Making compost is a lot like making a cake: You can create a much better finished product if you understand what's going on during the process. Although you won't really develop an intimate understanding of composting until you grab your manure fork and dive in, being familiar with composting basics can go a long way in helping get you started down the path of composting success.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper products, yard waste and food scraps made up approximately 57 percent of the 250 million tons of municipal solid waste produced in the United States in 2008. The sheer amount of compostable materials, such as newspaper, grass clippings and vegetable peels, that you put out by your curb for the garbage truck will drastically decrease when you take up composting for the first time. Once you produce finished compost, use it liberally on your gardens and flowerbeds for a ready source of essential plant nutrients.
Meet the basic needs of the bacteria in your compost to create finished compost successfully. The University of Illinois states that you should aim for 25 to 50 percent of your compost ingredients to be high in nitrogen. The rest of your materials can be rich in carbon. Keep the compost materials about as damp as a wrung-out sponge and alternate the carbon and nitrogen materials to ensure that the bacteria have a regular supply of both energy and protein.
The materials you put into your compost play a big role in determining its ultimate quality. Try to use a wide range of materials whenever possible to achieve the richest compost. Typically brown, prime sources of carbon include dead leaves, straw, sawdust, newspaper, cardboard and wood chips. Green, nitrogen-rich organic waste ingredients for your compost include manure from non-meat-eating animals, fruit scraps, vegetable waste and fresh grass clippings.
Before you begin composting, think about what sort of time commitment you can make and when you'd like to use the compost. You can choose different composting methods based on how quickly you need the finished compost. According to the University of Illinois, turning compost units can produce finished compost in less than two months. With compost piles, on the other hand, it may take as long as three years before you begin to see the organic matter turn into crumbly, rich humus for your garden.
Believe it or not, your composting method can affect the lives of the people who live around you almost as much as it affects you. If you have close neighbors, opt for a tidy, unobtrusive composting method, such as a trash can turning unit, which won't offend your neighbor every time she looks out her kitchen window. Although a compost pile might require less hard physical labor, it has the potential to be a neighborhood eyesore, especially if you toss old food scraps on it.