If helping the environment isn't incentive enough to start composting, consider this: It will save you time and money, too.
"If you're making compost, you're going to be reducing your needs for fertilizer and water," said Jean Schwab, the GreenScapes program manager at the Environmental Protection Agency. You'll also eliminate the need to bag grass clippings or raked leaves.
Schwab estimates that yard and food waste amount to more than 25 percent -- or 60 tons -- of the material in landfills.
If people start composting, "a significant amount of waste then can be diverted from the landfill," she said.
Composting occurs in nature, as plants, leaves and other vegetable matter die and decay. People can emulate that in their backyards, and even their kitchens.
"In my view, the conscious creation of compost is mankind's single greatest gift back to the planet," said Paul Tukey, founder of safelawns.org and author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey Publishing, 2007).
Marie Venezia, executive director of the Sheldrake Environmental Center in Larchmont, N.Y., uses compost in her vegetable garden.
She likes knowing the source of her fertilizer, and she says she's reduced the amount of garbage. Another side benefit, she said: Composting provided hands-on learning for her son, a ninth-grader, when he studied ecology.
Here are some composting basics:
"The first step would be to determine the best system for you," said Jennifer Jensen, founder of the Westchester County, N.Y., Master Compost Program.
Some people opt to create a compost pile in a corner of the backyard, sometimes enclosed by a wire, cage-like structure, sometimes not. Others prefer a large covered bin that rotates. The price varies according to the bin's features, including whether it turns or stacks. Jensen said you can get a basic black plastic bin with a screw-on top for about $100. Check your local municipality or environmental center, however. Some offer bins at a discount.
"A pile works just great for leaves and grass clippings, but when you want to incorporate food waste, its time to use a bin to prevent rodents," EPA says in its guide to backyard composting.
Apartment dwellers also can compost right in their kitchens, sometimes speeding the process with red wriggler worms or another species that breaks down organic matter. This is called vermicomposting. Specialized bins are sold for indoor use, The worms are available online.
What to toss in
Think brown and green -- you'll want a mix of the two.
Browns include wood chips and dried leaves from trees. These items are sources of carbon.
So are newspapers. "One or two copies of The New York Times shredded up will give you all the browns you need," Tukey said.
Greens can include grass clippings and other yard waste and food scraps, including such things as vegetable or fruit peels and coffee grounds. These provide nitrogen.
Use twice as much green material as brown material if you can turn the pile often, Tukey said.
"If you don't turn your pile, go more 50-50 or even 2-1 in the other direction to start," he said. "Too much green in a pile that is not turned bears the risk of rotting and stinking rather than composting."
Compost is created when microorganisms break down the organic matter into nutrients.
By adding soil or some compost, you can jumpstart the process.
Environmentalists recommend that you don't throw meat or fish scraps or dairy products into your compost bin. Those could attract rodents. Material treated with pesticides also should not be composted, especially if you want to use the finished product in your vegetable garden, nor should you use weeds that have gone to seed.
You'll also want to keep the compost pile moist, but not wet, and make sure it's aerated.
How long will it take?
Jensen calls herself a "lazy composter" who likes to let nature run its course.
If you just put your organic materials into a pile and let it decompose on its own, it takes about a year to produce compost.
She recommends starting in autumn, when the leaves are falling. "If you start in the springtime, you're going to have a much more difficult time finding your carbons."
For faster composting, Jensen said people should use a unit that rotates. One such unit has three separate bins. The decomposing material is turned from bin to bin, as it decomposes.
If you use blood meal or corn gluten to speed up the process and turn the compost bin every day, you can have compost in about six weeks, Tukey said.
When it's finished
Finished compost will be cool, brown and crumbly. "It smells fresh, like soil," Venezia said.
It can be used as organic fertilizer in your yard or to fertilize house plants.
"You're taking something that used to be alive and helping them create life again," Tukey said.