Instead of throwing away your yard waste, compost it and create a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is beneficial to your garden plants. Making your own compost is cost effective and doesn't require a lot of time or labor. Compost is formed as microbes break down organic matter and leave behind a soil-like substance that adds nutrients and quality to existing soil in garden beds.
Choose a level place to start the pile where water doesn't collect. While compost bins usually don't smell bad, placing them away from windows and structures alleviates this concern further.
A compost bin isn't a requirement, but a simple bin allows you to keep the pile contained and leads to less yard mess. Bins also keep animals out of the compost. Raccoons, neighborhood pets and other pests may be drawn to the pile if it isn't in a contained area.
Commercial compost bins are available, or you can construct one of wood or wire. Make bins approximately 3-by-3-by-3 or 5-by-5-by-5 feet to provide enough mass for the compost to heat up.
Carbon is a primary element which is required for successful composting. Carbon-rich materials include dead leaves, sawdust, shredded branches and other brown waste from the yard. Fill the bin or pile with approximately two-thirds carbon-rich materials.
Nitrogen is another primary element which is required to compost successfully. Add nitrogen to the pile by adding green plant materials such as grass clippings or non-diseased green plant matter. One-third of the pile is made up of nitrogen materials when they are available. If green material isn't available, a nitrogen-rich fertilizer is an adequate substitute. Generally, 1 to 2 cups of fertilizer per each square yard of compost is sufficient.
Commercial compost starters are available, but any healthy garden soil or finished compost is sufficient. Compost starter introduces microbes to the pile that are necessary to the entire process. While microbes and earthworms often find their way to a healthy pile regardless, using a starter gives the pile a jump start and may aid in quicker composting. One or two shovels-full of starter materials are all that is necessary.
Compost piles activate and break down when they have the proper moisture levels; a healthy compost pile is as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Piles may require additional water during dry periods or if you add a large quantity of dry items, such as dead leaves. During rainy periods, you may cover the compost pile with a tarp to keep it from becoming too soggy.
Compost piles require turning---the more often they are turned the more quickly they finish the composting process. A pitchfork allows you to easily turn the contents on the outside of the pile to the inside. Shorter garden forks or shovels are suitable substitutions. Turn the pile weekly to produce compost that is ready in three to six months. Piles that are turned once a month may take up to a year to finish composting.