Compost is the soil-like end product of decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients and microbes, compost adds fertility, tilth and drainage to your soil. Start your compost pile by layering "brown" (carbon-intensive) and "green" (nitrogen-intensive) materials from your yard and kitchen. Encourage decomposition by turning and watering the pile, then use the compost as a soil enhancement or mulch in your garden, landscaping and containers.
Begin composting by piling up carbon-based materials like dead leaves, straw, hay or wood shavings with nitrogen-based materials like green grass clippings, freshly pulled weeds and kitchen scraps. The University of Minnesota Extension advises layering these materials, interspersed with a few shovels full of rich garden soil or forest duff to incorporate bacterial and micro-organisms to hasten the decomposition process. According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension Service, a compost pile should be large enough to retain heat to aid decomposition at its core, but small enough to allow oxygen to penetrate through the pile. For home use, a compost bin between 3 cubic feet and 5 cubic feet seems both ideal for decomposition and manageable for storage and maintenance.
Turning and watering
Home composting is designed to hasten the natural decomposition process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria and microorganisms to break down the organic matter. According to the University of Illinois Extension, two key requirements to ensure that these agents of decomposition thrive are water and air. Keep your compost pile damp--the Illinois Extension recommends about as moist as a wrung-out sponge--by watering with a hose or buckets. Don't let the pile get completely saturated, however, as this will make oxygenation difficult and may wash out nutrients from the pile. If heavy rains are anticipated, throw a tarp or board over the top of the compost pile.
Aerate the compost pile by turning it. Use a spading fork or shovel, and either "fluff" the pile in place or turn it into an adjacent compost bin or area. The University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension advises turning the pile about once a week.
Compost is ready to use when it is a brown, crumbly, soil-like texture. The University of Illinois Extension advises that the original materials will no longer be visible in the completed compost. Compost makes an ideal mulch, imitating the natural process by which leaves fall and decay on the surface of the soil. Compost can also be tilled into the soil prior to planting, or mixed with peat moss and sand and topsoil to fill raised beds. Compost mixed with peat moss and vermiculite can also be used for container growing.