Making and Using Compost

Compost is the best form of organic matter to add to your soil and can keep your soil stocked with all the micro nutrients your plants will need. Compost is a mix of organic materials such as clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden waste decayed into a dark, crumbly mass. It increases the overall health of your garden by suppressing disease organisms in the soil. You will see compost marketed in tidy little bags at most garden centers, but why buy it when it is so simple to make right at home?

Good compost is made up of three parts “browns” to one part “greens.” Some of the common browns are: straw, hay, leaves, cornstalks, sawdust, shredded newspaper, dry brown weeds, and dry grass clippings. Some greens are: fresh grass clippings, fresh manure, alfalfa hay, crushed eggshells, cabbage or broccoli leaves, fresh weeds, green garden trimmings, and coffee grounds.

There are two basic types of composting: Hot (fast) composting or Slow (cold) composting, bins, boxes, or tumblers are just containers for making either hot or cold compost. Whether you choose hot or cold composting will depend on how much work you want to do and how quickly you want to have a finished product.

Hot composting, often called active composting, takes more effort than cold but you will be rewarded with faster results. Your “hot” pile will also generate enough heat to kill many diseases and weeds. Start the process on a warm day since the organisms work best in the heat on a well-drained site. Your pile or bin size should be 3-4 feet x 3-4 feet x 3-4 feet. Stockpile your ingredients next to your pile so you can assemble as much as possible at once. Chop all materials using either a shredder or by simply mowing over small piles. By breaking up your materials you encourage faster decomposition. Start with about a 6″ layer of “browns” followed by about a 2″ layer of “greens” and continue this pattern using all your available materials. For active composting it is a good idea to throw in a handful of an activator such as alfalfa meal, blood meal, fresh manure, or humus rich soil per layer. These substances will speed up the decomposition by boosting nitrogen and microorganisms. Water the layers until the materials are evenly moist. Now cover your pile with a lid or an old tarp. Every week to 10 days turn your pile mixing the layers as you turn until the materials are partially broken down and no longer hot. It should be ready to use in three to six weeks.

No-fuss cold composting is just as good for the garden, it just takes longer. There is no fussing with layers and ingredients or turning the pile. You can make cold compost anywhere, in a pile or a bin. You supply basically the same ingredients such as leaves, kitchen scraps, and grass clippings and four to five months you should have some great compost.

Bins, boxes, or tumblers are simply containers for making hot or cold compost. Several approaches to the bin if you would like to build your own are the wire mesh and wood, all wooden, three-sided cement blocks, or the simple and inexpensive three-sided straw bale bin. The bin should be at least 3′ x 4′ to allow for enough volume for proper decomposition. A metal or plastic garbage can is easily modified as a cold composter. Simply poke aeration holes in the sides and bottom and set the can or three bricks to allow for air passage underneath. The stationary plastic bin and plastic tumbler type are expensive to purchase and don’t usually hold enough for hot composting but are often animal proof and can be more attractive in your yard. If you feel super ambitious you can construct a triple section bin. Instead of turning your compost you simply move it along from compartment to compartment thus keeping a steady production of compost going. A very simple, effective method if you don’t mind digging is the pit or trench method. Dig a trench right in the garden about a foot deep piling the soil beside the trench. Now just add your composting material covering each layer with an inch or soil of the removed soil.. When the trench is full you start another one. This method encourages earthworms and in a few months even the most stubborn clay will be crumbly and easy to dig. It is an excellent way to improve the soil for a new bed.

Compost is a wonderful soil improving additive, topdressing, or mulch. You can use it anywhere in the garden. Finished compost should be used within a few months, but even the oldest compost improves the soil. So get busy digging, building, turning and piling and very soon your garden will thank you.



Cambell, Stu. Mulch It! Pownal, VT: Storey Books, Inc. 2001
Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1992.


Landscaping: Not Just Pretty Flowers Anymore

My front and back yards are a landscaper’s dream. My front lawn is a north-facing patch of dirt dominated by a mulberry tree, while the back is another brown patch dominated by my two dogs. I essentially have blank slates for a creative green thumb to transform into something beautiful and practical.

In fact, landscaping may be my best long-term investment for reducing my home’s heating and cooling costs, protecting me and my family from crime and, if I lived in the East Mountain’s or near a near an open space or forest, from fire.

I’ve got several goals in mind for my yard, not the least of which is water efficiency. There are other considerations, as well: allergy reduction, attracting wildlife like hummingbirds and butterflies, and crime prevention.

