Winter Composting do’s, don’ts and what if it doesn’t?

Thermometer is frosty, but inside the bin it is a cozy 140 F.

Thermometer is frosty, but inside the bin it is a cozy 140 F.

Winter composting always seems to confuse people, which is understandable.

So what is the secret to successful winter composting: Do the same things you do when composting the rest of the year, only faster.


It’s that easy. If you want to keep your compost “hot” composting somewhere between 110-160 degrees through the winter, you need to add material almost daily. You also need to make sure you’re adding in the correct ratio – for every one container of food scraps (which is high in nitrogen), add two or three containers of carbon-rich items such as leaves, newspaper or used tissues. (“What is compostable” flowchart.)

To help things along, add a big bag of free used coffee grounds from your local coffee house every once in a while. They’re usually happy to hand them over, as to them it is just another bag of garbage.

If you do this, and occasionally aerate (turn) the compost with a shovel, pitchfork or drill and bulb auger, so the microbes can get air, your pile will stay hot throughout the winter.

My compost is full - now what?!?

My compost is full – now what?!?

Until the compost is full. Or maybe it froze solid. Now what?

You’ve got at least four basic options:

1. Installing another compost bin is perhaps the easiest solution. Regardless the time of year, you’ll eventually fill your compost bin, right? Despite the pile shrinking 1/3 to ½ as it decomposes, it isn’t bottomless. If you’re starting this pile in the middle of winter, it may not heat up for a while, but it’ll get there eventually, and it should provide enough space that even if it freezes, it can hold a lot of material until things warm up. (Most towns in MA, including Arlington, sell discounted units for around $40-$50.)

2. Find a friend with space in their compost bin. They may specify what they’re willing to accept (eg, no bread or rice), but it is a great way to keep the cycle alive and maybe next winter they’ll repay the favor.

Yeah, buckets like these. (Photo courtesy Jeff Hester, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.)

Yeah, buckets like these. (Photo courtesy Jeff Hester, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.)

3. Get some buckets with lids from the hardware store or your favorite restaurant. Place your food scraps in the bucket and place them outside, where it is already freezing, so the food doesn’t rot and stink. It’s a good idea to add some carbon (leaves, newspaper or tissues) as well so if it does begin to decompose before you empty it, the pail won’t stink. You can do the same method with a small metal trash can (with bungee across the top to keep critters out) or a screw-top lid adapter from Leaktite, available for less than $10. (I haven’t tried this, so if you do, please leave a comment with information about how it works for you!)

4. Vermicomposting (worm composting) indoors can be fun and easy. Typically in the basement and requiring only a little space, a worm bin can go through a small family’s food fast enough to keep your food out of the waste stream all winter long without a single trip to your outdoor compost bin. Vermicomposting is different enough from outdoor composting that I typically don’t address it, but there is a lot of great information available from reputable sites, including the MA DEP, which also addresses the size bin you need based on the size of your family.

I will add one final and important note: Most people’s compost piles freeze in the winter. If yours does, don’t worry about it. As long as you added the correct ratio of one part nitrogen (food scraps) to two or three parts carbon (leaves, newspaper or tissues), you’ll be in excellent position come springtime. When the air warms, the compost pile microbes will swing into action, heating your pile rapidly. When it does, remember to aerate it!

(A short and unfortunately blurry video I made one very cold morning at the compost.)

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Preparing for the Great Melt

If you live in Greater Boston*, you need to do this – now.

Do this now, even if you’ve never had a flood before, because we’ve never had snow like this before.

Do this now, even if you believe that the snow won’t melt for weeks to come, because until this year, we’ve never had snow like this arrive at this time before. (And who knows what will take up your time before then.)


Any scraps of wood will work, and old wood you may have sitting in the shed or garage are fine.

Any scraps of wood will work, and old wood you may have sitting in the shed or garage are fine.

1. Get it off the floor. Take anything that can be damaged by water and get it off the floor. Or, if you’re one to hedge your bets, at least get enough material stockpiled that you CAN lift everything off the floor if necessary. One of the simplest and least expensive options is buying a few 2x4s and cutting them to 6″ lengths. Place one block under each corner of these items.

Two or three boards across sawhorses keeps everything elevated.

