Cold Weather Worm Composting

Here is a good question from Christine:

I’ve had the city deliver a huge pile of leaves, I’ve spread
this out and am layering it with two pickup truckloads of manure
(lama). It takes up a space about 20′ by 60′, and will be several
feet high.

Would adding worms help the process? I live in a part of Oregon with
wet, mild winters–presently temps are in the 40’s and 50’s; it seldom
gets below freezing here. How many pounds of worms, if any, would you

Hi Christine,
It sounds like you are creating the ultimate winter compost heap to me, so YES – adding worms to your system is a fantastic idea. Your system would work well even in our (much colder) winter conditions up here in Ontario (Canada) – in fact, I am creating a somewhat similar winter worm bed myself – more about that in my next blog post!

Worms greatly enhance the process of breaking down and stabilizing organic wastes – the microbes do all the ‘rotting’, but the worms play an important role assisting with the mechanical breakdown and aeration of the materials.

Sounds like your system is huge – I’m glad to hear that it will only be a few feet high though. When you mix large quantities of ‘green’ waste (ie N-rich stuff, like manure) with ‘browns’ (C-rich materials like leaves) you can very easily create thermophilic (hot) composting conditions. While we can certainly take advantage of this heating in order to keep our worms active all winter, we still need to be careful not to create TOO MUCH heat, which can obviously harm them.

What I would recommend you do is set up your system and get yourself a composting thermometer so you can monitor temperatures in the pile for a little while before adding worms. Once you are confident that the temps are relatively stable and they are in a safe range, you can add the worms. I would recommend only starting with a pound or two. The more worms you have, the more quickly they will process your waste materials – but in a system like that, I think you’ll be surprised by just how quickly they multiply to take advantage of the vast food/habitat resource you are providing them with!

By the way – I would normally recommend putting some sort of tarp over the top of the pile to keep precipitation off the leaves. This is almost certainly NOT an option given the scale of your heap. You may however want to add more bulky c-rich materials, such as straw, over the top to help keep things cozy down below. I’d only do this once the worms are established in the system (and you know the temps in the pile aren’t going to spike any more) however.

Anyway, good luck with your winter worm composting efforts! I think you’ll have a lot of fun with it.

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    • Bob Packard
    • December 6, 2008

    Hi Bentley, Winter has arrived this week in South Texas. 32 degrees overnite for 3 days running. That is mitigated by mid 50’s during the daylight hours. Just finished usual Saturday morning feeding and worms appear to be eating well. I’m using about three pounds of processed table scraps; fruits, vegetables, egg shells and coffee grounds. I’m layering several layers of newspaper and one large piece of cardboard on top of everything. This is the outdoor bin that I told you about that I started back in August. I used the “wormcicles” for cooling when temps got up to 100 degrees. I don’t expect that our temps will get much lower than they are right now.

    Different subject. In an earlier email I mentioned I was looking for a way to keep worm tea longer. About 10 days ago I mixed up a batch of about 8 gallons with castings, molasses, and liquid seaweed. I transferred all to 2 and 3 liter coke bottles and did not put caps on. So far the mix has not gone anerobic. It still has an earthy odor, but not an offensive one. I bought a battery operated 10 gallon sprayer that I will be using when the nighttime temps go up a bit.

    I hope this info is useful to someone besides me, I’ m still learning a lot from your site. I posted to a few days ago after reading an article about a worm farm in Iowa and mentioned your’s and Jerry’s site for places to get the best info for learning to worm compost. You might want to check out the site. A lot of great “Green” info. I hope you are having success with the “Winter Extravaganza”


    • Bentley
    • December 8, 2008

    Thanks for the update, Bob. Always great to hear what’s going on in your neck of the woods.
    That’s interesting news re: the worm tea as well!

    Thanks very much for the mention of my site – always appreciated!

    • Steve Elder
    • February 11, 2012

    My concern is that I have propery that can reach tempertures below freezing. How can I perserve the worms? I am thinking of doing a large scale farm, does this matter? Thanks Steve

    • Bentley
    • February 16, 2012

    Hey Steve,
    Sorry for the delay.
    You can certainly vermicompost when temps are below freezing. Be sure to check out our winter composting category to peruse various posts on the topic:

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