Virtually any soil can be improved by adding compost. It improves texture in clay soils, improves water retention in sandy soils, and adds nutrients to all soils. Home composting reduces your input to landfills and waste treatment facilities while generating free food for your garden. Your composting endeavors can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them. Even poorly maintained compost piles and bins will eventually become usable compost.
The composting process can be divided into two broad categories. Fast composting involves putting all the materials together at once, in a carefully balanced blend and in a volume sufficient to encourage biological action. The University of Missouri Extension Service reports that properly managed compost can be ready for the garden in as little as six weeks.
Slow composting is less structured, but just as effective in the long run. Kitchen scraps, pruned stems, lawn clippings and other compostable materials are added to the pile as they become available. Slow composting fits more naturally into most gardener's lifestyle and produces usable compost in one to two years.
Urban and suburban gardeners will need to contain their compost in some way. Scores of a compost bins, drums and barrels are commercially available. You can also build a containment system from fencing, concrete blocks, scavenged pallets, construction lumber or any other readily available material. The link in Resources has several designs, complete with construction details, in a free publication from the state of California.
Containment speeds the composting process, keeps your property tidy and allows you to maximize the amount of compost you can produce in a given footprint. On the other hand, an open pile is easier to maintain if you have the available space out of view from you and your neighbors.
Fast Composting Method
Generating the biological action that will "cook" a compost pile quickly relies on properly blending dry, bulky "brown" materials--such as fallen leaves--and dense, moist "green" materials, such as freshly cut grass and kitchen scraps. The optimum mix of materials will have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30-to-1. The brown materials are carbon-rich while the green materials are nitrogen-rich. You need a sufficient quantity of both so that your finished pile is a minimum of 1 cubic yard--3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. Place alternating layers of brown and green materials in your bin. Keep the pile moist but not soggy and turn it with a pitchfork weekly. If you notice an unpleasant smell, add more brown material. If the pile doesn't seem to be breaking down, add more green material.
Cold Composting Method
Rather than stockpiling materials and building the pile all at once, you can simply add material as it is generated. Most things that normal household and garden activity generate for the compost pile will be green (nitrogen-rich) material. If a compost pile has too many nitrogen-rich inputs, it will develop an odor. Avoid this by having a supply of brown material near the compost bin where it can be added as moist material is added. Turn the pile every few months. When the pile has grown to a usable volume, start a second pile and let the first one finish decomposing without new material being added.
Most any plant material can be added to the compost pile. Manure from herbivores is an excellent addition to your compost pile, but not droppings from your dogs and cats. Carnivore and omnivore waste harbors disease pathogens that are dangerous to humans and can survive in a compost pile for years.
Cold compost piles may not generate the heat necessary to kill weed seeds and plant pathogens, so don't put trimmings from diseased plants and weeds that have gone to seed into cold piles. Don't put any meat or meat products in your compost. Fats slow the composting process and meat products will attract scavengers.