Whether you're an avid gardener or an apartment-dweller who wants to reduce your environmental impact, making compost provides an ideal way for you to decrease the amount of waste you send to landfills and to create nutrient-rich humus for soil enrichment. Being familiar with the steps in making compost helps ensure successful composting, regardless of the method you opt to use.
Although it's true that all things organic will decompose eventually, it'll happen a lot more quickly if you use care when collecting your compost ingredients. Look for good sources of nitrogen and carbon when you're selecting organic waste for your compost heap or bin. Fresh grass clippings, fruit waste, vegetable peels, coffee grounds and manure from non-meat-eating animals such as cows and horses are all excellent sources of nitrogen. Some commonly available sources of carbon include dead leaves, newspaper, cardboard, straw and old hay. As a general rule of thumb, most carbon-based materials tend to be brown, while nitrogen-based organic matter is typically green and moist.
According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, one-quarter to one-half of your compost ingredients should be rich in nitrogen. This volume-based ratio of carbon and nitrogen materials helps ensure that the decomposing microorganisms responsible for producing compost have an adequate source of both energy and protein for reproduction and growth.
Once you've collected the appropriate ratio of organic waste materials for your compost bin, you'll need to prepare it for composting. Shred any large pieces of waste, such as newspaper, cardboard and wood chunks, into small pieces that are less than about 2 inches in diameter.
Whether you compost using a little compost bin or a large compost pile, layering your carbon and nitrogen waste helps give the decomposing bacteria a ready supply of fresh organic matter. Typically, you should try to add about 4 to 6 inches of carbon materials for every 2 inches of nitrogen-based materials. Dampening the ingredients with water from your garden hose as you add them to your compost heap helps provide needed moisture for bacteria. Don't forget to toss in several handfuls of plain topsoil or finished compost to introduce a fresh, new supply of decomposing bacteria to help jump-start the composting process.
Maintaining your compost during the decomposition process is an important step that directly affects the length of time it takes to produce finished compost. If you have a busy schedule or simply don't want to be bothered, you can choose to leave it completely alone; the bacteria will produce finished compost, but it will typically take longer, sometimes up to two or three years. Whenever you add new waste, mix it thoroughly into the compost so it will decompose more quickly.
Turning and mixing your compost on a regular basis (which can be as little as once each month or as frequently as once or twice each day) provides fresh oxygen for the decomposing bacteria, which can drastically reduce your composting time to six months or less. When you turn your compost, squeeze a handful of it to check the moisture level. According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, you should be able to squeeze out only one or two drops of water. Your compost is finished when it's dark brown and crumbles easily in your hand.