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growing a garden: on composting and rain water

May 16, 2011

T. demonstrating how to compost T. demonstrating how to compost
{T. demonstrating to a very interested Indie how to use the composter}

I wrote about how we’re starting a garden this year. Besides planting fruit and vegetables, we’ve made a couple more additions to our backyard this Spring. These are small steps to reducing our carbon footprint and making better use of our natural resources. We added a rain barrel to collect rain water that we can use to water our garden and we splurged on a nice composter as we got rid of our little composting area when we cleared and tilled that patch of the backyard for the garden. Both these additions allow us to make use of the natural resources as our disposal – rain water, yard waste, food remnants – to maintain and nurture our vegetable and fruit garden.

our new composter

If you’re new to gardening but are interested in making greener choices when it comes to feeding yourself and your family, here are some things I’ve recently learned:

1. On growing a garden:

You only need a small backyard or balcony spot (even a windowsill will do) to get you started. If you have a limited space indoors or on a balcony, start with herbs in pots or a tomatoe plant that will do really well in the sun. We have a 3 x 15 foot section in our backyard that was already fenced off when we moved in but turned into a garbage dump. We cleaned it out, tilled the earth using a hand tiller, and planted a variety of vegetables and fruit that we had started from seed indoors.

It’s our first time doing this and it’s been an adventure. Some of our seeds have taken and quickly grown into strong looking little plants. Others never quite sprouted or simply wilted after barely showing themselves. It’s been very much a trial and error project but one with much gratification. Every time a little plant does well, we’re a little closer to becoming experienced gardeners and enjoying the literal and proverbial fruit of our labor.

We’ve found many of our basic how-to’s online simply by googling any questions we had. I’ve also found a lot of useful information as well as inspiration by reading books and memoirs on the topic. You can find my Spring reading list here, to which others have added in the comments section, and which has been a pleasure to work through this season.

2. On composting:

Composting is a great way to recycle the waste from food and our yards right back into the ground to make more food in turn. We’re not using any chemichal fertilizers and are relying on the mulch from the composter to add nutrients and nourishment to our garden. There are many websites out there with information on composting but I’ve found the explanation provided in The Urban Homestead to be simple and useful in figuring this all out.

You will basically need a mixture of:

  • ‘brown’ stuff
  • ‘green’ stuff
  • air
  • water

Brown stuff is high in carbon and includes everything from yard waste (fallen leaves, sticks, dead plants) to sawdust and cardboard boxes. Green stuff is high in nitrogen and includes food scraps from your kitchen, coffee grounds, used tea bags, and chicken, pidgeon, or rabbit manure (should you have that on hand). Add some water to keep your compost moist and make sure it has access to oxygen.

In The Urban Homestead, Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen provide a bunch of examples of what kind of containers can be turned into a composting bin. They even provide some handy plans for constructing one yourself. We opted to buy a composting bin on Craigslist that comes with the kind of components that make composting easy: it’s a large barrel that is turnable (it helps if you can turn your compost pile) and has perforated slots for ventilation. This allows both air and rain water to get in. (We’ve also helped our dry composting components along by hosing them down a little to moisten them when we got started).

You don’t have to splurge on a ‘fancy’ composter like we did, although it does make the whole process a lot easier and more efficient. if you’re not ready to buy a composting barrel of this sort, check out The Urban Homestead for ideas on how to inexpensively make your own composter bin or simply find a corner of your yard that you can section off and turn into a compost area.

3. On collecting rain water:

There isn’t much to say about this since it’s pretty self-explanatory. Rather than waste drinking water on your garden and lawn, collecting rain water allows you to harness that natural resource and use it for your own domestic purposes. It’s less wasteful and it’s free. Some cities now provide a free rain barrel to encourage people to collect rain water. The city of St. Louis will bring you a rain barrel and set it up for you. We checked and found that our city doesn’t have such a service in place and so we purchased a large rain barrel that we installed underneath our downspout. It’s covered on top with a perforated section that only allows water to drip inside (rather than allowing dirt and trash to accumulate and clog it).

If you wanted to rig something up yourself, a large container with a mesh cover would likely be just as good. We’re getting our first serious downpour as I’m writing this and we’re both excited to finally see our rain barrel fill up. The next time we water our garden it will be with the hose attached to the barrel.

Our new rain bucket

None of these are groundbreaking additions to our home but they are small yet significant steps to greener and more purposeful living. What small (or big) changes are you implementing to your home and backyard to make more of your surroundings? Add your tips and suggestions to the comments section below! And happy gardening!

19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2011 08:11

    I love your composting bin. I’m pretty sure I can get one made in Mexico (I live ten minutes away.)

    Starting a compost area is one of my summer jobs to do. Thanks for the inspiration. So, you’re having a girl. How exciting!

