First: composting (or rotting) is a natural process.
Second: there does not have to be an expense to composting.
Third: one is not required to 'turn' or otherwise manhandle composting material.
Fourth: the work of the compost pile is done by bacteria. Air temperatures have little to do with it.
Fifth: the home composter has the choice of 'cold composting' - a slower process, or 'hot composting' - which takes about one month.
Sixth: finished compost produces a substance (humus) resembling coffee grounds. It is sweet smelling and often contains visible soil creatures - worms, centipeds, pill bugs and others. It may be lumpy with some recognizeable bits of the original material (plant stems, etc) in it.
Composting is a natural process
Through the eons and around the world, natural processes are at work turning organic material into its most biodegradeable form (humus) and mixing that with minerals which have weathered naturally from stone and creating soil. Healthy soil needs to have 4-5% comprised of humus and smart gardeners achieve this by composting their kitchen, garden, and yard waste and returning those nutrients to the soil.
There does not have to be an expense to composting
It is possible to purchase constructed compost bins or composting units. This site promotes low cost or no cost options that we know from experience are successful.
When trees shed their leaves in the fall, in a season or two those leaves have been biodegraded by bacteria, fungi and other soil life - Nature's compost. When piles of old hay or stacks of manure are attacked by the same creatures, the result is humus which is utilized by the soil.
Families can do the same by simply stacking the material and letting it rot. No science is needed, just a pleasant afternoon or two raking and stacking leaves.
One is not required to turn or otherwise manhandle composting material.
Turning the material or moving it from one bin to another is advocated for a number of reasons. In theory, this adds air (oxygen) which is necessary for composting. In theory moving the material from bin to bin allows the homeowner to have several sites or bins in various stages of decomposition. This will work if the homeowner wants to invest the time and labor. But it is not necessary.
The work of the compost pile is done by bacteria, with a helping hand from fungi
If there is enough 'brown' material (carbon-rich material...dried grass, leaves, hay) and enough 'green' material (fresh grass and plant material, fresh fruit and vegetable scraps) to create a pile three feet high and three feet square, and if you have watered it as you mixed the materials together to form the pile, you will have a setting for vigorous bacterial action. The temperature of the pile will rise over 5-10 days to between 140 and 160 degrees, hold that temperature for 3-4 days and then slowly drop to about 60 degrees. The temperature describes the activity of various bacteria that are actively breaking down the material in the pile.
The pile will have sunk by 1/3 or more as the material is broken down. The bacteria and fungi are at work.
The home composter has the choice of 'cold' composting or 'hot composting.'
For single persons or persons who live on a small property, simply stacking their compostable materials and letting them rot in Nature's time is a perfect 'green' solution.(See the information on composting in tire towers for another cold composting solution.) Many persons with a small garden prefer to chose an area in the garden and simply dig in the material or create small pits and fill and cover those as necessary. It all works.
Persons with larger families, larger yards and gardens and/or chickens, rabbits, horses can easily manage the waste from all this with the larger 'hot composting' options. The advantage to the large pile/hot composting system is that it will deliver material that can be returned to the garden as mulch or top dressing in 6-8 weeks.
The finished compost...humus
If one is composting in piles - either the cold or the hot process - the material on the outside of the pile will look pretty much as it did when the pile was originally built. This is fine. Simply rake it off to the side to form the beginning of the new com[ost pile.
About 1/3 of the original mass - in the center of the pile - will be the humusy material that was the focus of the bacterial and fungal activity. This material should be sweet-smelling, resemble a handful of coffee grounds or chocolate chips. It may contain some larger pieces or bits of the original ingredients. Cellulose-rich items like corn, tomato, squash, sunflower stalks take a long time to biodegrade. Dig them into the soil in the garden anyway. They provide a safe haven for many beneficial insects.
Additional resources for help with composting...
This is considered the 'go to' book on soil matters and composting for the hobby gardener. There are thorough discussions on soil structure and texture, an explanation of the'soil pyramid' and a lengthy discussion of the important carbon-nitrogen ration for home composters. The book is in print and available through the Internet.
Teaming with Microbes (revised edition) has excellent discussions of the various types of microbes, bacteria and fungi that are crucial to the creation and continued function of healthy soil. The book is in print and available through the Internet.
To read excellent information about soil health and soil building, go to http://terroirseeds.net/category/soil-building/
Always remember that we live in an area with easy access to the manures of cattle, horses, sheep, chickens and pigs. In all probability cattle manure is the only one that might be worth asking if the animals are pasture raised and finished. An affirmative answer there would tell you that the manure was chemical-free.
Additionally, the fine-screened compost available at the Rapid City landfill is a superb top dressing in the summer as well as a good addition to the soil in the spring and the fall. To read more about this produce as well as suggestions for appropriate us go to http://www.rcgov.org/Public-Works/solid-waste.html and click on the information at the bottom of the page relative to composting with yard waste compost.
And finally...tools you need to compost
Space, preferably near the garden and a source of water with easy access. Most backyard compost piles can easily be contained in a space 6 or 8 feet square.
A good quality pitchfork that is the appropriate size for the user.
A soil (compost) thermometer. These are truly crucial especially if it is important to you that you know what temperature is reached (if, for instance you are trying to get it hot enough to kill weed seeds. These have a dial on the end of a 2-3 foot long probe. Check the local greenhouses first. They are also available on the Internet. Cost - usually under $20.
Welded wire fencing or snow fencing or pallets...or something similar if you feel you need to contain the pile.
Bare ground...this is serious. Many sources give interesting directions that involve building some sort of 'floor' for the pile. Ignore that and build it right on the soil.
Things it is worthwhile forgetting.....
1. Don't bother to stick air pipes or other contrivances into the pile so it can "breathe".
2. Only if you enjoy self-torture should you consider flinging wet, heavy organic material around to add oxygen or let it breathe. Leave it alone to let the bacteria do their job.
3. Interesting looking gadgets that supposedly 'aerate" the compost pile are best left in the store. Save your money.
4. Walk past the products that are "compost starter" chemicals. Those are not necessary and, in reality, trying to jump start the pile can actually cause the beneficial bacteria to bloom quickly and then die. Build the pile with a good mix of materials, made well wet during the building and then leave it alone.