Two or three boards across sawhorses keeps everything elevated.




Another favorite inexpensive method is to buy some plastic sawhorses and two 2″x6″x8′ or 2″x8″x8′ boards. Set up the saw horses, lay the planks on top, and pile all your items on that. Total cost will be about $40. (In the summer, this same setup makes a great buffet table for back yard events.)

NOTE: Do NOT attempt to lift dryers if you have a rigid gas line or rigid duct work. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just leave it as is.

2. Vacuum. Seriously. If you’ve got a typical Boston-area basement filled with junk, and you’ve just moved everything off the floor, vacuum. If you get water and haven’t vacuumed then all those dust bunnies, sawdust and other items will trap moisture longer than necessary and will be difficult to clean up. (They may also clog your pump.) Your lungs will thank you too, though you might want to wear a mask while doing the vacuuming.

Even if you only have an inexpensive pump with a garden hose, it will handle smaller amounts of flooding.

Even if you only have an inexpensive pump with a garden hose, it will handle smaller amounts of flooding.

3. Get a sump pump and learn how to use it. When the Great Melt occurs, you won’t be able to find one in stores. Many are inexpensive (less than $100), will use ordinary garden hoses you already own, and will function in as little as 1/8″ of water.

They can be $100 or less – small money to pay for peace of mind should flooding occur. Read the manual, now. Try setting it up (but don’t turn it on – running it without water will kill most motors). Make sure your hose(s) will reach from the farthest point of your basement to the location you want to dispose of the water. (MA Regulations require that pumps send water outside, NOT into a sink.)

4. ShopVac. These are useful items year-round, so having even a small one to suck up water at the periphery of leaks is convenient. Again, make sure you know how to use it BEFORE the flooding occurs and that you have extension cords that will allow you to reach everywhere in your basement.

Someone needs to go outside and shovel the snow away from that window to avoid melting/freezing problems.

Someone needs to go outside and shovel the snow away from that window to avoid melting/freezing problems.

5. Shovel around basement windows. (UPDATE: Also around the bulk head or any other item that opens outdoors.) This one is probably obvious – especially if you have windows (or bulk head or door) blocked by snow. When that water melts it will go through the cracks in the window. If it melts and freezes (and expands), that can cause problems. Get it out of there now to avoid that issue, if possible.


6. Unless you have a puddingstone foundation, shoveling around the perimeter of your home probably offers little value.


Unless you’ve got one of these, shoveling the perimeter of your home isn’t likely to do much.

UPDATE: I’m going to change my opinion and say yes, follow FEMA‘s advice, when possible. I am hard pressed to believe FEMA’s previous recommendation to shovel a 3′-5′ perimeter around home foundations. To me, shoveling a perimeter around your home isn’t likely to make much difference because water moves sideways, as well as down, through capillary action. With a bit of snow, yes, shoveling a perimeter might make a difference, but with the amount of snow we’ve had, you’d need to move it to the next block or use one of these to make any significant difference, but if you do, make sure you’re placing it downhill from your home.

Water will travel great distances in soil, sideways and even uphill through capillary action. The soil all around your home is going to be saturated. Clearing a 5′ perimeter around your home isn’t going to do much to prevent water issues.

If you do have a “puddingstone” or rock foundation, these foundations have lots of cracks (sometimes large) which can be made larger if water seeps in and freezes. Try to get snow away from these walls at the above-ground level.

7. Get all cords off the floor. If you have dehumidifiers, refrigerators, fans or anything else in the basement, get the plugs off the floor. Use inexpensive (typically blue) painter’s tape to tape the cords to the side of the unit where water won’t get into the plug.

If you do all these things, from scratch, it will probably cost you less than $200 and a few hours work. If you do get water in your basement, you’ll spend far more money and far more time, in a panic, if you haven’t prepared.


*-This information above is appropriate for people living in many areas of suburban Boston and beyond. This information is useful for people who experience minor flooding, up to a few inches. If you live on the south shore, Fall River or another area prone to severe flooding, you probably know how to deal with flooding already, and the information above isn’t appropriate for your situation.

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Got ice dams?


Fill stockings with rock salt - any stockings will do.

Fill stockings with rock salt – any stockings will do. (Photo courtesy of Roma Costume, via Creative Commons, all rights reserved.)