  2. May 16, 2011 08:22

    Joe and I have a plot in the local community garden, and we’re lucky that it’s such a well-supported space. There’s a corner of the garden devoted to composting, and the water spigots throughout the space come from a run-off water carrier up the hill. It’s been such fun so far, with such an active, supportive gardening community. I’m amazed at how much space there is, too. For newbie gardeners, we were able to land a 20′ x 25′ plot, which is now happily sprouting with beets, onions, carrots, green beans, and swiss chard. Tomatoes, arugula, cucumbers, and squashes should be coming up in the next few weeks. :)

    Love hearing about your gardening escapades! Keep ’em coming!

    • May 16, 2011 09:50

      Wow, Clare, you two have been busy! That sounds like quite a garden you got going. We’re hoping to see some rewards for our labor but thus far, everything is still too small to tell how it will take. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some good meals made with our home-grown produce this summer!

  3. Rosa permalink
    May 16, 2011 11:35

    I’m trying out gardening like you for the first time, but I hadn’t got as far as composting and rainwater barrels yet, so thanks so much for that inspiration! I’m going to try and make them myself, to save costs. I think my garden is similar in size to your garden, but is covered with pebbles (I have lots of plants in pots, plus there are two raised beds to work with). Like Clare said, keep the gardening posts coming please ;)

  4. May 16, 2011 14:41

    i LOVE your compost! so cool! so does it turn? it looks like it would and it would make sense…wow i want that! and the rain water is such a great idea….i might consider getting one and using it to water out little garden during the summer!


    • May 16, 2011 18:51

      Yes, cb, it does turn! It has a handle on the side which makes for pretty easy turning actually. We found it on Craigslist and it’s in great condition. I would recommend checking out Craigslist for more affordable options if you’re not going the DIY route!


  5. May 16, 2011 16:52

    Looks like you have lots of really good green things happening! Kudos!

  6. Aibrean permalink
    May 16, 2011 23:06

    Have you considered/is there a way to keep the rain barrel from becoming a still-water breeding ground for mosquitoes?

    • May 17, 2011 08:11

      Aibrean – yes, the top of the barrel is covered and just has a mesh opening under the spout through which the water pours in. But because it’s closed off with just that mesh opening, mosquitoes should be prevented from getting in and accumulating there.

      Alternately, if mosquitoes do get in, there are these natural tablets that you can add to the water that prevents the eggs from hatching and keeps them from growing/breeding in there. But I’m hoping that the top being closed off is enough to keep it mosquitoe and dirt free. (Here’s just an example of tablets, we haven’t used any in the past and hope not to have to, but there is this option as a back-up.)


    • May 19, 2011 04:19

      I keep the surface of the water in the barrel ‘agitated’ by filling an empty plastic bottle (‘large’.. 2L or larger) with water from the barrel; prick 2 or 3 tiny holes into the base of the bottle,replace the cap of the bottle and adjust the screw cap until drops of water flow out every few seconds … hang this bottle of water over the opening of the barrel.

      (During hot summer months I add a teaspoon of cooking oil to the water – to make it ‘impossible’ for mosquitoes to lay eggs on the surface. Dispense with the water-drip for this period )

      I also make a wooden platform on casters to place the barrel on. This would allow me to move the barrel of water about in my ‘garden’. This also allows me to collect a second barrel of rain water if I need to.

      • May 19, 2011 09:25

        Thanks, L! These are great suggestions! Especially the oil to keep mosquitoes from the water surface, such an easy and simple trick!


  7. May 17, 2011 00:59

    Oh, fun! We’re in the midst of doing epic landscaping on our gigantic front yard. We have a little fenced off area where we have decided we will care about having a little patch of grass – but that’s it. Going to do some tomatoes in pots, and herbs in our planter out front. Then I have some plans for perennial things like raspberries, rhubarb, and strawberries.

    Low maintenance first, then we’ll go from there!


  8. Pat permalink
    May 17, 2011 07:42

    Everything except the cucumbers are sprouting in our garden. We too are first timers and it’s pretty exciting to see the little green sprouts coming up through the dirt. Home grown, organic. Doesn’t get much better than that.

  9. May 18, 2011 08:39

    Nice composting tumbler, they have a very similar model to that @ my local Costco, been thinking of picking one up and getting a nice red worm farm started so my daughter can appreciate the cycle of life and importance of nature.

    One note: on your rain barrel, unless your yard slopes away, might think about elevating it off the ground a touch. We did a DIY rain barrel and even in the dry central TX area we live we couldn’t use all the water we collected. I like the pre-fab looks much better and the dark color will keep algae from growing compared to the light colored one we built.

    Oh, and congrats on the little girl, they are the greatest gift in life!


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