Building a compost pile provides dedicated gardeners and environmentally conscious homeowners with a simple, low-cost option for converting organic scraps into nutrient-rich humus. You should be able to produce finished compost within six months to two years, depending on how frequently you maintain your heap. According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, your compost pile should measure no less than 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, but no more than 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet to promote adequate composting heat and oxygen levels in your compost heap.
Measure off your composting area with a tape measure. Choose a section of your property that has plenty of drainage and gets several hours of sun each day. Mark the compost site corners with stones. Use a shovel to remove any sod covering the soil within the marked area to allow the decomposing microbes in the soil to have immediate access to your organic waste for speedier composting.
Shred and mix together a variety of brown, dry, carbon-rich waste materials, such as dead leaves, newspaper, cardboard, straw, sawdust and wood chips. Sprinkle a 3- to 4-inch layer of the dry organic waste across the topsoil, marking your composting site. Mist the waste down with a gentle spray of water from your garden hose, making it about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
Top the carbon-rich waste with an equally sized layer of shredded, moist, nitrogen-rich materials, such as vegetable peels, fruit scraps, fresh-cut grass, coffee grounds and cow manure. Sprinkle a ½-inch layer of plain topsoil on top of the nitrogen layer to introduce extra microbes to your compost heap. Repeat the alternate layers of moist, carbon-rich waste and nitrogen-rich waste until the height of the pile is between 3 and 5 feet.
Leave your compost heap undisturbed for two to three weeks, as the microbes heat the pile up with their decomposition activity. Mix the layers together with a manure fork once every two to three weeks or each time you add fresh waste to your heap. Squeeze a handful of waste to check the moisture level each time you mix the layers; according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, you shouldn't be able to wring out more than one to two drops of liquid.
Look for signs of mature compost six months to two years after starting your heap. Stir the pile with a manure fork, which should reveal crumbly, brown, earthlike material if the compost is ready for application on your garden and plants. If the waste in your heap still has odors or resembles the original organic matter, then you'll need to process it longer.