Gardening & Food Security

Gypsy Farmgirl on composting, mulching, and thrifty water usage

Does anyone besides me ever sit and shake your head and wonder, “Why in the world do I go out and PAY for garden mulch when I just sent away an entire yard waste tote full of organic clippings from my yard???” Well, I do. Or rather, I did. But no more.

Now, I am an avid gardener, hence the “Farmgirl” part of the “Gypsy Farmgirl” title here. I love to grow just about anything, and it is my dream to get back to growing all of my own vegetables so I can avoid the outrageous prices and unhealthy additives at the local grocery store. But experience has taught me that growing a successful garden means I need fertile soil, and fertile soil demands organic matter to provide nutrients. Here is where the “cha-CHING” alarm goes off in my brain. With organic mulch going for anywhere from $5 to $15 per 3 cubic foot bag, and composted manure selling for over $5 per 50 pound bag, I get dizzy just tracking the dollar signs. At those prices, my idea of feeding a family less expensively by growing my own vegetables flies right out the window.

What can be done?

First, I considered the area where I want to start a garden. Right now it is grass…which means it is full of already-growing greenery on top of a prolific root system. Yup, you guessed it! Organic material. Considering that it is cut short with no seed pods on top, it is safe to chop up  and blend into the soil underneath. But about that soil underneath. Ugh, it has not fed anything besides grass runoff for many years, so it is a bit depleted. Enter…the compost bin. (Imagine some “007-ish” sounding music right about now.) I know, say the word “compost” and most people  immediately crinkle their nose and envision a pile of stinky, rotting yuckiness smelling up the yard. No one wants that! Yet, a properly maintained compost bin does not create such problems, and can actually reduce waste disposal costs by reducing what goes into your trash and recycle bins each week.

Here are a few composting tips:

  1. Abide by the “no animal products rule”.
    No meat, fats, bones, skin, large amounts of cheese (it’s a fat), deli meats, etc. These DO create a nasty odor in the bin, and they also reduce the temperature of the compost causing it to break down slower. The resulting bacterial growth is not great for your compost and increases the risk involved in handling it. It may also require the extra purchase of a clothes pin for your nose.
  2. Here is what you SHOULD put in the bin!
    Any and all fruit and vegetable matter. Also, things like stale bread, coffee grounds, leftover cereals, pasta, dry cat or dog food,  egg shells, melon rinds, etc. Things break down a bit faster when they are added in smaller pieces, so feel free to chop those melon rinds, orange peels, and similar items a little bit before tossing them into the bin.
  3. Add grass clippings from your mowing, trimmings from house plants, flower petals from dead-headed plants and bushes, and whatever other organic trimmings you might drum up around the property.
    One important rule is to always be sure that whatever you add to your compost bin is free of pesticides or chemicals. If you use weed-n-feed on your lawn, do NOT put the clippings into your compost bin unless it is perfectly okay to you to have those chemicals end up in the lettuce you will harvest from your garden. *YUK* (Do I even need to say anything else about chemical weed killers? Poisons? Various other readily available toxic products frequently sold at garden stores? I didn’t think so.)

*A note about placement of your compost bin:

Compost requires HEAT to break down quickly. Many people place their compost bin far from the house under the cover of tall trees or in some other shady spot, hoping to avoid the odors often attributed to compost. This is a bad plan unless you don’t mind having it take the next year or so for your compost to decompose. Your compost bin needs to have direct sun for several hours of the day in order to build heat that will speed decomposition, so choose a spot that gets the most sun possible. At the same time, compost should not be permitted to dry out completely as very dry plant matter doesn’t break down quickly, it just stays…well, dry and crunchy. It needs to be moist in order to break down, so you will need to make sure it gets a little water added occasionally. During very hot summer temperatures, you might need to add a gallon or so of water once a week, perhaps a little more. Simply give your compost a toss and see if it is still moist. If it begins to seem dry more than a couple inches deep from the top, add a little water.

