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Starting a Garden, Part 1

It was the dead of winter several years ago when my husband and I decided we wanted to start a food garden in our backyard. Anxious to get started, I began looking into what types of things I could start growing in the middle of winter. It turned out that there wasn’t much we could do. However, we could start planning, building our raised beds, and starting a compost pile. For Valentine’s Day that year, my husband bought me a seed starting kit, and I bought him a cherry tree. It wasn’t too long after that he started building the garden bed and we planted our cool weather plants. Well, we managed to get three pea pods and one tomato that year. And the cherry tree died.  We’ve learned a lot since then, though. Our garden turned out much better last year, and it’s looking good again this year.

The best part about our garden is that we have a kid now who knows where food comes from. Well, he has an idea anyways. Last year, we couldn’t keep him out of the tomato plants. So far this year, we couldn’t keep him away from the strawberries.

This is Part 1 of a series of posts designed to help the non-gardeners out there start a food garden in their own yard. I originally called this, Starting a Backyard Garden, but I’m all for starting a food garden in your front yard, too. In fact, a front yard garden is one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time. If you have the guts to stand up to your neighborhood association, I say, start your garden in your front yard and teach your neighborhood about natural living.

This first post is about starting a compost pile, and the future posts will be about how to get started with your garden and getting your kids involved. The garden is one of my toddler’s favorite places to play.

Starting a compost pile

One key to great garden soil is compost. Compost is what results after organic material such as yard waste and food scraps break down. When done correctly, your composting materials should turn into compost in six months to two years. You’ll know its done when it looks like dirt and there are no discernible materials left in the bin.

The compost bin

The great news is that you don’t need a fancy contraption to hold your compost pile. We put our compost in an old rubber trash can. We drilled some holes in the top and bottom and that was it! You can also build your compost bin out of untreated wood or chicken wire or just have an open compost pile. The University of Missouri Extension has a great guide about how to build your own compost bin. Your compost pile needs organic material, water, and air. The trick is that you need the right mixture of these ingredients and your bin will need to accommodate those needs. You must be able to easily add organic matter, provide air and circulation, and keep the contents moist (like a sponge), but not too wet. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. 

That trash can is our compost bin. Ugly, but functional.

The contents of a compost pile

If you have a very small yard, or no yard at all, a worm compost might be a good type of compost for you. This type of compost only uses food waste, and you can even keep it inside. You can add the compost to your container garden.

If you have enough space in your yard for a garden, you’ll probably have enough room for the more conventional type of compost pile, which includes both yard waste and food scraps. Yard waste and food scraps make up your “brown and green” material, which dictate your “carbon to nitrogen ratio” in your compost. You need about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. If you are like me, this ratio means nothing to you because you probably have no idea how many parts of carbon or nitrogen are in any given material. Here is a general guide: Brown material is your yard waste like dead leaves and twigs and this makes up the higher carbon portion of the compost. Green material, such as your food scraps and grass clippings, make up the higher nitrogen portion of the compost. Among the resources I’ve read, there seems to be some disagreement about how to get the right ratios. The EPA website said do half brown and half green. Other websites like Organic Gardening say to do 2 parts brown and 1 part green. They all seem to agree that you need to alternate layers of brown and green in your pile.

Here is my philosophy – just throw in everything you have, and it will probably work out just fine. You can get caught up in the math, the specifics, the details… but you’ll never get anything done. Just start it. Throw in your yard scraps as you trim trees, cut your grass, and prune your hedges. Add in your food scraps after you make dinner. It all just seems to work out. Okay, it all just worked out for me, and we’ve had a compost pile for several years now.

Types of organic material to add

Brown (mostly yard waste):
Add:
  • Leaves
  • Branches
  • Dead plants that are disease-free
  • Shredded newspaper, in moderation
  • Other “clean” paper products, in moderation. Do not add products that contain ink that might be toxic, like those of magazines or catalogs
Do not add:
  • Saw dust or wood scraps from treated wood
  • Diseased plants or trees
Be cautious when adding:
  • Weeds (Technically, it is okay to compost weeds. The concern is that the weed seeds will not decose all the way, and then your garden will be full of seeds. However, if your compost is properly balanced and decomposed, this shouldn’t be a concern. I don’t put weeds in my compost. )
Green (mainly food scraps and grass clippings):
Add:
  • Vegetarian food scraps (this includes coffee grounds and the filter and tea bags)
  • Egg shells
  • Grass clippings and plant trimmings
  • Lint from your dryer (okay, I don’t know if this is green or brown, but you won’t have enough to make a difference)
Do not add:
  • Meat or animal products such as dairy. One exception to this is the manure from vegetarian animals, but I don’t add that either.
  • Pet or human poop, including diapers

Compost This is a great resource if you are unsure about what you can and can’t compost.

Location and Maintenance

Some people say to put the compost bin in a sunny spot because the sun will help it decompose faster. Others say it doesn’t matter. I say, put the compost bin in the most convenient location possible. This way, you’ll have easy access to it. We put ours about 15 steps outside of our back door. When I cook with a lot of vegetables, I will just load up a paper towel with the scraps and throw it all in the bin, including the paper towel.

Your compost will decompose faster if you turn it regularly (by “turning,” I mean stir it up). Try to turn it a few times a week, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t. We keep a shovel next to our bin and just turn it while we are out there (okay, my husband does. I don’t think I’ve ever turned it). Oxygen aids in the decomposition of the materials and turning it brings the compost more oxygen.

Getting Your Kids Involved

We had a compost pile at school when I was a kid, and I thought it was so much fun. I loved to see the worms and turn the compost with the shovel. If your kids are old enough, you can let them be in charge of turning the pile. My little toddler isn’t quite big enough for this yet. However, my toddler loves to throw things away, so he helps out by carrying the kitchen scraps out to the bin or throwing dead leaves into the bin.

Signs that something is wrong with your compost pile

  • It smells
  • It attracts pests
  • It doesn’t heat up
  • It doesn’t seem to be decomposing
  • Its soggy and wet

See the following website for troubleshooting your compost pile: Compost UK (scroll down)

The Alternative

If your compost pile fails miserably or if you just don’t want to make your own compost, you can probably buy compost from a local farmer. Check around with the vendors at your local farmer’s market or inquire with those involved in a food co-op.

The Bottom Line

Don’t stress over your compost pile. You’ll get the hang of it quickly. Composting is a free and fun way to improve the condition of your garden soil.

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Published in Garden