A very brief and unadorned post about ice dams, which lots of people are contacting me about.

This is a very brief primer on what you need to do now, even if the roofer gets all the ice off. After you’ve taken care of the ice dams, be sure to read how to save money by keeping them away.

The idea is fairly simple, create a channel for water to flow down off the roof rather than freezing at the gutter. You don’t need to remove all the ice, just create one or more channels.

  1. Get yourself a number of stockings and some rock salt, preferably calcium chloride. (Calcium chloride works better in cold temperatures, which we’re about to experience.)
  2. Fill the stockings with the rock salt and tie them off.

The next steps depend on whether you have access to the dammed area (ie, through a window or skylight, via a deck) or not.


Stocking tossed from a skylight. Note the right stocking melted before the gutter - worst case, that can cause melting water to dam, rather than help.

Stocking tossed from a skylight. Note the right stocking melted before the gutter – worst case, that can cause melting water to dam, rather than help.

3.  Place the filled stockings, approximately 2’ apart, on the edge where you had the dam. Allow the stocking to drape slightly over the edge.


  1. Cut lengths of string or rope, bit longer than the length from ground to your roof. Cut as many lengths as you have stockings.
  2. Tie a piece of string around the knotted end of the stocking.
  3. As best you can, throw the stocking to the roof in the area of the dam. Throw it farther up the roof than the gutter and use the string to gently tug it into place. You want them to drape slightly over the edge of the gutter so the water has a clear channel to flow off the roof. Using the string/rope and pulling is far easier than trying to throw a salt-filled stocking 30’ in the air into exactly the right spot.

Note: Using a roof rake or other long stick can be helpful for this.


Why isn’t it working yet?: It can take hours, sometimes as much as 24 hours, for rock salt to appear to start working. Patience is hard to come by when you’ve got an unplanned water feature in your kitchen, but try.

It stopped working! What happened?: The salt, just like salt on the road, will disappear. To maintain the channel you will need to fill new stockings, perhaps as often as every 24 hours.

What about socks or peds?: No. Use stockings, preferably knee-high or larger. This isn’t a fashion statement, it is chemistry and physics. Socks won’t allow enough contact with the salt and peds are too small.

More is better, no?: So why not just pour rock salt all over your roof? For one thing, you’d need huge quantities of rock salt – more than you can fit in your car. For another, you’re only trying to create a channel for the water. You’ll still have ice on either side of that stocking, but the water will flow out.

Roof rake: If you have access to a snow rake, use it. You can’t prevent more snow from falling, but you can prevent that snow from melting on your roof and contributing to the ice dam.

Bash the hell out of the ice, dammit!: (Alternatively, “DIE, ICE, DIE!”) Yeah, you can do that, but I’m not fond of suggesting anybody without extensive experience working on 30′ ladders in freezing cold conditions (boots and gloves freeze to ladders) wield a hammer and likely damage their roof, let alone their bodies. Hire someone, and make sure they have insurance.

Once it is all said and done, learn how to prevent this from happening next year.

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Recycling pumpkin recycling

Pumpkin recycling station 2-top onlyI’ve addressed pumpkin recycling in the past, but it is worth revisiting and updating with a new flyer you can use, below.

The idea is this: In most municipalities, you’re not supposed to put pumpkins in the yard waste, so it goes in the garbage which we (taxpayers) pay to dispose of by weight.

Instead of sending those heavy pumpkins to incinerators or landfills, place the flyer at your house Halloween eve. Next day, put a bucket, barrel or tub out front with the sign so people can bring their used pumpkins to you.

The new flyer is not specific to Arlington and is also, hopefully, a bit clearer and more attractive.

Why spend taxpayer money to haul away pumpkins when you can save taxpayer money while making compost?

Happy Halloween!

Pumpkin recycling station 2 jpg


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Compost: Stuff you need to start composting

It is the most basic of questions: What ‘stuff’ do I need to if I’m going to start composting?

Not surprisingly, the answers are simple and inexpensive. You can compost with a gold-plated compost unit or some pallets tied together, and you can always change things around later.

Here are some basics that I recommend:

1. Kitchen pail

Kitchen pail/bucket/crock. No inside rim makes emptying and cleaning easy.

