Turning garbage into supercharged garden soil is easier than you think. If you have food scraps and a pitchfork, you're halfway there.
Getting started doesn't necessarily require any special equipment: Piling up materials and letting nature take its course will eventually produce compost.
Successful composting depends on the right combination of "green" and "brown" material. The greens (food scraps, lawn cuttings) provide nitrogen, while the browns (dry leaves, newspaper, hay) provide carbon. To create optimal conditions for decomposition, you'll need twice as much brown material as green.
Food scraps (green): Fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggshells, cooked pasta and rice, coffee grounds and used filters, and loose tea and tea bags can all be added to the pile. Do not compost meat, cheese, bones, or vegetable matter with added fats or oils, such as dressed salads.
Paper, lint and hay (brown): Newspaper and hay make good brown matter when dry leaves are in short supply. Shred newspaper so it doesn't form a mat. Do not compost glossy or colored paper.
Soil (neutral): A handful (or shovelful, depending on the size of your bin) of garden soil in the middle of the pile helps to inoculate it with the micro-organisms that are necessary for decomposition.
Garden waste (green): Flowers, leaves, grass clippings and weeds are great candidates for the compost pile. Do not compost weeds bearing seeds, or diseased or pest-ridden foliage.
Dry leaves (brown): Fall leaves are the cheapest, most plentiful form of carbon for composting. Since they're abundant only briefly, many composters stockpile them.
From the ground up
Starting from scratch means you can get it right from the beginning. If you've already begun, adapt these instructions to produce peerless compost.
1. Site your bin. Proper siting means easier management. Full sun necessitates frequent watering; full shade slows decomposition. The bin should be convenient to a water source.
2. Start with brown. Begin your pile with an airy carbon layer, ideally a loose pile of fallen leaves.
3. Add green. Aim for half as much green as brown. Too much green can lead to malodorous, slimy conditions.
4. Sprinkle in some soil. A scoop of soil in the pile encourages micro-organisms. Some experts add fertilizer, too, but a well-built pile will have enough nitrogen without it.
5. Repeat brown and green layers. Continue layering browns and greens in a 2-1 ratio, ending with a layer of brown. Small pieces decompose faster, so consider cutting down any large ones.
6. Keep it moist. Your pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge: moist but not drippy. Check often, and water as needed. On an open pile, use a tarp to hold in moisture.
7. Take a turn. After a week, you'll notice the pile start to heat up. Now is a good time to turn it with a pitchfork, mixing the layers. Turning provides oxygen for the micro-organisms and facilitates rapid, even decomposition.
8. Keep turning. Turn the pile weekly when it's warm out. In winter, the pile may freeze and the process will slow dramatically.
9. Harvest time. Depending on ingredients and conditions, your compost will be done in two months to a year. Frequent turning expedites the process. When compost is ready for use, it will be dark brown, free of recognizable ingredients and inoffensive to smell. It can be used as mulch or top dressing, dug into any problematic soil, or raked directly onto the lawn.