Most of us know that certain plants wreak havoc with histamine levels each year, so controlling pollen is a goal for some. As a rule, anything with a pretty flower is pollinated by insects and not by the wind and is friendly to the nose. Most nurseries carry a chart that lists the pollen count of plants so homeowners can pick varieties less likely to aggravate allergies.

To attract hummingbirds, we’ve got a huge number of options here in our place. Your local nursery should have a list or be able to suggest varieties appropriate for your yard’s sun level and your own watering preference.

Fighting crime with plants isn’t a new concept, but it is one of the easiest ways to enhance a home. Trim any bushes to below the level of your windows, which will allow neighbors (and police) to see your property and into your house. That way no one can hide behind a bush and break into a window. And keep lower branches of trees trimmed to 6-8 feet from the ground so that someone can’t hide behind it and take you unawares. Rose bushes and pyracantha have lovely thorns, too.

With more and more people moving to forested areas, the need to do as much as possible to protect dwellings from fire danger is growing. The idea of firescaping is to create a defensible zone of at least 30 feet around a home. No stacked wood next to a building, and no coniferous trees within the zone (pines, junipers, cedars, etc.). Within the ‘mid-zone’ (25-30 feet), deciduous trees that drop their leaves in the fall and grasses to hold topsoil create the balance you need. In the summer, their leaves shade your home, while allowing winter light in.

Closer to the house, firescapers can plant smaller groupings of drought resistant plants and shrubs at least 20 feet apart, complemented by walkways and flagstone. The small groups of plants will be isolated from one another with the goal of preventing the spread of fire from the building to vegetation or vegetation to structure. Using gravel, concrete or flagstone in this area removes fuel entirely.


Bathroom Remodeling Ideas: Turning Your Master Bath into a Spa

Almost everyone loves the experience of a nice, large master bath, with plenty of space for a walk-in shower, and a separate Jacuzzi tub. Making your bath into a center of attention will not only provide many hours of pleasure, but will add immeasurably to the value of your home, and adds to the resale potential. Consider some simply tips to adding luxury to your bath without breaking the bank.

The major consideration in any bath remodel is space. Older homes suffer from the master bath being closet size, and give new meaning to the old term “water closet.” Today, we see the master bath in design magazines as a big, luxurious room, with ample space and beautiful design. Therefore, every bathroom remodel should start with considering if there is hidden space that can be incorporated to make the bathroom larger. What is on the other side of the walls adjacent to the bath? Is it possible to add on to the house and expand the bath outward? While moving walls and adding to the structure are expensive, the new look and space will certainly increase appeal and value. While I might not go to such great lengths in planning to sale a house, if I planned to remain in the house and/or resale in five years, I would definitely consider these options.

For such extensive remodels, you will definitely need an architect to draw plans, and you should carefully choose the contractor to make the changes. Be sure to get a permit for the work, and do your due diligence in checking out the contractor. Always check references and his rating with the Better Business Bureau.

To attain a spa like feel in the bath, consider extensive ceramic tile work. Choose a flooring company that reflects your values. Pick warm colors and use some design techniques to add style. Simply changing the direction of the tile can add a new dimension. Small design details can add much to the look and offer many decorator options. If replacing windows, always consider larger rather than small windows, and make every allowance for natural light. Earth tones are a beautiful way to give your new bath an earthy, natural feel.

Consider adding steam to your shower set up and always think ahead about handicap accessibility. Having a self contained shower that allows for a wheel chair is worth doing. It is always cheaper to do it now rather than later. Replace commodes with comfort height fixtures and replace cabinetry with a new look and material. A master with a modern vanity and counter tops with either undermount sinks or the new vessel sinks will make the bathroom pop. Consider using as much “green” materials as possible and recycle old cabinetry and fixtures by donating them to Goodwill or other charities. The tax receipt helps reduce your investment.

If ceramic tiles are too cold for you, consider the new heating grids that are installed with the tile, providing warmth and making tile a better option. It might also be worth considering the new heated towel bars which heat your towels, and are a nice touch to your new spa-like bath.

Make the shower area as open as possible by incorporating the new clear blocks as a way to retain some privacy, while giving more light to the inside of the shower. Be sure to add a seating area in the shower to sit and enjoy the steam, or simply relax to mediate as you enjoy your new retreat.

While not cheap, adding a spa-like atmosphere to your main bath is both appealing and a good investment. The rule of thumb is that the master is one of two areas where investments will ultimately pay off in a nice return. Be sure to incorporate an interior designer into your planning to help with color, style, and design considerations. Their services are invaluable if you are to get the look you want.