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Posts Tagged ‘compost’

Organic, Sustainable Automatic Soil Mixer for a Kitchen Gardener

For owners of small kitchen gardens, mixing soil can become a springtime ritual. If you grow annual vegetables in containers, it’s good practice to collect the containers, mix together the soil from them, add some nutrition, and fill containers with the mix for a new growing season.

This is a minor chore that I enjoy because it’s one of my earliest gardening projects and it contributes to my feeling that winter is finally behind us. Historically, I’ve used a shovel to mix my old potting soil with compost, but this year things are way easier. I’ve invested in a fully-organic and sustainable automatic soil mixer. This short video demonstrates the amazing, cutting edge technology. Please enjoy and share your opinions:

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Mulch Your Small Kitchen Garden with Lawn Clippings

In 9 days my pile of lawn clippings had shrunk. On top, it looked as though all the grass was drying out.

I’ve explained in earlier posts how I add humus to my small kitchen garden; a task that every kitchen gardener should perform at least annually. In a post titled Small kitchen Garden Soil Preparation 2, I explained how I usually excavate only where I’m going to plant: a full row for seeds, or individual holes for seedlings. To the holes and furrows I dig, I add compost.

But this meager compost-application isn’t the only way I add humus and nutrition to my soil. I explained my composting and mulching activity in a post titled Compost for my Small Kitchen Garden: I explained that I mulch around my vegetables with lawn clippings.

Miracles of Mulching

Mulch is awesome… and a heap of lawn clippings can do a lot of work for you. Here’s an example of the power of mulch:

Nine days ago, weeds in my kitchen garden bed were in fine shape. They had grown unchecked since the ground thawed, and many were in full bloom. Amazingly, there were forget-me-nots in full bloom; seeded, apparently, from a bed a quarter of the way around the house from the vegetable garden.

When I raked the mound of clippings aside, I revealed very dark, decomposed material. The clippings were already breaking down into the soil. In some years, I’ve added clippings whose original depth would have totaled four feet. By the time I finished in the garden in the fall, those clippings were nearly completely gone: rotted away while the vegetables grew.

Also nine days ago, I mowed my lawn for the first time this season. The grass and weeds were tall, and I ended up creating a pile in my garden that was about two-and-a-half feet deep, three feet across, and eight feet long.

Here’s the point: I made the pile of grass clippings directly on the weeds growing in my planting bed. I didn’t cut the weeds; I didn’t stomp them down; I simply piled on the clippings.

Yesterday and today, I started tilling. The pile of grass clippings had shrunk to about half its original depth. I used a rake to move the heap aside so I could dig, and lo, the weeds I had buried only nine days earlier were all but gone! Better still: the clippings had already decomposed significantly!

This is, of course, the whole point of mulch: it keeps weeds down and it decomposes slowly, releasing nutrients into the soil. It also holds in moisture: When I tilled where the grass clippings had been, the soil was moist and easy to work. When I tilled soil that hadn’t been covered, it was drier and harder to dig into.

Mulch Your Small Kitchen Garden

If you’re one of the lucky who doesn’t have enough lawn clippings to mulch your garden, look for a reasonable substitute. I’ve seen people lay down old carpet, cardboard, newspaper, and black plastic in vegetable gardens to suppress weeds around the desirable plants. Leaves will also work, though it’s best to shred them before applying them as they may move around easily in heavy winds.

Whatever you choose, mulch! If for no other reason than to reduce your need to weed, mulch!

Two caveats if you use lawn clippings as mulch:

  1. When it rains, the clippings will throw off a distinctive odor. The odor doesn’t arise from older, decomposing clippings… so you won’t get the odor if the clippings sit for a few days before it rains. In any case, the odor goes away in a day or two.
  2. Grass clippings stick to your feet. Leave your gardening shoes outside, or brush them off thoroughly before you go inside!

