Before you start tossing cucumber peelings off your front porch (as I once did), take note: In order for substances to break down, you need to layer nitrogen-rich green materials—such as grass and fruit or vegetable clippings—with brown materials high in carbon...including leaves, twigs and hay.
Some composters will break down a number of materials, but, in general, avoid composting bones, meat, fish or any oily or fatty food. That's the kind of material that will break down slowly and attract unwanted visitors such as mice and rats.
Once you've struck the balance between brown and green, make sure the compost is slightly moist so it doesn't dry out, and also well-aerated. The easiest way to keep the air circulating is to stir your compost or try a tumbler composter. Because of my mouse debacle, I've become a little rodent-phobic, so I am trying out the fully enclosed Solarcone Green Johanna composter. It comes with a winter jacket and will break down materials at a moderate pace all year long.
If you don't have a yard, never fear. Some community gardens will accept your compostable materials. You can also assemble worm boxes, called vermicomposting, which let red worms do the work. My first exposure to a worm box was in a television executive's office in New York City. There wasn't one hippie thing about him, and he kept the worms under his desk. If he can do it, we all can.
We are each other's compost.
Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit SimranSethi.com and follow her on Twitter @simransethi.
Julia Roberts reveals her love affair with composting
10 tips for green gardening from the National Gardening Association
The essentials you need to start an organic garden