Making a compost pile at home provides you with a simple, inexpensive way to convert your organic scraps into rich humus and avoid sending waste to landfills. According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, fall is the best season to start your compost pile, since it gives you ready access to plenty of both nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic waste, essential requirements for active compost heaps.
Place your compost pile in an area that's hidden from the view of close neighbors, has well-draining soil and gets several hours of sun each day. Don't choose a site that's too far from your home or garden, since that typically makes compost maintenance more difficult. Shovel off any sod that covers your composting site to expose a 4-by-4-foot area of topsoil; this technique allows the microbes in the soil immediate access to your organic waste.
Spread a solid 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of carbon-rich organic waste across the bare topsoil. Use a mix of finely chopped carbon materials, such as dead leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper and straw, to create a richer, more naturally aerated heap. Dampen the waste by spraying it gently with your garden hose until it's about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
Scoop a 2- to 3-inch layer of nitrogen-rich organic waste on top of the carbon-rich layer. Look for moist, green high-nitrogen waste, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, fresh grass clippings and cow manure. Chop any large chunks of nitrogen-rich waste into smaller pieces that ideally measure less than about 2 inches in diameter.
Sprinkle a ¼- to ½-inch-thick layer of plain topsoil or finished compost across your waste heap to help activate the microbial activity. Add a layer of damp carbon waste to your compost heap next, following it with a second layer of high-nitrogen waste. Repeat this alternate layering process until your compost heap measures 3 to 5 feet tall.
Add additional organic waste to your compost heap as it becomes available. Bury the fresh waste under several inches of more mature compost to minimize odors and help aerate the pile. Turn the heap, using a manure fork, and check the moisture level at least once monthly by squeezing a handful of the materials; according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, you should only be able to wring out one to two drops of moisture. Look for finished compost within about five to six months.