Some other discussions involving mulch:

  • Frugal Backyard Landscaping Ideas » Blogging Away Debt – The other day, I asked if you had any questions for me in regards to how I keep our costs low. I received a question on whether I had any frugal backyard ideas and I do! 1.) Use old things and turn them into landscaping …

  • As the Garden Grows | Do you put mulch on your garden beds? – Do you put mulch on your garden beds? Posted in Garden Maintenance, Garden Tips, Home and Lifestyle, In The Garden, Plant health, Summer in the Garden on Aug 14, 2007. If you’ve been reading my garden stories you know I …

  • Sea grass mulch – We got the idea of using it as mulch from our friend Jess, who wrote about her mulching technique on her blog, Dame de Fleur. We figured she and her dad couldn’t have taken it all, and there was probable enough left for …

  • Mulch types – – I’ve got a bit of landscaping needing a little mulching. I’ve laid down 4 or 5 layers of news print and topped it with some dyed mostly pine bark.


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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 3

I’m fortunate to have a heap of mature compost accumulated over 13 years from lawn clippings, leaves, weeds, and kitchen scraps.

Preparing to plant a small kitchen garden in a classic raised bed should be very easy to do. Actually, whether raised or in-ground, the issue is more whether you walk in the planting bed. If you don’t walk in the planting bed, you don’t compact the soil (much) so you don’t need to dig deep and turn the soil as you do in a traditional in-ground planting bed.

The classic raised bed is narrow enough that you can reach every point in it without putting weight on the soil—usually not more than 4 feet across at its widest point (assuming you can reach into it from both sides). Depending on your sensibilities, preparing a narrow planting bed can resemble the low-till preparation that I described in my last post, or a traditional preparation as I described two posts back.

I “manage” compost in a heap. I say “manage” because there are only two procedures I follow: 1) Add organic matter as my yard, garden, and kitchen produce it. 2) Occasionally, toss a bit of soil from the garden onto the heap (this often comes as clumps of soil attached to roots of weeds I remove from the garden). My compost might take a year or longer to break down, but I’m not in a hurry. The liability of a compost heap is that it nurtures weeds; my heap grows mostly dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass. So, when I harvest compost, I pick through it looking for roots. On the left in this photo is a section of root from elephant grass; left in the soil, it’ll send up a gorgeous stand of grass leaves… and it’ll spread quickly underground. I can’t identify the root on the right, but it looks hearty; were I to plant it in my garden, I’m sure it would grow into something annoying.

Spread three inches of compost or manure evenly over the entire surface of the raised bed.

Ideally, autumn is when you start preparing raised beds for planting, but if you’re just getting started in the spring, things should work out just fine. Here are steps you can take to prepare your soil for planting if your beds are small enough that you never walk in them:

1. Excavate all weeds from the planting bed. A soil knife is ideal for this as you shouldn’t need to pry out large, cohesive blocks of compacted soil to get at the tap roots of weeds.

2. Cover the bed with a layer of organic matter. Ideally, use mature compost. Alternatively, use manure or mushroom soil. If you were preparing your raised planting bed at the end of your growing season, I’d encourage you to spread six inches of manure over the entire bed; rain and snow will leech nutrients into the soil and the organic material will break down a bit before spring.

However, if you didn’t add material in the fall, spread only about three inches of organic stuff on your raised bed in the spring. For the most part, you’ll leave this material in place; it will serve as mulch, and will feed a rich bath of nutrients to your vegetables’ roots during rainstorms and watering.

Measure along the retaining walls of your raised bed and attach twine (or yarn) to delineate planting zones. A one-foot by three-foot space might hold a “hedge” of lettuce, a small forest of spinach, or a jungle of pea vines… what to plant, and how much space to reserve depends on your tastes and your sensibilities. Upcoming posts will make specific suggestions about planting in raised beds.

If you need tools heftier than a hand trowel or a soil knife to work the soil in your raised beds, it may be because there’s too much clay in the soil. Add sand and humus and mix it in well to reduce the soil’s tendency to clump. If you’re installing raised beds this spring, fill them with soil that is at least 40% sand. Add humus every season.

3. Stretch twine to mark planting zones in your raised vegetable bed. You can set nails or staples in the tops of the raised bed retaining walls, or sink stakes in the soil as you would in an in-ground bed.

In a narrow bed, rather than restrict planting to rows, plant in zones. For example, in a 4’ X 4’ bed, a zone might start at one retaining wall and stretch for one foot into the bed. You could distribute lettuce plants evenly within this one-foot-by-four-foot zone. Or, divide the bed into 2’ squares, planting a particular type of vegetable in each square.

