Compost: Piles vs. Bins

Piles or bins for your vegetable garden compost? Does it really matter? Well, depending on where you live and how experienced you are, maybe not. But if you’re just starting out, and especially if you live in a municipality or suburban setting, compost piles may in fact not even be allowed because of local ordinances.

Compost bins are actually a neat, clean and tidy way of containing your compost, and bins help to keep any unwanted animals out of it. Bins also help to keep the moisture inside, are ventilated to circulate air through them, and they are usually dark in color which attracts heat from the sunlight, all of which help to speed up the formation of compost material. Take a look at the video clip here.

Make Your Own DIY Composter

If you’re a little bit handy, building your own home composter would be a real addition to your vegetable gardening. You’ll need a few common household items: A plastic trash can, a vinyl screen, bungee cords, a drill with a 2 inch hole-cutting bit, scissors, and that indispensable item for the DIYer — duct tape.

Now for the fun part. Drill the trash can full of 2 inch holes about 6 inches apart all over, including the lid. Make sure to clean the hole edges of excess plastic. Next, take the vinyl screen mesh and cut 6 inch squares out of it, and take duct tape and tape around all 4 sides (see video). Apply these to the inside of each hole in the can and lid. This could take awhile.

When you’re done, add in your dead leaves and grass clippings, green food scraps and shredded paper, and a bag or two of topsoil. Secure the lid with the bungee cords. Tip it on its side and roll it on the ground to help mix the contents. Store it off the ground by a few inches for air circulation, and you’re finished. In a few months, it should be ready for your vegetable garden. Catch the details on this video.

Right Sizing Your Garden

Remember to size your garden a bit smaller than what you think will be enough, especially if you’re a beginning gardener. You may be surprised to find out later on that what you thought would be too small a garden will in fact produce a lot more vegetable crops than what you thought. That’s when you’ll find out who your real friends are when that over abundant zucchini crop comes in and you don’t know what to do with them all. Always remember, smaller is better. If later on you learn that you should have made it bigger because you wanted more tomatoes than you got, then you will have the knowledge you need to size it larger. You can always expand next year. Check out this video for some additional insights.

Raised Bed Gardening: Get the Best Soil First

Soil preparation can be very labor intensive, especially if the soil in your area is of poorer quality. A simple way around this also winds up being much less work. The solution is to build a raised bed garden. A good depth is about 12 inches minimum, but the deeper the better, especially if you’re planning on growing root crops like carrots or fruiting plants with very deep roots like tomatoes.

Go out and get the best soil you can find (or make). Don’t ever settle for what someone tells you is topsoil. All that really means is they scraped it off the top of some nearby part of the earth. Unless you know exactly where it came from, you need to get some assurance that it’s reasonably fertile to start with, even though you are going to amend it anyway once it’s part of your garden.

Good topsoil should have some sand and some clay, but not too much of either component. It should mold together when you squeeze it in your hand but then break apart pretty easily. This indicates that it will drain well and permit the roots of your plants to grow through it without much difficulty.

It’s better to have too much sand in your soil than too much clay. Sandier soil is easier to make right with manure and peat moss. Clay soil can be almost concrete like, and while it can be broken down with sand and gypsum, it’s a lot of effort to bring it back. It’s worth doing your homework on getting the right soil. Check out the video here.

Creating Fertile Garden Soil

If you’ve begun your garden bed by overturning an area of sod in your lawn, there are some things you need to do in order to make that dirt underneath into nutrient rich garden soil ready to grow vegetable crops. First, you need to get any loose soil off the roots of the sod, then transfer all of the sod and any plant materials into your compost bin.

Now comes the fun part–well, not really. You will need to dig down with a shovel by what’s called “double-digging“. What that means is that you dig out the soil to a depth of 12-18 inches and set that dirt aside temporarily. Then add about 6 inches of compost and manure into the excavated bed.

Next, add the dirt that was set aside back in and thoroughly mix them together with either a garden fork or (my favorite) a small rototiller. If your soil has a large amount of clay in it, add some sand to help improve drainage, which is the other important aspect a good quality garden soil must have. Watch this video to learn more.

Brewing Compost Tea

Compost Tea is not something you’d want to drink like Earl Grey, but I think your plants would probably love to have a cup. It has many uses in your vegetable garden. It’s essentially the liquid extract of compost or manure. You can use any kind of compost, either the most intense variety of earthworm casting compost or the kind you make with your own yard clippings and yard waste.

Begin by taking a 5 gallon bucket filled with water and adding about a quart of compost to it, then stir it up. If you use an aquarium aerator and bubble air through the bucket for about 24 hours it really enhances the microbial activity. Some gardeners add a teaspoon of liquid fish and/or liquid seaweed to enhance the fungal content to break down even more nutrients in the compost slurry.

Filter and apply to your garden beds or directly to the plant’s leaves for foliar feeding directly. You’ll be amazed at the results you get. Watch the video for more tips and techniques.

Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers

There is quite a difference between using organic as opposed to chemical fertilizers in your vegetable garden. Organic fertilizers are of the earth and have all of the trace nutrients that a healthy plant needs to grow. Both USDA and state and Federal regulations govern, quite strictly, what can be labeled organic.

On the other hand, chemical fertilizers provide just three elements to feed the plant: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. These are extremely water soluble and unless the plant’s roots can grab them as they are percolating past them, they tend to leach away into the deeper soil, leaving behind salts that are harmful to the plant in the long run. Because chemical fertilizers are lacking in trace nutrients, plants will also deplete the soil around them of those critical elements. This is why using chemical fertilizers over the long term actually depletes the soil over time. Crop rotation and manuring will bring the soil back, however. Watch the video to learn more.

Crop Rotation For a Naturally Healthy Garden

Crop rotation makes your vegetable garden soil continually productive by keeping it from becoming nutrient depleted. It’s also a naturally organic way to keep pest infestations from taking hold.

The simplest way to set up a crop rotation plan is to have your vegetable garden bed divided into 4 equal areas. You’ll need to plant each of four types of vegetable varieties: heavy feeders with big leaves and vines ( lettuce, corn, squash), medium feeders (peppers and tomatoes), light feeders (root crops like carrots and turnips), and soil builders (legumes such as peas and beans). Heavy feeders use lots of nitrogen to grow big leaves and vines. Medium feeders use lots of phosphorus to build fruit. Light feeders use lots of potassium for root structures. The soil builders take nitrogen right out of the air and convert it into nitrates in the soil, thereby replenishing the soil’s nitrogen.

The rotation sequence should always lead with the soil builders, followed by the heavy feeders, then the medium feeders and lastly the light feeders. Each year, move them all one section, keeping the same relative relationships between each group. Doing crop rotation also prevents insect pests who laid eggs on your plants one year from waking up to the plant meal they expected, and instead to something they don’t want to eat. They die from lack of food, saving you the trouble of having to deal with them later in the season. This is a totally organic way of preventing pest infestations. Watch the video here for more information.