The soil or compost added to the pile supplies the organisms that make composting work. You can also purchase packets containing microorganisms to speed the composting process.
Your pile should start heating within several days. When all is going well, the center of the pile can reach 130 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are using a thermometer, turn the pile when the pile center reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Another way to check the compost pile heat is to insert a stick or wire into the pile center. Remove the wire or stick and touch it to check for heat. When the wire or stick is too hot to hold, it is time to turn the pile. As you turn the pile, move the outside portion to the center.
The more variety of plant materials you use to build your pile, the better your compost will be. Green materials that are commonly available include grass clippings, hedge trimmings, harvested vegetable plants and flowers. Dried materials can be leaves that fall from trees and shrubs, dried grass clippings or dried up flowers and vegetables. Green plants are high in nitrogen, while dried materials are high in carbon. Both elements are necessary for composting.
Do not add pet waste, meat scraps, weeds with seeds, plants with nematodes or diseased plants to the compost pile. Do add nonmeat kitchen scraps, such as coffee grounds, eggshells, vegetable trimmings, fruit peelings, peanut shells or pecan shells.
Plant debris will compost faster if you run it through a shredder before adding it to the compost pile. At the very least, take a sharp flat spade and chop up the larger materials into smaller pieces.
Finally, to speed the compost process check your pile on a regular basis and water as needed. In the summer, you will want to water every four to seven days. In the winter, check your pile twice a month and water as needed.
Ray Ridlen is an agriculture/horticulture educator for the Oklahoma County Extension Service. For more information, call 713-1125.