4. When you’re ready to plant, your technique will differ depending on whether you’re planting seedlings or seeds. An upcoming post will discuss how to plant in a narrow bed that’s covered with compost or manure.

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2

My last post provided rationale for working the soil in your small kitchen garden. Sure, you can dig a hole and drop in a seed, and a plant will probably grow. However, conditioning the soil to improve drainage, PH balance, and nutrition significantly increases your chances of success. It also improves the yields of your vegetable plants.

That said, I’m lazy. I’m not excited about spreading manure and I don’t have a power tiller, so my soil preparation has evolved into a minimalist procedure. My raised vegetable bed is large enough that I must walk in it to prepare it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it.

Extracting a dandelion from your walk-in garden bed employs the same technique you’d use to turn soil: Push the garden fork in to the full depth of its tines, pry the soil out of the ground, and turn it over. When I remove dendelions, I sometimes insert the fork on four sides of the dandelion before prying the plant out of the ground. This loosens the soil and decreases the chance of breaking off the tap root deep underground. After lawnmower noise, my least favorite sound in the garden is the dull thud of a snapping dandelion tap root that runs deeper than my garden fork can reach.

Low-Till Planting

Here are the steps I follow to prepare my raised vegetable bed for spring planting. This approach has been very effective, and it’s most appropriate for modest gardens in which the soil gets compacted from foot traffic through the growing season:

This year I’m using apple sticks (the bounty of pruning season) and pink yarn to mark rows in my garden. I tie the yarn three or four inches above the ground so I can easily work under it with a hoe.

1. Decide where to run a planting row.

2. Turn the row of soil over. I prefer to use a garden fork. I dig a fork’s width swath from one end of the row to the other, plunging the fork in to the full depth of its tines, prying the fork-full of soil out of the ground, and turning that fork-full over so the soil that was on the surface ends up at the bottom of the hole from which I removed it.

3. Remove all weeds and their roots from the soil you turn over, and excavate all other weeds from either side of the row you’re working.

4. Break up soil clumps with a garden rake, and smooth over the surface within the fork-width row.

5. Set a stake at each end of the row, and stretch twine between the stakes. This provides a guide to ensure a straight row so you can accurately match your planting to your plan for the year’s garden.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

Using a low-till method, I’ve turned and raked the soil (top-left) before I cut a furrow about six inches deep and as wide as the hoe. From years of gardening, the soil is in decent shape, but the mature compost on the shovel looks obviously more organic than the soil. Whether using compost or manure, I use a hoe to mix it with soil that I scrape off the bottom of the trench (bottom-left). I’d plant directly in this compost/soil mix (bottom-center), but if it were a manure/soil mix, I’d cover it lightly with soil (bottom-right) before planting.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes along the rows in which to set the plants. For seeds or seedlings, dig at least three inches deeper than you intend to plant the seeds or the seedlings; this leaves room to add compost or other humus.

Because the dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

8. Dump three inches of compost, manure, or mushroom soil into the trench or into each hole. If you’re adding sulfur or crushed limestone to adjust the PH for a particular type of plant, do so at this point.

9. Mix the organic stuff with the soil that’s in the bottom of the trench or hole.

Being in a slightly raised planting bed, my garden soil drains quickly. So, I deliberately finish planting rows and holes to be two to three inches below the normal soil level. A plant’s-eye view shows a finished row with young spinach plants just poking through. If my planting bed drained slowly, I’d mound the soil before cutting planting rows or digging holes. Each row would sit above the natural soil level, turning a row into its own raised bed garden.

10. If you’ve used raw organic stuff such as horse or cow manure or mushroom soil (which is partially composted), sprinkle a half inch to an inch of soil over the compost layer; you’ll plant seeds or seedlings on this layer of untreated soil. Providing the cushion gives the roots a chance to get established before coming in contact with rich, possibly acidic humus. Also, heavy watering you’ll do to start seeds and seedlings will leach salts out of raw humus before the roots reach it.

If you’ve used mature compost as the organic matter, plant directly in the mixed soil and compost. The mixture will be equivalent to that of a fine potting soil; a great medium to get new roots growing quickly.

