Composting for a Better Garden

What is composting?

It’s an inexpensive way to add nutrients to your garden, while keeping your household trash at a minimum.

Introduction

Anyone who has been reading the papers, watching TV or hasn’t had their head buried in the sand have heard about compost. And do you know what? People used to compost when composting wasn’t “cool”.

The main reason a gardener should consider building a compost bin is to create better soil for the plants.

There’s the traditional pile hidden out of site close to the traditional garden that most people think about when they hear the words compost pile.

Types of Composting Methods

There are also other alternatives available for those of you who garden on a smaller scale, such as an apartment or urban setting. In this post I’m going to talk a bit about your options, and you can decide which best suits your situation.

  • Traditional pile. I have had a traditional compost pile over the years, with some hard lessons learned to go with it. For starters it’s a bad thing to let it dry out too much, or the ants move right in. Something else I learned was snakes like to hang out on them when it’s hot. Ants I can handle. Snakes not so much.
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay
  • Commercially designed composter for smaller yards. This one has a lid with a door (to add the materials in without disturbing the pile) and a door at the bottom for scooping out the finished compost. It’s a great concept, but don’t let the advertisements fool you into thinking you’ll have compost within a few weeks. Trust me; that doesn’t happen. It takes time, perseverance and a lot of patience.
Photo from Canva
  • Worm bin. Now this is something I haven’t tried yet, but it is on my list. When my kids were in grade school one of the teachers had worm bins in his classroom. He used them as an educational tool plus he was rewarded with vermicompost for the plants he also had in his classroom. While picking up my son from school one day the topic of the worm bins came up so Mr. H showed me what he used, how he added the bedding, and the best things to feed the worms. It was an educational visit for me as well.
Photo from Canva

Materials: Good and Bad

Now when it comes to composting, you can’t just throw anything and everything in it. Some items are a no-no, while others must be added in moderation.

First, we’ll go with the no-no’s:

  • Meat
  • Sugar
  • Oils
  • Dairy products

Next, we’ll talk about the rest:

  • Eggshells – these do best if they’re rinsed and crushed. It takes a lot longer for a large piece of eggshell to break down than a small one.
  • Citrusy pulp and peels – these are okay for a large pile or bin in moderation, but do not add them to your worm bin.
  • Vegetable/fruit scraps, leaves and stems – the smaller the pieces the quicker they’ll break down, and the quicker they break down the sooner you’ll have a healthy addition to your soil.
  • Grass clippings and pulled weeds – these are considered “green matter” which should not be dumped into the pile all at once. If too much green is put in it will become compact and the air will not circulate. You will most likely be left with a stinky, sludgy mess.
  • Straw, pine straw, fallen leaves and wood chips (just not from treated wood) – these are considered “brown matter” and aid in providing air circulation and balance. If you’re going to add green matter, be sure to add an equal amount of brown matter.
  • Coffee grounds, shredded paper, natural fibers and small twigs and branches may also be added. Bear in mind the size so the contents break down at relatively the same speed.
  • Animal manure – chickens, rabbits, alpacas, sheep, goats, llamas, cows and horses all provide ideal manure for your compost pile. I do advise against adding too much at once, especially cow manure. Some manures are better left for the fields.

You’ll need to monitor the amount of moisture in your pile because you don’t want it so wet it’s soggy, nor do you want it so dry other creatures decide to make it their home. Introducing some earthworms into your pile will help you get a feel for how much moisture it needs. If the worms are at the top, it’s much too wet. If they’re non-existent it’s too dry. Finding worms several inches down is ideal.

It will take several weeks for a pile to break down and become a viable soil additive. To speed up the process you can turn the compost with a fork (if you have a traditional pile) or roll your container to mix the contents. The latter is ideal for small space gardening. (Watch for an article on how to make your own mini compost tumbler.)

Photo from Canva

Conclusion

It will take some trial and error to get your mix just right. Any problems can generally be fixed with the addition of water or brown/green matter. I have a pile out in my garden that I’m anxious to get into when spring gets here, provided I got the mix right. Winter can be a forgiving season when it comes to compost though, and I may just have the ideal mix when I dig into it.

If you’re a seasoned composter, which technique do you use the most? Post your reply in the comments section.

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Planting to Save Space and Grow More Food

Much of Canada is still under a blanket of snow but that’s not stopping me from thinking of warmer days. In fact, it’s the dreaming of warmer days that are getting me through. I have to admit, I’ve about had enough of winter.

