When I moved 3 years ago I was faced with a seemingly impossible task - a garden with irredeemable clay soil and steep banks. The earth was solid concrete in summer and unworkable potters' clay in winter. The only thing to do was to add as much organic matter as I could get my hands on, and my very first job was to install a couple of wooden bins bought on the internet.
When confronted with the rules of good composting for the first time it can seem daunting. At the risk of putting my profession into disrepute I will say that any form of composting, however casually done, is much better than not composting at all. A customer of mine makes wonderful compost just with grass mowings and leaves. Less-then-perfect methods just take longer to break down the material into usable compost, and any stems that have not rotted can be thrown back onto the next heap for a second composting. In my garden, all the garden waste except perennial weed roots and larger shrub prunings gets thrown on, in any order, using a rotation system of 2 large wooden bins (3 is better if you have room).
You need a bin, a variety of organic waste materials and a little patience. A bin is essential to keep the material neat and tidy and to help retain moisture and heat. Choose one to suit the size of your garden. Ideally, it should be about 1 cubic metre, which holds sufficient material to compost efficiently. I have never found the plastic 'Darlek' type effective. In a large garden you may need three or more bins to recycle all your waste. (Three is ideal: one for filling, one in the process of composting, and one for using.)
Aim for a mix of dry fibrous material (such as shredded prunings, newspapers or straw) and wet green material (such as grass clippings, discarded bedding and plant leaves). Kitchen waste like veg and fruit peelings is a valuable addition. Everything from my kitchen apart from meat, fish, bones or cooked waste goes in, so I have very little food waste to put out for recycling. Even grass turves can be used as long as they are well buried. All woody material needs to be chopped up before it is added to the compost bin otherwise it will take longer to decompose than the other ingredients.
The easiest way to chop it up is with a garden shredder, but if you have the patience you can get the same results with a pair of secateurs. It is best to layer up the different types of material - grass, leafy green clippings, and chopped up brown stems. This will speed up decomposition by allowing air, moisture and micro-organisms to circulate and do the work. The other key ingredients to composting are heat and moisture. If possible site your bins in a sunny spot, and throw on a bucket of water now and again in dry weather. Keen composters cover a full bin with a piece of old carpet or thick cardboard to help retain heat.
The magic of composting is that the soil-borne micro-organisms will then do all the hard work for you. For a well-done compost, 'cooking' can take anything from a few months to a year, depending on the material you use, the time of year you start (rotting is quicker in summer than in winter) and the sort of compost you want at the end of the process.
After just 3 years of composting I have started to see really good results in areas where compost has been repeatedly added. The soil is darker, the texture open and crumbly, I can easily dig it over and weeds come out with a light forking over. I can even dig holes for planting without using a pick-axe! I can't make enough compost yet to improve the whole plot so I have supplemented with good quality composted farmyard manure bought in bags. November is a time for collecting fallen leaves - lots of lovely rich plant material ready to start a heap for use next spring or summer. So please don't put it in the green bin - it's a precious resource and the key to good healthy soil.
Some people object to compost heaps on the grounds that they attract rats. I have never found this to be the case. Rats would much rather eat nutritious food with high calorific value than a load of old rotting banana skins and Hosta leaves. If you see a rat in the garden is more likely that it is being attracted by another richer source of food, or a suitable nesting site in a dry secure place like under a shed.