Concerning Raised Planting Beds

What distinguishes the classic raised vegetable bed is that you can work the bed without ever setting foot in it. A traditional raised bed is no more than four feet across so you can reach to the middle from either side. You needn’t build retaining walls to get some of the benefits of a raised bed. If you limit your in-ground beds to four feet across (any length is fine as long as you can walk along both sides of the bed), you’ll be able to work them without walking in them, just as you would raised beds.

Preparing soil in such narrow beds and laying out crops in them allows very different strategies than you’re likely to use in a traditional walk-in garden bed. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about how to get narrow beds ready for planting, and explore ways you might lay out your vegetables in them.


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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 1

It’s planting season in hardiness zones 6 and lower. But before you plant your small kitchen garden, it’s important to prepare the soil. Approaches to soil-preparation vary considerably, but they all have a few things in common:

Loosening soil

Benefits of loosening soil include:

  • Improved air circulation to roots of plants.
  • Faster penetration of water into soil… and better drainage
  • Better environment for earthworms that improve soil quality by breaking down organic solids.
  • Eased raking, hoeing, planting, and weeding
  • Improved penetration of soil additives applied on the surface during the growing season.

Adding humus

Reasons to add humus include:

  • Mixed into soil, humus helps keep the soil loose.
  • Humus retains water, releasing it gradually for plant roots.
  • Humus provides nutrition for plants; it reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Humus feeds—and may even provide—microbes that are beneficial to your plants

Adjusting PH

Controlling your soil’s acid content can improve the production of vegetable plants. Unfortunately, some vegetables prefer acid soil, while others prefer neutral or even alkaline soil. For simplicity’s sake, I encourage you to work toward neutral PH in a vegetable bed; most crops will do fine, and you can make adjustments locally when you plant something that prefers higher or lower PH.

A slightly raised 16-foot-square bed needs the same treatment as a traditional in-ground planting bed: Add humus, turn the soil, rake it, mark planting areas, and cut trenches or dig holes.

To learn about manipulating your small kitchen garden’s PH level, find a Cooperative Extension office in your county, obtain a soil test kit from them, and submit the required soil sample(s) and paperwork. The analysis they provide for a fee should include guidelines for adjusting the PH; if it doesn’t, ask someone in the Extension office to provide you with guidance.

Absolutely get the soil tested if you’ve just created a planting bed, or if you’re about to plant in an existing bed where you’ve never planted. After making amendments according to the results of your soil analysis, you really shouldn’t need to test the soil again—people grew vegetables for thousands of years without getting the soil tested.

However, if you have problems growing some types of vegetables—especially if the problems recur from year-to-year, a new soil test is in order; you may discover the PH needs further tweaking to assure healthy crops.

Traditional In-Ground Planting Beds

Months ago, I defined a traditional in-ground planting bed as one that is simply a soil patch in which you garden. The patch is large enough that you need to walk in it to till, plant, weed, and harvest. Here are the steps to prepare a traditional planting bed as we prepared the family vegetable garden on my parent’s farm when I was a kid:

1. Remove any large items that you might not have removed in the fall—rocks, tomato stakes, plant cages, trellises, tools…

2. Cover the entire garden bed with six inches of raw horse manure. Alternatively, use raw cow manure. Ideally, use mushroom soil or mature compost.

If you’re hand-raking your garden, I hope it’s no larger than about 14 square feet. Alternatively, use a low-till approach as I’ll explain in my next post.

3. Plow and disc the garden bed. Our kitchen garden was large enough that plowing made sense, and the neighbor farmer generously stopped by each spring with his tractor to do the job. Your small kitchen garden probably won’t accommodate a tractor, so you might resort to a power tiller—or even a shovel—and finish by raking. In either case, you may need to use a thinner layer of organic dressing than I suggested in step 2; one goal of tilling is to work the horse manure into the soil, and it’s hard to work six inches of manure into the soil by hand. Many gardeners recommend three inches of organic matter, and that’s a good amount if you aren’t using machinery.

4. Pick weeds and rocks out of the loose soil.

5. Mark the rows where you intend to plant.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes in which to set the plants. The dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in. Consequently, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

Upcoming posts will discuss other ways to add humus to your soil. We’ll also talk a bit more about adjusting PH for specific types of plants.

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Prepare to Plant Your Small Kitchen Garden

Manure for a Small Kitchen Garden

I’ll be carting many garbage cans full of horse manure from the stable where my daughter rides to the kids’ abandoned sandbox. Tomatoes will thrive on a rich mixture of fresh manure and sand.

