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How to make a lot of compost this winter

image of compost pile with pitch fork

Compost is a gardener’s best friend. Unfortunately, it can be quite expensive if you have to purchase it. The cost in my area is about $30 per cubic yard. I can drive about an hour and a half and get mushroom compost for $10 a cubic yard. So, what’s a person to do who wants a lot of compost for the spring but doesn’t want to buy it? Make it. And make a lot of compost in the winter.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “That’s easy for you, you have chickens and can use their bedding, I don’t”  or “We don’t have many food scraps so it’s not worth it.”

I’m going to share our super secret ingredients for making lots of compost first and then I’ll share some tips and other things you can add to it. Oh, and a printable compost list for you to put in your gardening notebook.

And the super secret ingredients are…leaves from your neighbor’s curbs and used coffee grounds

Composting leaves quickly

We start collecting leaves as soon as we notice people bagging them up and putting them on their curbs. You can tell they are leaves because they are usually in brown paper lawn bags. It’s okay to take them, but if it makes you feel better you can ask first.

In our area this doesn’t happen usually happen until early winter (mid to late December). So if you live in a zone 9 gardening zone know that it might seem like the leaves will never fall but eventually  they will.

Several times a week we go into our Starbucks or local coffee house and ask if they have any used coffee grounds. They almost always do. They’re happy we take them off their hands.

Why does this work?  Dried leaves are considered a “brown” in the composting world; that means they have a lot of carbon. The microbes in compost use carbon as their energy to thrive. Coffee grounds are considered a “green” (yeah, I know they’re not green); that means they have a lot of nitrogen. The microbes in compost use nitrogen as their protein to thrive.

image of composting chicken litter
Composting basics

Here’s the deal, any organic matter will compost down….eventually. If you don’t want to wait indefinitely you will need to build a compost pile that has browns and greens mixed throughout.

So, open a bag of leaves and put about 4 shovelfuls of leaves in the area you are going to use for your compost pile and then sprinkle a shovelful of coffee grounds on top and sprinkle with water. Keep layering until you run out of either leaves or coffee grounds, making sure you dampen each layer.

Every few days turn the compost pile and make sure it smells fine, looks fine and isn’t too dry. If you want to speed up the process even more run the leaves through a mulcher and then use a 1:1 ratio of leaves and coffee grounds.

Browns are things like dried leaves, shredded paper and cardboard,  wood chips, hay, mulch and wood ash (although I like to use this directly in the garden instead of composting it).

Greens are things like fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, manure (cow, horse, goat, chicken, sheep and rabbit) and  grass clippings.

Don’t compost things like pet waste, fats and oils, meats and bones, coal and charcoal, dairy or anything with pesticides or diseased plants.

Your compost should have an earthy smell to it. If it smells bad, you need more nitrogen. If it’s slimy, you need more carbon. If it’s really dry, you need to dampen it. See, it’s really not complicated.

Where to put your compost pile? Most people who compost have “a” pile or bin that they use which is kind of hidden out of the way. We do, too. However, we’ve decided to start composting IN the gardening beds that are not being used for our fall/winter garden so they will be ready in the spring.

Once we cleaned out the summer plants, I planted buckwheat in the beds that we’ll be using in the fall, and I started compost piles in several others using chicken bedding and coffee grounds. When we gather more leaves we’ll start composting in other beds. It’s similar to the lasagna method of gardening.

I’m not anticipating that these piles will get super hot since they are only a few inches high. So, I’m covering most of them with tarps to keep the heat in. Come spring if there are any leaves or bedding that hasn’t composted down we’ll just rake it up and put it all in our permanent compost pile.

image of raised garden bed with compost pile

Composting in the winter

During the winter the composting microbes will slow down and if you live in a really cold climate, they’ll stop. But it’s okay to still compost in the winter. Continue adding adding your household scraps to the compost pile or bin even though they freeze. The freezing and thawing cycle will actually help the compost break down quicker in the spring.

When things really start to melt in the spring, add some leaves or straw to cover the composting pile. You don’t really need to add leaves or straw during the winter when you add household scraps if your compost freezes. The frozen compost won’t be odorous and attract animals. Of course, if you’re worried about that go ahead and add leaves to the compost.

Composting and your climate

Your climate affects every part of gardening, including how you compost. The basics are the same but the process will be different. If your winters are harsh and long you’ll compost differently than someone who lives in an area that almost never experiences a freeze.

Composting is both a science and an art. There are ratios that you can follow to help speed up the composting process and make proper compost – that’s the science part. But you can’t control the weather, you can only observe it and tweak what you’re doing in response to it.

The important thing is that start where you are and with whatever compostable items you have or can gather. 

I made a handy printable to help me remember what items are browns and what are greens. To download your copy just fill out the form below.

Once you print it up, you can put it in your gardening notebook. I find that the more notes I keep on my gardening efforts the more I enjoy gardening and the more productive my garden is. If you don’t already have a notebook for your notes, consider purchasing the printable gardening notebook I created to help gardeners have a more productive garden.

image of leaves and compost with pitch fork

What is your composting system like? Feel free to share in the comments so we can all learn.

Thanks for sharing with your friends!

Adam T

Tuesday 28th of May 2024

You talked about being careful not to put things that were exposed to pesticides, what about herbicides? I think if someone was to use coffee grounds they would use organic because the coffee bean is one of the most heavily sprayed crop and they wouldn't want herbicides in their compost.

Lazy K

Tuesday 14th of November 2023

I don't have a "local coffee house". I don't have leaves or neighbors who have leaves. Or neighbors. I live in a Juniper/pine forest. I DO have cow manure, a little chicken and duck manure, cardboard and pine needles. I try to dig under the fresh pine needles to get the older stuff. Also don't have much moisture to help with the decomposition. But, hey, ya gotta work with what you got.

Angi Schneider

Wednesday 15th of November 2023

I love this comment so much. There are so many ways to make compost because so many things are compostable. Thanks for sharing!


Friday 10th of November 2023

I use th d things you list re d but I add about 30lb of bananas a week and get finished compost in about 65 ≈ 75 days

Angi Schneider

Friday 10th of November 2023

Wow, that's a lot of bananas! Thanks for sharing!


Saturday 15th of January 2022

Are coffee grounds from Starbucks pesticide free?

Angi Schneider

Saturday 15th of January 2022

Honestly, I have no idea. I've never had a problem with them messing up my compost...and I'm comfortable drinking Starbucks coffee...if you aren't you might want to pass on their coffee grounds.

Dee Herdebu

Thursday 8th of March 2018

Love your website!