Composting is a process that allows naturally occurring microbes to convert organic waste to a useful organic soil amendment or mulch. Compost improves the condition of soil and adds nutrients needed for plant growth. Incorporating compost into light, sandy soil helps it hold both moisture and nutrients, while adding it to clay soil improves drainage.
To save space, keep your yard looking neat, and speed composting time; plan to contain your compost in some type of structure. Typical dimensions of a compost pile are 5' x 5' x 5'. Simple bin-type structures can be built from woven wire fencing and metal posts. More permanent and elaborate structures can be made from rot-resistant wood, wire, and metal posts.
Locating your composting pile
Locate your compost pile close to where it will be used so it won't interfere with activities in the yard or offend neighbors. The pile will work best where it is somewhat protected from drying winds, yet receives partial sunlight to help heat the pile.
What can be composted?
Many organic materials can be composted: grass and leaves, non-woody shrub trimmings or twigs less than 1/4 inch in diameter, faded flowers, leftover plants at the end of the gardening season, coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, shredded newspaper (black and white print), small amounts of wood ash.
Some things should NOT be composted. Pet feces can transmit diseases, meat, bones, grease, whole eggs, and dairy products attract rodents and other animals. Badly diseased or insect-infested plants and weeds that are loaded with seed may not heat up enough to be rendered harmless.
Preparing your compost pile (link to image)
Build your compost pile in layers. Begin with eight to ten inches of leaves, grass, or plant trimmings. Water it to the point of being moist, but not soggy. Then add a nitrogen source, such fruit & vegetable scraps. You may choose to add a one-inch layer of soil or completed compost over the nitrogen to increase the number of decomposing microbes in the pile. However, most leaves and plant scraps have enough micro-organisms to get the job done without the addition of soil or compost. Repeat these layers until the pile reaches a height of five feet, watering each time you add new layers.
Maintaining your compost pile
An active compost pile will heat to somewhere between 130° and 160° Fahrenheit. As the center cools, turn the pile to help speed decomposition and minimize any objectionable odors. You will need to do this once or twice a month. Continue to water your compost pile periodically to keep it moist but not soggy. You can add a little fresh material when you turn the pile, but generally, you're better off beginning a new pile.
A well-managed compost pile will be ready faster than an untended pile which could take a year or more to decompose. When completed, your compost pile will be about half its original height, and will have a pleasant, earthy smell.