It’s planting time in my small kitchen garden! Actually, the weather this year is not in any hurry for my garden to get started. By mid March, the soil was thawed and workable, but there have been many nights with the temperature as low as 24F degrees. Cold weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions, could all have gone in in March.

But immediately after the soil thaws, it’s usually quite wet. I get no joy from working in mud. To boot, seeds planted in mid-march may get a head start if the weather cooperates, but they may also languish until April before putting on serious growth. Peas planted here in mid March (hardiness zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask), may mature only a week earlier than peas planted in mid April. So, I say, “don’t rush.” Plant cold weather crops when you can work the soil, when it’s dried out a bit, and when it’s not unbearably cold. Oh, and if you wait a few weeks, you give weeds a chance to show themselves so you’re more likely to remove them when you finally do start working the soil.

Basic Soil Preparation

I’m about to post a series about planting various types of vegetables. The procedures for planting any one type are remarkably similar to those for planting other types. In fact, preparing the soil for planting is a sequence of steps that you’ll repeat for everything you plant.

Different types of planting beds allow different styles of soil preparation. As well, a gardener’s experience, enthusiasm, and influences lead to unique preferences. With that in mind, please consider what I say to be suggestions rather than rules. The methods I describe have been effective in my experiences. After that, you’ll have to decide which are right for you.

Mushroom Soil

Pennsylvania grows some 40% of the mushrooms produced in the United States. Commercial growers assemble a growing medium that contains a lot of stuff that’s good for your garden—horse and chicken manure, straw, mashed grapes, and urea, for example. A batch of this mushroom soil is good for growing mushrooms just once.

After harvesting a crop from their secret mushroom soil mix, growers sell the spent soil which eventually becomes available through garden stores and landscapers throughout Pennsylvania. Gardeners love the stuff as mulch, and many mix it straight into their garden beds.

Here’s the trick: mushroom soil, like raw manure, isn’t ideal for emerging plants. If you’re going to use the stuff, you’ll have best results if you spread it on your garden bed when you finish harvesting in the fall. Let it steep over the winter, and mix it into the soil in spring. This gives salts time to leech out of the soil and make it more accommodating to your seedlings.

The bottom line: don’t plant directly in mushroom soil or manure. If you’re applying it fresh in the spring, mix it in well with your garden soil before you plant. Better still, bury it an inch or two below planting depth so the roots of your vegetable plants don’t reach it until it’s had a chance to leech out salts.

Please follow this link for more of the story about mushroom soil: Extension Service Garden Hints: Mushroom Compost – Use Carefully

My next few posts will outline soil-preparation in three scenarios:

1. Traditional in-ground planting beds using traditional methods

2. Low-till planting in traditional in-ground planting beds

3. Planting in narrow beds including raised vegetable gardens

In the meantime, a few thoughts about soil composition:

Soil for Your Small Kitchen Garden

I once heard a master gardener admonish readers never to amend clay-heavy soil with sand. He encouraged people always to add only organic matter to break up clay. I argue that you should cut clay by adding sand. True: humus will help retain moisture, break up clay, and provide nutrition. On the other hand, humus breaks down in time and may leave no trace; in the next season you could be right back where you started.

If I were building a garden bed from scratch and filling it with soil of my design, I’d get a mixture of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt. I’d layer this soil with organic stuff—ideally, mature compost—but I’d be happy using raw horse manure or mushroom soil (see box).

If I excavated a garden bed, expecting to plant vegetables in my lawn, and I discovered clay, I’d add sand. Sand helps prevent the clay from clumping and improves drainage. I’d also add humus to improve nutrition and keep the worms happy.

However you start out, to keep a planting bed productive you need to add humus each growing season. If your humus-free soil naturally remains loose because it includes a generous percentage of sand, then adding humus is light work compared to that of working in a clay-rich garden bed.

This season, I’ll be reclaiming my kids’ childhood sandbox. The box itself has rotted and collapsed, and the sand has supported an assortment of weeds for the past few years. I plan to cover the sand with six inches of horse manure and blend it as well as I can by hand. Then, I’m planting tomatoes.