Thrifty tip for those of us who did not inherit a royal castle::

Use water that has already served a purpose somewhere else (remember, we are all about controlling cost, and every time you turn on your hose or faucet you are spending money for water!) So, if your compost bin needs a little water, consider pouring in the basin of dishwater that you washed the dinner dishes in, etc. Ordinary dish soap and/or laundry soap are not toxic to your compost or your garden beds, so consider re-using that water that you have already paid for when it poured from your faucet. I also employ this method for watering our garden beds and potted plants. I just keep a bucket in the kitchen to catch “throwaway water” that would ordinarily just run down the drain.

Examples:

  • Water used when rinsing your dishes. Many households use an automatic dishwasher these days, so you may not accumulate a basin of wash water. But even with a dishwasher, the dishes need to be rinsed…which can mean several gallons of water just running down the sink drain.
  • “Waiting for the tap water to get hot”. Did you know that it is common to run over two gallons of water down the drain when waiting for hot water to show up? Multiply that by the number of times you might wait for the hot water and it likely adds up to a sizable amount of water each week/month. Again, wasted water that you paid for.
  • Old coffee, tea, fruit juices, water left in a glass, half-empty bottles of water that no one can remember who drank out of them, etc. You might be surprised how much water these all add up to when you pour them all in together.
  • If you hand wash a clothing item, that water is also fair game to be re-used. Avoid saving water that contains any bleach or ammonia, but ordinary laundry soap is not toxic to your plants.

Now, I don’t mean that you should use up hours every day conserving every last drop of water. There is no need to become obsessive. But if you look at it from the perspective of getting the most bang for your buck, you may as well use that waste water for your gardens since you already paid for it the second it poured from your faucet. Using it to rinse your dishes AND water your rose garden just gets more use out of the same water!

Many people ask about what style of compost bin to use. There are many versions on the market today, most of which will be made of a sturdy plastic or metal dark in color to promote internal heat. You can buy a drum-style bin that sits on a metal frame and has a handle to spin it so that the contents tumble and mix inside, or a simple plastic version that sits on the ground. As long as they promote heat inside and provide adequate ventilation to allow air circulation, they will work just fine.

Trash bins can often be purchased very cheaply at second hand stores.What if you can’t or prefer not to spend money on a commercially-made bin? You can pick up a large, dark-colored plastic trash can and make your own! Poke a few holes in the bottom to allow for a bit of liquid drainage, and poke several up the sides of the bin as well. You want airflow to be possible into the bin, and these holes will allow for that.  In lieu of even a plastic trash bin, you can form a pile in a corner and cover it with black plastic to hold in  heat. Turn the pile occasionally with a pitchfork or shovel, and apply the same rule of keeping it moist.

***CAUTION***
I keep mentioning that we want the compost to become hot…and by that I truly mean HOT. Do not be surprised if you look out and see your compost bin steaming on a hot day! The ideal temperature for compost is 135-160 degrees F. Those temperatures are very effective at killing off weed seeds that may stray into your compost, as well as insect larvae, parasites and cysts. The catch is that most people will quickly pull their hand away from running water that is above 107 degrees…so the temperatures in hot compost are definitely high enough to cause a mild burn. Always use a tool to turn your compost, never your hands, even if you think it “doesn’t look too hot”.

Dried up iris clippings, leaf clippings, and flower greens make easily available mulch throughout the growing season.

Now, there is another useful way to employ the clippings from around your abode. Don’t laugh, this method has several positive points to it. In our yard, we have quite a number of Iris plants…and by “quite a number”, I mean hundreds. After the Iris flowers in the late spring, the green leaves remain for quite some time. The tubers multiply, sending up new little Iris plants all over the place. Eventually they need to be split apart and can be re-planted in other places. Meanwhile, the tips of the leaves will begin to brown…and here comes the great part. Those leaves can be trimmed down and snipped up into smaller bits that can be used as a top mulch on flower beds, vegetable gardens, and/or added to your compost bin. So, a word about mulching…

Here in the Northwest we get lots of rain, so plants drying out is not really a problem until the hot summer months when the rain backs off and the sun beats down. But if you have any amount of bare dirt around your plants, you will notice that even when you add your own watering to what Mother Nature pours down, it does not seem to keep the ground moist for very long. That’s because a lot of that water evaporates or runs off before doing any good at all for the roots of your thirsty plants.

