Given time, all organic materials decompose. Composting is a means of harnessing nature's decomposition process and turning your garden and kitchen waste into a beneficial soil improver containing nutrients and healthy bulk.
With the right balance of ingredients, the composting process should work without special additives, but compost starters can act to jump-start the process. Compost starters can be purchased at garden centers, but homemade compost starters are cheaper and just as effective.
How Composting Works
According to the Henry Doubleday Research Association's "Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening", a compost pile is a manufacturing plant whose purpose is to convert organic materials such as garden and kitchen waste into a soil-improving additive.
Composting employs a variety of nature's creatures, including microorganisms, worms and even maggots that take on the responsibility of converting waste to compost. All they need are an appropriate mix of ingredients, a little intervention from the gardener and time to work.
Key Compost Ingredients
Successful composting requires a blend of "greens", "browns", water, oxygen and microorganisms.
"Greens" are soft, young materials that decompose quickly, such as grass clippings, animal manure, non-greasy kitchen waste and most garden waste. "Browns" are tough, woody materials that take a longer time to break down and include autumn leaves, twigs and non-slick newspaper and cardboard.
The compost pile needs water and oxygen to encourage microorganisms and worms to grow and expand their numbers. To add oxygen, turn your compost pile with a shovel or garden fork at least once each month. This mixes ingredients together and adds pockets of air to the pile.
Your compost heap should be moist, but not too wet. In his "Organic Manual", J. Howard Garrett recommends keeping the compost pile at roughly the moisture level of a squeezed out sponge.
Homemade Compost Starters
Nature is a great provider. Decomposition, or composting, happens every day in your garden soil and in native areas around your home. Healthy soil contains the microorganisms and nutrients needed to break down organic materials. When you are building your compost pile or if you notice that the ingredients in your compost pile aren't decomposing, add a shovel full of healthy garden soil or native woodland soil to act as a compost starter.
The "Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening" recommends using "green" ingredients high in nitrogen, such as grass clippings, comfrey leaves or nitrogen-rich comfrey or nettle tea, as a homemade compost starter. These ingredients break down quickly, providing a source of food for those helpful microorganisms and worms.
Adding animal manure to your new compost heap adds both nitrogen and a ready source of microorganisms that can get to work immediately.
Keep a careful eye on your compost pile. If the ingredients are wet and slimy, add "browns" to dry the pile out. If the heap is too dry, add more "greens" and some water to get the process moving again.
Heat allows the compost process to work more quickly, which is why composting happens faster during warmer months. If possible, cover your compost pile or bin with a tarp, a scrap of carpet wrapped in plastic or a plastic garbage bag stuffed with leaves or hay.