The first question a person has when they decide to starting composting is "What can you compost?". That is a very good question to ask because simply dumping your trashcan on your lawn is the wrong way to go about it. There are a few general guidelines you can use to make sure that your compost pile or compost container creates great fertilizer for your garden with minimal issues.
Some General Rules
Think of your compost pile as a human being. Humans need a balance of carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates are used for quick energy while protein is used for long-term development. For your compost heap the terms carbohydrates and protein can be replaced by brown and green. Your kitchen and garden waste are turned into rich fertilizer by microbes and insects who use it as a source of food. By giving them a balanced diet you can ensure better results out of your compost.
Secondly, not all organic matter should be put in a compost pile. Keep in mind what you are putting outside in your lawn. Things like meat, fat, and bones should not be put in your compost pile because they could very well attract animals and other pests. Decomposing grass clippings do not lure in rats like a rotting piece of beef would. While these items can technically be turned to compost it usually isn't worth the problems it may bring.
Third, you'll want to avoid tossing weeds into your compost unless they meet certain requirements. If the weed has grown to maturity it will likely have seeds. If that is the case, than you are effectively planting weeds in your garden when you use the compost. Dead weeds that have not gone to seed are perfectly fine to compost but you may want to leave them in the sun for a few days to make sure they are dead.
Lastly, do not let your pets add to the compost pile. While it may seem like an ideal use for your dog's waste it can be unsafe. While waste, both human and animal, can be used for composting there are very specific conditions that must be met to make sure that no diseases are transmitted into your soil. Unless you are an expert at composting it is best to leave your animal's waste in the trash.
Items Safe to Compost
We talked about a nice balanced diet of Brown and Green items for your compost so we will split them up for easy reference.
Brown: An easy way to categorize items in the Brown category is to think of them as lawn care leftovers. Dead plants like grass clippings, dried out weeds, Fall leaves, woodchips and dust from non-chemically treated wood. These materials are very easy for the microbes to break down for energy so they can better tackle the items that fall into the Green category. Be careful when adding grass clippings and leaves as they can restrict airflow in the compost pile. Add them in thin layers and not just dump out the bag from your mower.
Once you get started composting this will all become easier. Feeding your compost pile will become second nature and you won't be second guessing every item you tentatively add. In a few weeks you'll be sure that asking "What can you compost?" was the right first move to make.