Adding a top mulch does two main things:

  1. It places a barrier between the sun and the dirt, keeping the soil cooler so that water evaporates more slowly. Most plants are happier with their roots cooler, so this is a double benefit.
  2. The mulch creates a textured surface that more efficiently holds water where it needs to be, at the roots of your plants. So, instead of watching the water run off across the hard packed dirt, you will see it soak into the ground where you want it to stay.

Over time, the mulch will break down just as it would if it had been added to your compost bin, and it can be easily turned into the soil with a hand rake. This adds nutrients to the soil, again making your plants healthier. If you pay attention, you will see the color and texture of the soil change as the decomposing mulch fortifies it. What may have once been dry, pale, dusty dirt will become dark, fluffy, sweet-smelling soil that nourishes your plants. You can use ANY plant matter for your mulch, so it is an extremely cost-effective way to maintain your soil and save on cost. Around our yard, I incorporate Iris leaves, Bluebells, Rhododendron leaves and blooms, Rose leaves and blooms, and even the small stems (be careful of thorns), Hydrangea and Camelia leaves and spent blossoms, really just about any sort of foliage that has to be trimmed back for some reason. I just take a 5 gallon bucket and a pair of scissors, go on a clipping foray around the yard, and voila…a whole bucket of greenery ready to be chopped up and used as mulch.

This is where it gets fun! At our house, when my Sweetheart comes home from his day at work we usually have a “time out” for an hour or so to decompress after the day, think about what to make for dinner, and chat together. So, while we do that I sit with my bucket and chop away on my mulch material. Hey, I would have been sitting down anyway, I might as well keep my hands busy and do something productive at the same time! Bear in mind, this chopping is not strenuous at all, it is very soft material and is not fatiguing to snip it up. In a short amount of time, I can have over half the bucket full of mulch snippings. These can be added directly to the surface of a garden bed, mixed with some finished compost before adding to a bed, or even just added to the compost bin itself if I don’t need any new top mulch (This is rare, as our gardens can always use more mulch added to them).

 

A few words of advice: 

  1. Though it may seem obvious, I will remind you never to put dandelion clippings, blackberry clippings, or ferns into your mulch, as they re-seed far too easily. These items can go into their very own bin or pile to break down if you wish, but I would steer clear of using them as a garden mulch if you want to certainly avoid having to pull out their baby seedlings later.
  2. I briefly mentioned it earlier, but once again do NOT put things into your compost that you would not want to have end up in your food if you are planting a vegetable garden. Pesticides and weed-controllers might seem harmless on your lawn, but as soon as you add those grass clippings to your compost and then rake that compost into your vegetable patch, your carrots and green beans can contain unforeseeable levels of those chemicals. Even using such contaminated clippings on purely ornamental garden beds still allows those toxins to leech into your soil and eventually into the water table. To me, it seems counter-productive to spend the effort of growing a beautiful garden full of healthy foods, just to have them end up laced with deadly poisons. Avoiding the use of such chemicals altogether is a far healthier choice for our bodies and our environment, and with organic mulch controlling weed growth you really won’t miss them anyway.

In conclusion, remember that composting need not be a stressful science project or time-consuming undertaking! The earth has been rebuilding itself for millennia, and will continue to do so regardless how we humans try to add our expertise. It is a completely natural process for plants to sprout, live, die out, decompose, and feed the soil from which they came…and from which new plants will surely come. Go ahead and give it a try, you might be very surprised how easy it is and how your gardens will thrive with the extra organic material replenishing the soil!

Have fun with it and enjoy the benefits!

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