Composting is an organic and environmentally sound practice that effectively recycles matter into a fertilizer rich in nutrients. Compost enriches the soil with its organic matter and provides nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium for plants. It keeps lawn, garden and some kitchen waste out of landfills and saves you money. You can compost easily and cheaply and spend little or no money on the project.
Compost ingredients can be divided into two main categories--green and brown. Brown ingredients are generally dead or dried. These include fallen or dried leaves, sticks, shredded paper and cardboard, wood chips or egg shells. Green ingredients are fresh, green and were recently alive. Vegetable peelings from the kitchen, grass clippings, weeds and plant trimmings make up this category, along with manure from herbivores.
There are some things you should not include in your compost pile. Pet or human waste can contribute toxins, bacteria and parasites to the compost. Sawdust from pressure-treated wood is laden with chemicals. Meats, fats and dairy products will eventually break down, but they tend to attract hungry wildlife and slow the breakdown of the other organic materials in the compost. Leave these items out of your compost bin or pile.
Make your compost pile in layers. Start with coarse items such as sticks and straw on the bottom for a base. Dry leaves are also a good choice. Add a 4-inch layer of brown items topped with about an inch of garden soil or compost. The next layer is about 4 inches of green materials, topped by an inch or so of an activator, such as fresh manure, bone meal or even dried dog food. As you finish each layer, mist the pile with a garden hose until the layer is moist.
There isn't much to keeping a compost pile going. You can store ingredients in trash cans or paper lawn bags until you are ready to use them. Add alternating brown and green layers as they become available.
The bacteria that make compost piles work require oxygen. If they don't get enough, they begin to die. A week after starting, the pile should reach a peak temperature of 140 to 160 degrees and then begin to cool off. Turn the pile with a garden fork, moving dry outer areas into the center. After the first week, continue to turn the pile at least every two weeks. Turning more often will improve decomposition.
Build the compost pile on bare ground, rather than on concrete or another hard surface so earthworms can get in the pile and aid in decomposition. Getting the right mix of ingredients may take some practice for a quick turnover, but you won't fail if you don't get it exactly right. In very dry climates, mist the pile fairly often and make an indentation in the top layer to capture rainwater. For wet climates, a tarp will keep the compost pile from becoming saturated with water.