Time or money invested in your garden’s soil always brings the best returns: healthy, vigorous plants and great harvests. And when you keep yard waste and kitchen scraps from the landfill you’re doubly rewarded. You can buy ready-made, organic compost to get a jump start. But it’s easy and inexpensive to make your own with the right materials and good equipment.
Here you’ll find all you need to know about getting started as well as maintaining the process no matter which composting method you’ve chosen. There’s basic techniques and time-tested wisdom as well as guides to compost tumblers and the various compost aides — the best starters, the most functional and efficient containers, and practical, useful tools like compost thermometers — that will make your composting efforts efficient and rewarding. You can also learn a lot by going through Planet Natural‘s complete line of composting bins, tumblers and equipment. (Source: Planet natural Resource Center - Compost Guru)
3 Essential Elements for Perfect Compost
It’s time to let you in on a little secret: soil building done like this is the perfect lazy person’s gardening project. Unlike weeding or double-digging, which take lots of time and physical effort, a compost pile pretty much takes care of itself. Build it right, and it will transform your growing expectations.
1. Start with a container. We’re dealing with decomposing organic material, folks, so the structure doesn’t need to be fancy. You just need some sort of way to hold all of the ingredients together so the beneficial bacteria that break down the plant matter can heat up and work effectively.
Compost bins are of two types, stationary and rotating. Both types must have their contents turned periodically to provide oxygen and combine the decaying materials. Stationary bins can be as simple as well-ventilated cage made from wire fence sections or wooden crates assembled from a kit. A well-designed bin will retain heat and moisture, allowing for quicker results. Then there’s compost tumblers, easy to turn bins that speed up the process — compost in weeks, not months or years — by frequent oxygen infusions and heat retention. Select one based on how much plant matter (grass, leaves, weeds, stalks and stems from last year’s garden) you have at your disposal, how large your yard is, and how quickly you need to use the finished product.
When using the stationary bin method, locate the pile in a sunny location so that it has as much heat as possible. If it’s in the shade all day, decomposition will still happen, but it will be much slower, especially when freezing temps arrive in the fall. Compost tumblers can also take heat advantage of being placed in direct sunlight.
2. Get the ingredient mix right. A low-maintenance pile has a combination of brown and green plant matter, plus some moisture to keep the good bacteria humming. Shredded newspaper, wood chips and dry leaves are ideal for the brown elements; kitchen waste and grass clippings are perfect for the green add-ins.
Skip meat, fish and dairy for outdoor bins because they tend to attract pests like mice, raccoons and dogs. If you can’t bear the thought of sending your leftovers to the landfill, there are clever systems that turn them into superfood for your plants.
If you’re using a simple container, it’s best to start heaping the ingredients right on the ground, starting with chunky material like small branches or woody stems on the bottom for good airflow. Every time you add green material, add some brown as well to keep a good moisture balance and create air pockets.
It’s a good idea to give your new pile a jump-start to get the process started. There are several great activators that are ready to go right out of the box. No need to mix it in well. Fold in a couple shovelfuls of garden soil rich in organic matter and let the natural process begin. (See moisture below.)
3. Remember a few simple chores. Taking care of a compost pile is extremely basic, but a wee bit of care makes a huge difference. Add material regularly to give the happy bacteria some fresh food to consume and enough insulation to keep the process warm.
Turn the pile with a pitchfork or compost aerator every week or two to make sure that all of the materials are blended in and working together. After you’ve mixed things up, grab a handful to see if it’s slightly damp. Too little moisture will slow the decomposition process and too much will leave you with a slimy mess.
In a few months, your finished product should be a dark, crumbly soil that smells like fresh earth.
Avoid Common Mistakes
It’s hard to mess up compost, but we’re happy to offer a little direction so you get off to the best start.
- Don’t start too small. The breakdown process needs a critical mass in order to do its job. However, certain bins work well for small amounts of material, so choose a product for your specific needs.
- Keep things moist. It’s easy to walk away and forget that there’s an active process going on, so check the pile regularly, especially during hot, dry weather (see Managing Moisture).
- Don’t depend on one material. A combination of different textures and nutrients created by the disintegration of many different plants will give your plants a gourmet diet that helps create disease and pest resistance. Think about it — a huge clump of grass clippings just sticks together in a huge mat that hangs around for years. Add some leaves, stir, and natural forces like water, air and heat go to work quickly!
- Don’t get overwhelmed. This isn’t rocket science, so jump in and try, even if you don’t have a clue. You’ll soon see what works and what doesn’t.
In Montana, where I live, the Holy Grail of gardeners is a homegrown tomato. The optimistic folks who try to outsmart the over-in-a-flash growing season, chilly summer nights, skimpy rainfall and marauding gophers or deer are courageous, indeed. I know a woman who tried every trick in the book to grow tomatoes she could brag about. She started them early, protected them from wind and cold, and staked them up oh-so carefully.
No luck. They always turned out puny, mealy and tasteless.
Last year, she decided to focus on the soil instead. After reading up on the nutrients that plants need to thrive, she decided to mix compost into her garden and see what happened.
The experiment was a complete success! The heirloom tomatoes were so luscious and tempting that someone actually stole the crop out of the woman’s backyard. She was so miffed she actually filed a police report about it!