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Water Small Kitchen Garden Perennials

There wasn’t much “structure” to the root systems of my young fruit trees when I planted them in the fall. They’ll need plenty of water as they come out of dormancy this spring.

I’m poised to plant my small kitchen garden, having finished late-winter pruning and grafting in my fruit trees. I’m poised, but holding. March teased early with some very warm days, but then plunged into barely-tolerable cold.

The soil has thawed, so a more rugged gardener could have planted peas, lettuce, spinach, and other cold weather crops by now. I tend to wait until April for those, and sometimes am simply too busy to plant them until late April. But this year there’s something else that’s very important for me to do in my garden: water young perennials.

Fall Planting Time Bombs

Back in mid-Autumn, I argued in this blog that you should plant fruit trees in the fall (this goes for most perennials, but if they’re not going to feed you, don’t waste your energy planting them). I shared my experiences of trying to find fruit trees at local nurseries, I explained that I ended up buying via mail-order, and I showed how I planted my young trees in mid-November.

Among the advantages I listed for planting perennials in autumn: you don’t have to water, and you can omit fertilizer. Dormant plants aren’t demanding.

Come spring, those young perennials emerge from dormancy and require the creature comforts you denied them in the fall. If you had plenty of rain or snow over the winter, your soil will thaw and be moist; your perennials will be happy. However, if your neighborhood is emerging from a dry winter, your perennials may awaken to desert-like conditions. This is especially bad for the young ones.

What’s more, even if your ground thaws wet, you need to make sure the young plants don’t dry out along with the soil. Unless you’re experiencing substantial seasonal rainfall—or massive snow melt—you should start watering when the ground thaws.

How Much Water?

In early spring, water deeply once or twice a week (again, don’t water if Mother Nature is doing a good job of it). As plants (any plants—not just the perennials you planted in autumn) emerge from dormancy (you see leaf buds plump up), increase your watering to once daily unless the soil is obviously saturated.

When you plant perennials, you should soak them till the soil can’t hold more water. This helps you work out air pockets and get the soil up against young roots. Subsequent watering needn’t saturate the soil. Your goal is to keep everything damp, not to maintain a mud pit around your tree.

When leaves emerge and you see vigorous growth, cut back the water to two or three times a week, and keep it up until fall. Skip watering if there’s a decent rainstorm.

Especially if you planted bare root trees in the fall, they need a lot of moisture in their first year to help them develop strong root systems. But temper daily watering: the point of planting in autumn was to reduce the amount of water you had to provide. Especially in March and April, the soil may stay wet for several days between watering.


It’s good to provide fertilizer as your young fall plantings wake up in the spring. Best of all, mulch with compost (but don’t let the compost rest against the plant). If that’s not an option, provide a light feed of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer.

For my older fruit trees, I’d always driven holes in the ground with a crow bar, and then filled the holes with fertilizer. A friend who runs an orchard told me he prefers to broadcast fertilizers on the surface and let them dissolve into the soil. For young trees, just dust fertilizer on the loose soil around the tree trunk—a small handful at most. With all the watering, it’ll soak in quickly.

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Essential Gifts for the Small Kitchen Garden

If you’re shopping for the custodian of a small kitchen garden, perhaps you’re overwhelmed by your options. Here’s a list of essential gifts any one of which is appropriate for a kitchen gardener. For each gift, I’ve included thoughts about why the kitchen gardener in your life will be happy to find that gift under the tree.

Sprouts: an Indoor Kitchen Garden

Anyone with a home kitchen garden will appreciate a complete kit to grow fresh salad sprouts indoors. This is especially satisfying where winter forces gardeners indoors: watching your sprouts emerge and eating them in salads, sandwiches, and garnishes provides a mid-winter lift. If you’re splurging, give the Deluxe Sprouting Starter Kit. If you’re on a budget, your gardener will be thrilled with the Sprout Garden 3-Tray Kit (below).

Click here to order.

Indoor Kitchen Garden on a Budget

If the Deluxe Sprouting kit is a budget-breaker, then give the Sprout Garden Family Sprouting Kit. It’s a great starter kit for a modest budget.

Click here to order.

