Composting is the process of collecting and breaking down organic matter for use as fertilizer and as a soil additive. Compost includes green materials, such as grass clippings and vegetable scraps, and brown materials, such as dead plants and leaves. A mixture of both green and brown materials creates a well-balanced compost pile.
For the composting process to work effectively, millions of tiny microbes eat away at the organic material, converting it from recognizable debris into what gardeners refer to as black gold. There are also larger, more recognizable creatures that will go to work in the compost pile as well. As the pile heats up, earthworms, centipedes, and spiders will make their home in the pile.
The first step in the composting process is building the compost pile. There are several ways to do this. Build the compost pile directly on the ground, shovel it into a bin, or use a tumbling composter to hold it. There are two ways to allow the compost pile to decompose. The first, which is the most rapid, is to build the pile and maintain it without adding any additional material to it. The second is to add new organic matter to the compost pile continually. The second method takes longer because of the constant influx of fresh materials.
To go through the composting process, the pile requires the right level of moisture and heat. It will not ruin the pile if it is too wet or dry, or not hot enough, but it will slow down the composting process. The compost pile should have the same level of moisture as a freshly wrung out sponge. In dry weather, water it occasionally with the garden hose. In wet weather, consider covering it with a tarp to prevent saturation.
The best way to keep the compost pile hot enough to encourage the composting process is to turn it regularly. This is an easy chore if the compost is stored in a tumbler, but requires some manual labor for other composting methods. Turn the compost pile every few weeks, using a shovel. The more often the compost is turned, the warmer it will get, and the quicker it will break down.
The compost is ready for use when there are no distinguishable bits in the pile. Once the pile is uniformly black and crumbly, and there are no stray bits of cucumber peel or sticks visible, the composting process is complete. To use it on your garden, simply rake it over the soil, or place it in the planting hole when moving transplants.