Compost is no guarantee that your vegetables (and flowers!) will inspire theft, or at least jealousy, in your neighborhood But compost rich in organic materials is the fastest ticket to healthy, productive plants that reward your hard work with beautiful blooms and bountiful harvests. And you take control of the compost you spread when you make it yourself: no sprayed grass clippings, no sewage waste (see What’s In Commercial Compost). You can guarantee the quality of your home-made product. We hope we’ve encouraged you get started, if you haven’t already. Compost is your best garden investment.
Watering The Garden – Tips On How And When To Water The Garden
By Nikki Tilley
(Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden )
Many people ponder how to water a garden. They may struggle over questions such as, “How much water should I give my garden?” or “How often should I water a garden?” It’s really not as complicated as it seems, but there are some things that should be considered. These include the type of soil you have, what your climate or weather is like, and the types of plants you are growing.
When to Water Gardens
“When and how often should I water a garden?” While the general rule of thumb is about an inch or two of water each week with deep, infrequent watering as opposed to the more frequent shallow watering, this really depends on a number of factors.
First, consider your soil. Sandy soil  is going to hold less water than heavier clay soil . Therefore, it’s going to dry out faster while the clay-like soil will hold moisture longer (and is more susceptible to over watering). This is why amending the soil with compost is so important. Healthier soil drains better but allows for some water retention too. Applying mulch  is also a good idea, reducing watering needs.
Weather conditions determine when to water garden plants as well. If it is hot and dry, for example, you’ll have to water more often. Of course, in rainy conditions, little watering is needed.
Plants, too, dictate when and how often to water. Different plants have different watering needs. Larger plants need more water as do newly planted ones. Vegetables, bedding plants and many perennials have more shallow roots systems and also require more frequent watering, some daily–especially in temps over 85 F. (29 C.). Most container plants need watering  on a daily basis in hot, dry conditions — sometimes twice or even three times a day.
When to water  gardens also includes the time of day. The most suitable time for watering is morning, which reduces evaporation, but late afternoon is okay as well provided you keep the foliage from getting wet, which can lead to fungal issues.
How Much Water Should I Give My Garden Plants?
Deep watering encourages deeper and stronger root growth. Therefore, watering gardens about 2 inches or so once a week is preferable. Watering more often, but less deep, only leads to weaker root growth and evaporation.
Overhead sprinklers are often frowned upon, with exception to lawns, as these also lose more water to evaporation. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation  is always better, going straight to the roots while keeping foliage dry. Of course, there’s also the old standby—hand watering—but since this is more time consuming, it’s best left for smaller garden areas and container plants.
Knowing when and how to water a garden correctly can ensure a healthy growing season with lush plants.
Using Rain Barrels: Learn About Collecting Rainwater For Gardening
By Jackie Rhoades
How do you collect rainwater and what are the benefits? Whether you have in interest in water conservation or simply want to save a few dollars on your water bill, collecting rainwater for gardening may be the answer for you. Harvesting rainwater with rain barrels conserves potable water — that’s the water that’s safe to drink.
Collecting Rainwater for Gardening
During the summer, much of our potable water is used outdoors. We fill our pools, wash our cars and water our lawns and gardens. This water must be chemically treated to make it safe for drinking. which is great for you, but not necessarily great for your plants. Collecting rainwater for gardening can eliminate many of these chemical salts and harmful minerals from your soil.
Rainwater is naturally soft. The less water used from your local treatment facility, the fewer chemicals they have to use and the less money they have to spend on those chemicals. There’s savings for you, too. Most home gardeners see a rise in their water bill during the summer gardening months and during a drought, many of us have been forced to choose between our garden and out water bill.
Rainwater collection can reduce your bills during the rainy months and help offset your costs during the dry ones. So how do you collect rainwater? The simplest method for harvesting rainwater is with rain barrels.
Using rain barrels involves no special plumbing. They can be purchased, often through local conservation groups or from catalogs or garden centers, or you can make your own. Prices range from around $70 to $300 or more, depending on the design and aesthetics. The price drops considerably if you make your own. Plastic barrels can be painted to blend with your house or landscape.
Using Rain Barrels
How do you collect rainwater for use in the garden? On the most basic level, there are five components. First of all, you need a catchment surface, something the water runs off. For the home gardener, that’s your roof. During a 1-inch rainfall, 90 square feet of roof will shed enough water to fill a 55-gallon drum.
Next, you’ll need a way to direct the flow for rainwater collection. That’s your gutters and downspouts, the same downspouts that direct the water out to your yard or storm sewers.
Now you’ll need a basket filter with a fine screen to keep debris and bugs from your rain barrel, the next component of your rainwater collection system. This barrel should be wide and have a removable lid so it can be cleaned. A 55-gallon drum is perfect.
So now that you’re using rain barrels, how do you get the water to your garden? That’s the last component for collecting rainwater for your garden. You’ll need a spigot installed low on the barrel. An additional spigot can be added higher on the drum for filling watering cans.
Ideally, when using rain barrels, there should also be a method for directing overflow. This can be a hose connected to a second barrel or a piece of drainpipe that leads to the original ground pipe to lead the water away.
Harvesting rainwater with rain barrels is an old idea that has been revived. Our grandmothers dipped their water from the barrels at the side of their house to water their vegetable patch. For them, collecting rainwater for gardening was a necessity. For us, it’s a way to conserve both water and energy and to save a few dollars while we do it.
Note: It is important that you safeguard rain barrels by keeping them covered whenever feasible, especially if you have small children or even pets.