Composting involves more than just tossing a lot of dead leaves into a heap in your backyard. Investing a bit of preparation and planning time before you make your compost pile can decrease the time it takes for your organic waste to morph into finished compost. Spend some extra time working on your compost heap after you construct it and you'll see an even more drastic decrease in composting time. According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, a compost pile will produce finished compost within three to four months.
Place your compost pile in a well-draining area that gets several hours of sun each day. Dig up a 3-foot-by-3-foot area of sod to expose the dirt to your composting materials, which allows the millions of bacteria in the soil to begin decomposing the waste more quickly. Lay a wooden pallet flat on the ground to provide adequate drainage under your pile if you're unable to find a well-draining compost site.
Collect a range of different organic waste materials for your compost heap to create texture-rich compost. Aim for ½ to ¾ of the volume of your compost heap to consist of dry, brown, high-carbon waste, such as dead leaves, brown grass clippings, straw and shredded newspaper. Gather the remainder of your compost volume in the form of damp, green, high-nitrogen waste, such as fresh grass clippings or yard waste, fruit peels and cow manure. Avoid using one type of material for more than 1/3 of the volume of your compost pile, warns Barbara Pleasant, co-author of "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide," or else you'll run a higher risk of developing compost problems, such as lack of aeration and odor issues.
Put a 3- to 4-inch layer of well-mixed and shredded carbon-rich waste across your composting site. Top this with an equally sized layer of nitrogen-rich material. Dampen the waste with a gentle spray of water using your garden hose. Scoop six to eight handfuls of plain topsoil over the double layers to activate your compost heap. Add another layer of carbon materials and a second layer of nitrogen materials, moistening them with your garden hose until the materials are about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Repeat this layering and wetting process until your heap measures 3 to 4 feet tall.
Depress the top center of your compost heap into a slightly indented plate shape to allow rain water to channel directly into the center of your heap. Let your compost heap heat up for four to five weeks.
Maintain your compost heap by turning it once or twice each month with a manure fork to provide fresh oxygen for the decomposing microorganisms. Clench a handful of the composting waste tightly in your hand to see if you can squeeze out one to two drops of moisture; according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, this indicates adequate moisture levels.