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Introduction

The little tips and tricks used to get more bang for your buck (or in this case, more food).

Compact Gardening

As someone who has had gardens of different sizes over the years, I prefer the more compact ones. My reasons are two-fold.

Firstly, saving space is a big concern for anyone who has limited real estate. I am a big fan of Square Foot Gardening (a method designed by Mel Bartholomew) because it serves more than one purpose.

  • Space Saver. His method encourages close planting. In his book he states, “most gardeners are not farmers”. We don’t have tractors and big equipment to get between the rows to keep the weeds down. As a gardener who has spent countless hours trying to get a handle on the weeds after several rainy days, I am with him one hundred percent.
  • Better soil aeration. Anyone who has had a traditional row garden will know the consequences of walking between the rows, especially after a rain. You sink into the soil and it is no longer light and fluffy; it’s compacted with every step. That’s not healthy for the roots because it inhibits air circulation and encourages drowning in wet conditions. And if your soil is mostly clay, you’re just asking for trouble. (Ask me how I know.)
  • Less weeds. I have to admit, this is my favourite part of this method of gardening. I hate weeding, especially when the weeds are more prolific than my crops. That in itself has caused me to throw my hands in the air, say a few choice words, and walk away. Of course, that didn’t solve anything, but it did make me feel better for a few minutes.

Secondly, a bumper crop is more easily achieved. That’s what I have found in my experience anyway. The reasoning for a better crop not only comes from what I mentioned earlier, but also because there’s less chance of the plants being stressed.

The water doesn’t evaporate as quickly, the close proximity of the plants inhibits weed growth (and any weeds that do start to grow are usually spindly and easy to pull), and by companion planting more can be grown in the small area.

What is Companion Planting?

Planting vegetables, fruits and flowers together helps them benefit from each other. For example, planting runner beans at the base of sunflowers not only saves space but it also provides a natural “pole” for them to climb. A little tidbit on this strategy though: give the sunflowers a head start, or else the beans will soon be too tall for the “poles”. (Yep, you guessed it; I did NOT do that the first time.)

Planting flowers amongst the vegetables will also attract the pollinators. Sometimes they need to be bribed to come to the garden, especially if it’s a new one. I’m going to be ‘bribing’ more bees and other good bugs this year since I’m changing where my vegetables are going to be planted.

Other plants are pest-deterrent, such as onions, garlic, marigolds, and nasturtiums (all of the above are edible by the way). With the method explained in Mel’s book, no matter where in a block you plant it’s close enough to be beneficial.

When I first implemented this method of gardening, I made sure I had at least one square of marigolds in each section to help keep the mosquitoes away. I would brush my hand along the flowers as I walked by to release whatever it is in them that deters the mosquitoes.

One thing I did learn (the hard way of course) was to NOT plant a watermelon and zucchini in the same bed. Funny story: I was super excited when fall came along and my watermelon was almost the size of a football (but more oval). My mouth was watering just thinking of how good that watermelon would be. Imagine my dismay when I cut into the watermelon to find it the same colour as the zucchini.

Lesson learned: they cross pollinated and I had an oval zucchini and a regular zucchini. Aside from the outside, nothing resembled a watermelon. Now I have yet to figure out just how far apart I should plant the two so it doesn’t happen again, but I will say eight feet is too close. Maybe this year I’ll try again but with a much bigger distance between the two.

Succession Planting

In the SFG method, new crops can be planted in squares which have been harvested. The key to remember is to not plant the same type of vegetable, otherwise you’ll most likely end up with soil-borne diseases. This is known as crop rotation, just like the farmers do when they plant their fields year after year.

By filling in the squares with plants you have waiting in the wings you’ll be utilizing your growing space. Not only will you not end up with blocks of weeds, you’ll be producing a lot more food per season. I have harvested radishes, then planted tomato plants in that spot. I essentially was able to get two completely different crops out of one square, where in a traditional garden I would have had separate rows for each.

Interplanting

Interplanting works well in this method. For example, a pepper plant can be put in the middle of a square because it needs twelve inches of space when it’s mature. Adding some radishes or lettuce in the same square will utilize the soil and space. By the time the pepper has grown enough to fill in the space your radishes and lettuce will have been harvested and enjoyed.

Remember the sunflower and bean example I used earlier? That’s a perfect example of interplanting. Another is to plant vining crops on the north-most side of your garden bed and install a support, such as a trellis. Lower crops can then be planted in the front part of those squares. For example, cucumbers for climbing and say, lettuce to help shade the roots.

