Simple and inexpensive, compost heaps work well for most composters, but you'll need to invest a bit more time and attention to your compost heap if you plan to build one in your backyard. According to George Dickerson, Extension Horticulture Specialist at New Mexico State University, your main focus with your backyard compost heap should be to encourage aerobic decomposition. Taking extra time to build and maintain a backyard compost pile that supports an active population of oxygen-loving aerobic bacteria pays big dividends--fewer odor issues and faster composting.
Find a good composting site in your backyard. Look for sunny area that has well-draining soil. Walk around the perimeter of your property to ensure that your chosen composting site is camouflaged by trees or shrubs or hidden completely from your neighbors' sight. Scoop up a 4-foot-by-4-foot area of sod to expose the topsoil marking your composting site.
Accumulate a variety of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich organic waste materials for your backyard compost heap. Look for wet, green organic scraps, such as nitrogen-rich grass clippings or pulled weeds, hedge cuttings, vegetable peels and fruit scraps. Gather dry, brown organic scraps, such as carbon-rich sawdust or wood chips, newspaper, straw, cardboard and dead leaves. Shred large pieces of organic waste into small strips or chunks.
Distribute an even, 3- to 4-inch layer of carbon-rich waste across the bare soil marking your compost heap site. Top this base layer with an equally sized layer of nitrogen-rich organic waste. Trickle water onto the double layer of waste, dampening the organic waste until it's as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Scatter several handfuls of plain topsoil atop the nitrogen layer to provide additional bacteria to jump-start the microbial activity in your backyard compost pile.
Layer additional carbon and nitrogen materials on your compost heap until the pile is at least 36 inches tall. Leave your compost heap undisturbed for two to three weeks or until the next time you have backyard waste scraps to add to your pile.
Mix your compost heap materials together with a manure fork to aerate the waste. Place fresh waste on the top of the pile and scoop old waste from the sides of the heap to place on top of the new waste. Repeat this aeration process each time you add new compost materials to your heap or every two weeks, whichever is more frequent. Squeeze a handful of composting waste when you add new material; it's at the right moisture level if you're able to wring out no more than one to two drops of liquid.