You can use something as simple as a yogurt tub on the kitchen counter if you want. I prefer a stainless steel pail for aesthetics, size, durability, light weight, machine wash-ability and one other very important aspect – they have no inside rim. Most kitchen buckets, like the porcelain style ones, have inside rims that catch all the small items like coffee grounds when you try to dump them, and are a pain to clean. The metal pails easily rinse out and can be run through the dishwasher.

They come with lids, but if you are regularly adding scraps, you may prefer to simply put the lid in a cabinet under the sink. If you empty your tub at least once daily, smell should never be an issue.

2. Compost unit

Obviously you need a place to empty the contents of that kitchen pail. There are hundreds of “simple” compost bins you can make with anything from used pallets (heat treated, please) to fallen logs to hardware cloth. There are also units you can buy, ranging in price from $40 to at least $530. Choosing a unit is perhaps the most confusing part for starters, so I’m going to try to simplify it a bit.


Keeps vermin out, but holds little. Most expensive option.

Afraid of vermin-Tumbler style: If you live in an urban or semi-urban area and want to compost outdoors (rather than compost with worms in your basement) then get a tumbler style unit. They hold less and are more expensive than other types of compost units; they can be difficult to get the right carbon/nitrogen ratio; big ones can be cumbersome and difficult to turn, but animals aren’t going to get in them.






Best option for most people is the “bottom door” style. Holds a good amount of material, is easy to set up/maintain/empty.

Only compost a little or just starting-Bottom Door styleIf you don’t think you’ll make much compost, meaning you don’t have many compostable kitchen scraps or garden trimmings, then a “bottom door” style unit such as the Earth Machine is a good way to go. Put fresh material in at the top, pull finished compost out the bottom. (Every once in a while you should take stuff from the bottom and add to the top just to aerate.) Simple, low-to-moderate in price, limited in size but 2x-3x bigger than tumblers, and very easy to assemble.



New Age Composter/Bin-24 is big, bold, beautiful and what you need if you’re going to compost lots of leaves or anything else.

More compost, more kitchen scraps or more yard waste: Got leaves? Go big. This is when you want to have a large unit(s), whether that means making your own or buying a $40-$50 “New Age Composter“. These will hold more material which is, coincidentally, what is needed (close to 1 cubic yard capacity) to make “hot” compost. If you’re looking to compost leaves you need something this size. They can be a bit difficult to turn or aerate, but there are workarounds. (See “Accoutrements” below.)

3. Second compost unit

This can come later but eventually your first compost bin will get full, at which point your kitchen waste will start to pile up. Use #2 above as a guide to buy/build a second compost unit. If you only need something to hold leaves, the New Age Composter (above) is perfect, or you can build a cheap and easy leaf container from chicken wire or hardware cloth. (Scroll down to “wire-mesh holding unit.”

4. Accoutrements

The things people sell to “help” you compost are limitless. You need very few of them, perhaps none other than a shovel, but here are some items that most will find useful.

– Shovel. Yes indeed, any old shovel will do. Regardless which style composter you buy, you’ll eventually want to shovel that compost from the unit to another place and a shovel is the right tool for the job.

– Aerating tool. This can be the shovel, if you have a “bottom door” style unit. Tumblers don’t need any aeration tool – turning aerates the pile. For those with larger piles I recommend two tools, a pitchfork and a cordless drill.

Bulb auger is great at aerating partially-decomposed (not fresh) compost.




Specifically, I have become a big fan of using a bulb auger in the drill. This pokes holes deep into the pile, aerating it and mixing contents as well. Please, just make sure your drill is set to the “drive” mode, typically number 1 on most drills, rather than the “drill” mode which spins faster.

One of the most important tools for making fine compost.

– Garden Shears (clippers). If your goal is fine, crumbly compost then clippers are far more important than a compost screen. This is for yard stuff, not most kitchen waste. The best way to get a hot compost pile (which kills diseases and most weed seeds, and finishes faster) is by making sure material is small before adding it. You don’t need to finely dice your tomato stalks in the fall, but chopped up they will decompose faster and hotter because you’ve given bacteria a helping hand. If you have a garden, you probably have a good pair already – use them. (An aside: Do NOT add sticks unless you want to sift them out later.)

