I have three large bins (4x4x4) with wood slats & air spaces, no lids. They sit behind some tall bushes to protect them from wind and give them some summer shade.
The real 'pile-building' takes place in the fall. During the summer, we keep throwing our kitchen scraps into one of the piles but they don't decompose very much. It's basically just temporary storage.
Once the leaves come down in the fall, we drive into town and pick up many bags of leaves that people helpfully collect for us. (!) Then we start with one of our empty bins, and layer some leaves in, then some of the 'wet' gunk we've been collecting, then some grass clippings, then more leaves--some dirt or already finished compost sprinkled in too. I moisten each layer with the garden hose as we go. Many people "mulch" their leaves with a lawn mower so I like using those that are cut up so nicely, I think they decompose better, but if we just have whole leaves we throw them in too. On the very top we put a thick layer of leaves, that's our insulation. That's it--we don't do any more turning, or watering.
The next spring, about 6 months later, I remove the top layer of stuff and put it into an empty bin (the top usually doesn't decompose). What's underneath is generally composted enough to use in the garden, though I do sift it a bit. Anything that isn't decomposed I just throw into the new bin for next year.
Sometimes in the spring we have a lot of stuff (weeds, scraps) in the holding bins so in May after I've used up all the "good" compost my husband will come out and turn over all the new stuff from the collection bin into the newly emptied bin, layering it with leaves. That stuff might get turned over again and layered in the coming fall. So you see, some of our compost has been cooking a whole year, some of it for just six months. But in either case, I don't work at it, I just let it cook.
My system is therefore a relatively "passive" system but I have plenty of space for this plus the appearance isn't too important. People who have limited space or need to keep it tidy looking for the neighborhood generally like to do more "active" piles which they turn more frequently to speed up the cooking process. It sounds like that's what you had in mind--but I think perhaps you needed a larger volume of material and more moisture, possibly more leaves, to get the momentum going.
I have read that most people don't have enough carbon/dry matter/leaves in their piles. You can think of the green matter (vegetable scraps, weeds, grass clippings) that is high in nitrogen as the "spark" that starts your compost cooking but the brown matter (leaves, also shredded paper) that is high in carbon is the actual fuel. In general you need a lot more brown stuff (fuel) than green stuff (nitrogen), I forget what the ratio is supposed to be but it's something like 3 or 4 times the volume of brown stuff to green. My husband shredded some old files last year and we added those paper shreds to the compost--they disappeared just fine. Like leaves, you don't want to get this too thick but interlayer it with some of the green stuff.
Probably the 'starter' they gave you didn't hurt anything but I wouldn't spend money on something like that for the future. You should be able to rustle up plenty of free stuff to put in your pile. You might want to collect some materials and then layer & moisten them all on one day, as I was describing we do, to get enough mass to start the cooking. Then you can mix or turn it again later to keep it cooking, as much as you wish to. Some people turn a compost pile as much as three times in a season--it's a matter of preference.
In my opinion there are plenty of different ways to manage a compost pile but in the end it will always work, due to the second Law of Thermodynamics! Things tend to decay. Just not necessarily on the schedule you want it to! But you will get the hang of how to encourage it.
10th yr on program: age=58, BMI=18, b/p=110/70, tc=126, McD=100%.
diagnosed with lyme disease March 2010