unattractive to rodents and other pests. Even better, when you combine bokashi with cold compost piles, the bokashi can serve as a compost accelerator, helping to make your cold compost piles finish composting sooner.)

Can I keep cold composting in the winter?

You can, but after temperatures drop below freezing, decomposition will cease in your pile. You can keep adding material to your pile, of course, but you’ll need to wait until the spring thaw for items to begin breaking down again.

If you don’t like the thought of food just sitting in your compost pile until spring, try out an indoor composting method like vermicomposting or bokashi composting. These indoor methods can be combined with cold composting so you can keep composting all year long.

What do you think the best composting method is? Or do you have a topic you’d like us to cover next? Leave us a message, we love to hear from you!

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Lauren Landers

An eco-friendly blog focused on organic gardening, homesteading and sustainability! See more at zerowastehomestead.com.