Leaf shredder. You can also use a lawn mower.

– Shredder. No, you don’t need to buy a leaf shredder. Chances are good that you already have a lawn mower. That’s fine – extra credit if you install a mulching blade on your mower. I don’t have a power mower, so I do own a leaf shredder that I like, but you can probably ask a neighbor to borrow their mower for a few hours.



5. Do NOT buy

The silly things people sell to help you compost are apparently limitless. Here’s a short list of things you should NOT buy:

  • Compost starter
  • Lime (as compost starter)
  • Self-heating compost units (these use electricity to foment bacteria growth)
  • Material to compost
  • Machines designed solely to grind up kitchen scraps prior to composting

That’s it, that is all you need to get started. Well, that and some compostable materials. If you think I missed anything, please let me know!

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“Can I compost it?” flowchart

I have no intent of replicating the many, many lists available online telling you what is compostable. (Though it is usually the most popular question people ask me.)

Instead, below is a handy flowchart (.pdf version here) you can hang on the refrigerator for those who keep asking you, “Can I compost this?”

Handy-dandy compost flowchart

Handy-dandy compost flowchart

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Wicked light, wicked strong, compost sifter

Compost screens, finished and unfinished.

Compost screens, finished and unfinished.

I’ve taught a few classes and done some exhibits about compost recently and have had a great time answering questions.

Several people have asked about the sifter/screen I use. I always point out that you don’t really need a screen, or that in a pinch a milk crate will do the job, but if you want a screen to give you a finer product, then this is a great, sturdy, lightweight unit.

Most people with just a few tools can build this compost screen which is designed to be light enough that people with limited upper-body strength can use it. The arms rest across most wheelbarrows and it is sturdy enough to handle sifting compost or getting rocks out of soil. Continue reading

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Raccoons and Compost: A Common Sense Primer

Raccoons live among us. They lived here before we composted. They lived here before we put out cat food, garbage cans, or bird feeders.

 If everybody stopped composting tomorrow, raccoons would still thrive here.

Continue reading

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Free light bulbs from Mass Save

I received a bunch of free CFL and LED bulbs from MassSave as a blogger. I was very clear that I was going to say what I wanted, not necessarily nice things. I held up my end of the bargain, as you’ll see below.

Update, 12/13/2014: Two important notes about this post. 1. It is old enough that some of these bulbs are no longer in production, let alone used by MassSave anymore. 2. This is, to me, the least interesting post on this website. Hopefully you’ll take a few moments to read other, more interesting posts on this website. Thanks!

MassSave is a great program which offers “free” energy audits to MA residents and

CFL samples Mass Save sent.

Some of the CFL samples Mass Save sent.

commercial property owners. Non-profit entities are not eligible for most services. (“Free” is in quotes because the funding comes from all of our energy bills, so we have, in fact, paid for the service. That’s fine and good in my book.)

If you haven’t had a free audit, go sign up for one, now. Go, I’ll wait. Done? Good. (If your last audit was four years ago, do it again. They’ve improved dramatically.)

Some of the sample bulbs Mass Save sent.

Some of the sample LED bulbs Mass Save sent.

Continue reading

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Storm Prep


It’s been a while since our last storm, so a few quick reminders about safety related to energy efficiency. Remember, our safety personnel will likely have their hands full with other emergencies – let’s do them a favor by avoiding some of these basic hazards.

1. Clear direct vents: If you have a “direct venting” appliance such as a boiler or hot water heater, make sure the vents stay clear of snow. The vents are only a few feet off the

Typical direct vent exhaust as seen from outside the house.

Typical direct vent exhaust as seen from outside the house.

ground, so snow drifts can sometimes get in the way, especially if you’ve put anything under the vent. (Hint: Don’t put anything under the vent.)

If blocked, the CO from combustion will go into the home rather than outside. CO is known as a silent killer because there is no smell. Check the vent periodically throughout the storm.

2. Dryer vents: The same holds true for dryer vents – if snow or ice is blocking them they won’t function safely. In the case of a dryer this can lead to additional problems, like burning your house down. Until that happens, it can also dramatically rise the amount of time it takes to dry clothing, which wastes energy. Continue reading

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