For novices, too much has been written about compost. Much of it is confusing or wrong. I will try to avoid anything unnecessary, and include everything important in around 500 words.
Compost is decaying organic stuff. Organic stuff is anything alive or carbon containing — animals, vegetables, trees, poop, hair, fingernails, motor oil, Uncle Harry, rubber or plastics. All can become compost, but some are much easier and some are dangerous to use. If it still looks like a plastic bag, shines like oil, or smells like poop, it’s not yet compost, and could be dangerous or even deadly.
Start with the premium stuff — kitchen scraps, garden residues, and coffee grounds. Put them in a bucket under your sink and transfer them to a pile in your yard every day or two. Add lawn clippings if you don’t soak your yard with ChemLawn or Sevin-like chemicals. Add autumn leaves. (It helps to run the lawnmower over them first to chop them up.) Keep the pile moist, but not soaking wet. Cover it with a tarp before big rains. If you turn this pile over every week or so, you will have nice compost in a few weeks, but it will be great stuff within a year no matter what.
The only shortcoming to this style of composting is a fairly small batch of compost. How much compost should you target? A fair rule of thumb is to replace more than you remove. How much more depends on what you start with, and what you hope to have for the following season. If your yard and garden are in great shape, you need less than if you start with sand or clay. You will want at least an inch of compost, so a 10 x 12 foot garden needs a minimum of 10 cubic feet of compost just to stay in shape.
How much it takes to “create” a garden (or healthy lawn) from bad dirt is also fairly simple. 20% organic matter down to at least 10″ deep is a good minimum target. That means 2″ of compost added to the top 8″ of dirt.
Depending on where you live and why you have bad dirt in the first place, you might have to add that much each year to keep the soil healthy, at least for a while. That becomes much easier than the original dose of compost, though. Adding mulch, turning under the spent crops, and simply growing things will help protect the soil and let the garden compost itself. This is very important.
Mulching is the easiest compost. Organic mulch consists of anything reasonable to compost — even compost itself. Spread it on the surface of the garden around the plants. It will cover the soil to protect it from radical temperature changes and pounding rains, and let the bacteria and fungi, worms and critters pull it down, chew it up, convert it, and bind it to the existing soil.
The next article will be a couple of examples of great composts and composting ideas, plus the easiest cures for composting problems. Then it will be time to look at various other “permaculture” ideas. There may be several more of these articles. There’s just so much to tell!