What you put into your compost affects the quality of your finished compost, as well as the speed of the composting process. In fact, according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, having a wide variety of materials in your compost pile attracts a wider range of bacteria to your compost pile, resulting in a more nutrient-rich soil amendment for your garden and landscaping needs.
Composting Bin Materials
Although many people choose to just layer their compost materials on the ground in a pile (called a compost heap), you also have a variety of materials to choose from if you want to use a composting container. Solid or slatted wooden compost bins have the advantage of being more absorbent which keeps your compost from getting too moist; however, make sure you don't use pressure-treated wood, since the chemicals may leach into your compost and affect the soil that you add it to.
Whether you use chicken wire, welded wire, snow fence, or hardware cloth, wire enclosures (supported by a framework of poles) typically allow more airflow than other materials. Plastic containers are another fairly common bin choice; plastic trashcans with lids are particularly popular as tumbler composting units.
The microorganisms that produce compost use nitrogen to grow and reproduce, so nitrogen-rich materials are necessary compost ingredients. Typically green, commonly-used high-nitrogen materials include fresh grass clippings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, hair, vegetable peels and spoiled fruit.
Many composters with access to livestock use manure as a nitrogen source in compost--horse, cow and chicken manure are ideal choices but stay away from dog and cat feces since they may contain harmful pathogens. If you don't raise livestock, you should be able to find bagged manure at your local garden supply center.
Carbon materials are essential to your compost pile because composting microorganisms use them as a source of energy. High-carbon materials are usually brown and common examples include shredded newspaper and cardboard, dried grass clippings, dead leaves, dead weeds, sawdust, straw, branches and old hay. You should be able to find most of these materials in your backyard, woodlot or livestock barn. Add carbon materials that are especially dense, such as sawdust, in very small amounts; mixing them with nitrogen materials can help offset the density.
In addition to carbon and nitrogen materials, many composters add activators and accelerators to help "jump-start" their compost. A range of commercial products are available but one of the most common compost accelerators is plain topsoil from your backyard or garden; this topsoil contains millions of bacteria that help produce compost more quickly.
According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, common compost activator materials include finished compost, plain soil, manure and commercial nitrogen fertilizer.