In-ground or Raised Beds?

In Mel’s book he shows the system in place in an in-ground format. I have tried it and it does work well. However, with that being said, using raised beds also works well for anyone with mobility issues. Sometimes it’s not easy to get back up after being on your knees for any length of time. And if you have bad knees or a bad back, you’re not doing yourself any favours by subjecting yourself to injury.

Raised beds is my preferred method, and for more than just the safety aspect of it. The soil heats up sooner in the spring so you can begin gardening sooner. And to extend the harvest, you can easily add hoop houses to each bed. (I’ll be talking more about hoop houses in a future post.)

When I had my raised beds several years ago, they were only a few inches high. That was fine for the warming aspect, but it would still be too low for the ease-of-access aspect. My goal this year is to build my garden beds almost waist-height to make planting, maintaining and harvesting easier on my knees and back. I don’t consider myself old, but my body sure feels it.

The options for raised beds are becoming more readily available, and easier to build. The key to remember is to use pressure treated lumber and not chemically infused (such as railroad ties). The best option is to use naturally rot-resistant wood such as cedar, but that can become quite pricey if making several beds.

Granted, by using the Square Foot Gardening method, less really is more.

In Conclusion

Planting a huge garden isn’t necessary when you know the tricks to get more produce from a smaller space. Saving water, time and energy by compact gardening will give you more time to stop and smell the flowers. Stay tuned for how you can design your garden beds to accommodate relaxation features as well as being practical.

If you have enjoyed this post, please share so others may benefit as well.

Gardening and the Weather

There’s one thing we can’t control, and that’s the weather.

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When it comes to gardening, we want ideal conditions. Not too wet and not too dry. Not too hot and not too cold. It sometimes feels as if the weather is always against us.

We may not be able to control it, but we can take measures to work with it. Planting after the risk of frost has passed and covering our crops in the fall.

Collecting rainwater for watering when there’s no rain in sight. Planting in raised beds or adding sand and compost to clay soil for better drainage.

And sometimes Mother Nature dishes out conditions we can’t do anything about, such as a hailstorm.

Unless you plant everything in a greenhouse, hoop house or high tunnel (all basically the same thing) you’re going to have a challenge when it comes to the perfect weather conditions.

You may not be able to control it, but you can take measures to be better prepared for it. Let me explain.

One thing you can do is to tie your tall plants to a sturdy fence or poles to protect them from wind damage during a storm. That doesn’t mean you should be running around trying to figure it out at the onset of a thunderstorm, but rather plant so you have a measure of protection in place ahead of time.

Something else you can do is have framework above your raised beds or along your rows so you can add a cover if it’s going to storm or freeze. Hailstones don’t do quite as much damage when they have to get through a row cover first.

Investing in a weather station will help you make decisions based on the forecast, plus will give you some additional data as well. Knowing how much rainfall your yard gets during the summer will help with deciding which crops will flourish and which won’t without additional watering. Plus, knowing the temperatures (both highs and lows) will help with your perennial selection. Some plants can handle minus forty temperatures if they have adequate snow cover, while others are more sensitive to the cold.

The outdoor part of our new weather station.

If a weather station is out of your price range, take advantage of the local forecast.

I rely on The Weather Network App more than any other when it comes to planning my garden and the other things I do. It’s amazing how our area can be so different from the village, which is less than twenty kilometres away. It must be because we’re north of the river.

This year is going to be more interesting because we did invest in a weather station, so we’ll have more accurate data based on our precise location. It will be fun to see how much temperature, rainfall and amount of wind we get varies from the numbers my app will tell me. (Remind me to keep a journal so I can track the differences.)

We put it up this weekend so won’t know any predictions for approximately fourteen days. The instruction manual says it will take that long while the device learns our particular weather pattern. As it sits now, we can see outside temperature, windchill factor, wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity. Plus, it gives us some inside data as well. It’s like having a new toy; we keep checking the display to see what it says. We’re such kids!

The inside display panel.

We mounted ours to the top of a twelve-foot post and put it at the northeast corner of our garden. The instructions said it needs to be in as open an area as possible for accuracy. Our yard itself is quite sheltered, which has its advantages and disadvantages. (That, however, is for a different blog post.) Ideally it would be interesting to see how much of a difference there is between the open area and the sheltered area.

Do you have a weather station? If so, do you rely on it more than the weather apps or local radio/TV station? Post your comments below.