The chilly fall weather is finally here, but some things are heating up on the homestead. Visitors to my garden may be surprised to see “steam” emanating from a large bin, where the dead summer plants, vegetable scraps, and recently-raked-up tree leaves are being broken down into black gold.

By “black gold,” I mean compost. We gardeners dream about it, with all of its nutrient-dense, organic-matter goodness. When used as a soil conditioner, compost acts as a natural fertilizer and prevents the dirt from compacting and drying out. Compost is the decomposed remains of plant matter, and if you haven’t tried composting your leftover vegetable peels, garden wastes, and fallen leaves, you’re missing out on a valuable gardening resource.

Like many homesteading endeavors, composting can be as simple or as complicated as you’d care for it to be. In its simplest form, you can make compost by heaping up the plant matter, keeping it wet, and allowing nature to work its magic. After a few months, the result will be dark brown, earthy humus that can be added to the soil or used in container gardening.

A more sophisticated form of composting involves putting the plant matter in a large bin, and occasionally turning, aerating, and watering the compost. This speeds up the rate of decomposition and creates a more uniform end product.

So what’s happening in the compost heap, exactly? Simply put, a diversity of microbes and invertebrate critters are digesting the plant matter and converting it into compost. In the process, heat is released, along with carbon dioxide and some other gases.

The heat produced in an active compost pile is impressive. A well-maintained composting bin can reach 160 degrees F. I once wrapped a potato in foil and cooked it in my compost bin. This winter, I’ll be experimenting with heating one of my greenhouses with compost. This concept is nothing new; gardeners in Paris used the warmth from compost to grow vegetables in winter more than 150 years ago. And the French innovator Jean Pain produced all of the hot water on his large farm with compost, with a heating capacity of a gallon of hot water every minute.

Some folks get really particular about their compost bins. But you don’t need a fancy, store-bought, rotating composting drum. In fact, those don’t hold very much compost and they are prone to breaking because of so many moving, plastic parts.

For my compost bin, I made a large box (4 feet wide on each side, and 4 feet high) with treated lumber posts and metal roofing panels, acting as walls. The bottom and top are open. I made a hinged door on the front so that I can shovel out the compost when it’s needed.

Other folks are picky about the ratios of different plant materials that they add to the compost bin. Sure, the ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is 25:1, but what does that mean?

Well, the ideal ratio will produce compost at the fastest rate and produce the most heat. To get that ratio, you need to balance different ingredients. For example, grass clippings have a ratio of 15:1 (low carbon) and dry tree leaves are around 50:1 (high carbon), so an equal mixture of the two will be nearly perfect. As a general rule of thumb, colorful vegetables and fresh green plant matter are low in carbon and high in nitrogen. Brown, dry plant matter is high in carbon and low in nitrogen. Having said that, I don’t balance the ratios at all and my composting works perfectly every time.

You can add other materials to your compost pile, such as eggshells. The shells will break down and provide calcium to your plants, which will help prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes and peppers. Don’t add meat scraps or bones to your compost heap, because they will really stink as they rot and may attract animals such as raccoons, opossums, dogs, or cats.

You might want to add manure from herbivorous animals, such as horses, cows, and goats. Rest assured, the heat produced during composting will kill any disease-causing bacteria that might be in the animal manure. The composted manure will be high in nutrients, but won’t “burn” your garden plants. For instance, chicken manure is too high in nitrogen to use in the garden when it’s fresh, but will break down in your compost bin and make a high-quality fertilizer.

In warm weather, the compost might be teeming with maggots, but don’t freak out. Those are the larvae of black soldier flies, and they’re harmless to humans. They are not pests and they don’t transmit disease. In fact, the larvae are commercially grown in compost for fishing bait, aquaculture, chicken feed, and even for human consumption.

Besides its application in gardening, composting is also good for the environment. Less waste is added to landfills when people compost their vegetable scraps and fallen leaves. If you don’t have a garden, the compost can be sprinkled around the lawn as an organic fertilizer.

Composting is almost effortless, and it becomes a habit. I keep a large, enameled pot with a lid in my kitchen, where the scraps accumulate until I can dump them outside in the compost bin. I feel guilty if I throw any vegetable matter into the trash, and it bugs me to see people discard their banana peels, apple cores, and other fruit and vegetable wastes. As I like to say, a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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Greg Pryor, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Francis Marion University and enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle on his 100-acre homestead. Email him at gpryor@fmarion.edu.

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