Amateur gardeners often ask compost experts to give them the recipe for foolproof compost, but making good compost is more than just putting a certain mix of materials into your compost bin and hoping for the best. Although you provide the compost ingredients, aerobic microbes in your heap are the real workhorses responsible for processing the organic waste into mature compost, so take care of them. Provide the right blend of carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen. Maintain your compost heap regularly just as you would feed and water a dog or cat to help it stay healthy. Keep these microbes alive, and before you know it you'll be harvesting a fertile, nutrient-dense super food for your plants.
Find a well-draining composting location. Look for an area that close neighbors don't see. Try to choose a place that gets three to four hours of sun each day.
Gather organic waste into two piles near your chosen composting location. Collect nitrogen-rich scraps (moist, green materials, such as cow manure, fruit scraps, vegetable peels and fresh yard waste) in one heap; collect carbon-rich scraps (dry, brown materials, such as dead leaves, straw, cardboard and newspaper) in the second heap. Aim for the two piles of waste to be equal in size so that your compost will have the right blend of carbon materials--for microbial energy--and nitrogen materials--for microbial growth and reproduction.
Sort through the organic waste with a manure fork or garden rake. Shred, chop and cut large pieces of waste into smaller scraps that measure no more than approximately 2 inches in diameter to speed up the composting process. Spread a 3- to 4-inch layer of the carbon waste in a 3-foot-by-3-foot square across the bare ground that marks your composting site. Spray the base layer of carbon waste with your garden hose, using a back-and-forth motion to mist it gently and thoroughly; ideally, it should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, the preferred composting moisture level, according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension.
Sprinkle a one-fourth-inch layer of plain topsoil across the carbon waste to serve as a compost activator by introducing extra microbes to your heap. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of moist nitrogen waste across the topsoil. Top the nitrogen materials with another 3- to 4-inch layer of dry carbon materials. Mist the new layer of carbon waste. Continue alternating nitrogen and carbon layers until your compost heap measures 3 to 5 feet in height.
Turn and mix the layers of compost once every one to two weeks to provide plenty of fresh oxygen for the aerobic bacteria. Use a manure fork and shift the waste from the center of the heap to the edges, replacing it with fresh waste or uncomposted materials laying on the edges of the heap. Squeeze a handful of the composting waste each time you turn it; if you're able to wring out more than one or two drops of moisture, it's too wet, and you'll need to add fresh carbon material to soak up the extra wetness. Avoid using your compost until it shows signs of being mature, which include an even, brown appearance, crumbly texture and earthy scent.