Composting is a simple process, though many compost experts inadvertently make it seem more like a convoluted exercise. Understanding exactly what composting is all about gives you a newfound appreciation for the power of microscopic composting bacteria. It also may just give you the confidence you need to start making your own nutrient-dense compost from organic waste otherwise destined for landfills.
The University of Illinois Cooperative Extension defines composting as the decomposition of organic matter into a humus material. Decomposition of organic matter occurs every day in the natural world, but composting allows you to manage the different decomposition factors--namely, moisture levels, nitrogen content, carbon content and oxygen levels--in a way that encourages microbial growth and activity in your compost, which speeds the decomposition process up. Just about anyone can produce compost, but the type and quality of the finished product varies, depending upon factors such as the materials you use and how much time you invest in maintenance.
All you really need in order to make a batch of nutrient-dense compost is water, organic waste and oxygen. Organic waste should consist of moist, green (nitrogen-rich) waste and dry, brown (carbon-rich) waste. Common nitrogen-rich materials include animal manure, grass clippings, fruit scraps and vegetable peelings. Carbon-rich waste includes dead leaves, straw, sawdust, and tree branches. As a general rule of thumb, try to provide equal amounts of the two types of materials to give the decomposing microbes the correct blend of nutrients for adequate energy and growth.
The composting microbes need water to do their composting but a little goes a long way. According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, ideal moisture levels for proper composting should hover between 40 and 60 percent to promote adequate aerobic decomposition; as a general rule of thumb, your compost materials should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge.
The more oxygen that becomes available to the oxygen-loving microbes in your compost, the quicker they can process the organic waste into mature compost. A properly sized compost heap--at least 3 cubic feet but no more than 5 cubic feet--allows oxygen to permeate the materials naturally, but in most instances you'll want to add plenty of fresh oxygen to your compost manually to speed up the process. It doesn't matter whether you prefer to use a manure fork, a garden rake or even an old rebar post to mix the layers of waste; focus on loosening any clumps of waste and shifting any materials on the edge of your heap or bin to the center in order to speed up the rate of decomposition.
Most traditional methods of composting--piles, bins and tumblers--require two to six months to produce mature compost, but Dr. Robert D. Raabe, Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at the University of California-Berkeley, states that you can make black gold for your garden in as little as 14 days, so long as you carefully monitor and maintain your compost on a daily basis. Allow at least six months for the composting process if manure is one of the nitrogen materials in your heap, a precaution that helps minimize potential problems from bacteria that may be present in the manure.