A Hydroponic Small Kitchen Garden

For the winter-bound kitchen gardener, home hydroponics offers a gardening adventure. Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil and it leads to healthier plants with higher yields than you get from traditional gardening. The AeroGarden hydroponic system is one of the most often-reviewed gardening items available through Amazon, and reviewers are enthusiastic! Provide your gardener with a season-stretching scientific marvel: the AeroGrow AeroGarden.

Click here to order.

Compost Helpers for the Small Kitchen Garden

No matter how rooted in tradition a gardener might be, he or she will come to love a compost tumbler. This is the high-technology of garden composting. A lightweight, easy-to-turn barrel can convert kitchen scraps, garden waste, and lawn clippings into compost in four-to-six weeks. Get the popular Tumbleweed Composter here.

Click here to order.

Compost Helper on a Budget

If a compost tumbler is out of your price range, you can still find a great gift for anyone who already has a compost heap, bin, or tumbler: a kitchen compost bucket. This bucket is attractive and functional: it sits on the counter to collect cores and peels until it’s convenient to carry them outside. A good compost bucket includes a tight-fitting lid and charcoal filters to limit odors. This one has been rated well by customers.

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Most Outrageous Gift for a Gardener

Want to give a home kitchen gardener a gag gift that’s actually useful? Imagine the look on the face of your loved one when the wrapping paper comes off to reveal a worm farm! Purists call these vermicomposting systems. Such a system can sit on your kitchen floor, in a closet, or in virtually any convenient place. You fill it with worms, cardboard, and kitchen scraps! The worms eat the cardboard and kitchen scraps, leaving behind rich castings: organic gold for a vegetable garden. Few gifts will elicit more dramatic reactions than a worm composting system.

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Outrageous Residents for the Outrageous Gift

When you order a worm composting system, make sure you order some worms as well. And, when you click over to to place your order, read the reviews; one reviewer had a particularly creative sense of humor… or was it?

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Super High Tech for a Home Kitchen Garden

You don’t need a reason for this one; it’s just too cool to pass up: it provides an interface between your garden and your computer! The EasyBloom Plant Sensor sits in your soil and measures temperature, sunlight, and moisture. Then you plug it into a computer’s USB port and it guides you to ideal plant selections, or it helps diagnose problems with whatever you’ve already planted. New this year, the EasyBloom has enthusiastic users. The EasyBloom web site includes a plant library with information about just about anything you’d want to grow. Give an EasyBloom Plant Sensor to you favorite gardener who is also a geek.

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Reduce a Small Kitchen Garden’s Water Bills

Most serious gardeners I’ve asked about it have said they either have or want to have rain barrels. Of course! A rain barrel collects runoff from the roof of your house so you can use it later to water your garden. Installing and using a rain barrel reduces water bills and reduces a garden’s (and a house’s) impact on the environment. Give your gardeners rain barrels and they’ll think of you every time they water their gardens.

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Watering Convenience for a Small Kitchen Garden

Except in a very wet climate, or an unusually rainy growing season, all gardeners water their gardens. At the very least, you must add water immediately after planting seeds and seedlings. When you’re running a garden hose, it is crucial to have a good nozzle to control the flow when you’re away from the shut-off valve (the faucet). A nozzle that can produce several spray patterns is especially handy. This set includes three high-quality nozzles your gardener will love.

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Digging in a Small Kitchen Garden

Who gives shovels and pitchforks as gifts? People who understand gardeners do. This particular garden fork has received only five-star reviews from customers. It looks nice, it’s inexpensive, and it’s the pitchfork I’d like to replace the one whose handle snapped last spring. Score big points by getting one for the gardener in your life.

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Using Compost in a Small Kitchen Garden

I once heard a master gardener decree that you should never add sand to your small kitchen garden to improve the quality of soil that is primarily clay; add only humus. I respectfully disagree. One of the finest kitchen gardens I ever saw was planted in a sandbox—my dad took over the sandbox when I and my brothers outgrew it… and it produced fine tomato crops year-after-year.

The argument against adding sand is that you can add humus instead, and humus improves the texture of soil while providing nutrition for plants. Humus, however, breaks down over time. In just one season, your clay-heavy garden soil can revert back to its original condition; you need to continue adding humus year-after-year to keep clay from re-expressing itself in your garden.

Sand for a Lazy Garden

Even if you’re not lazy, consider this: when a greens keeper at a golf course builds up a tee box or a green—or even a fairway—he or she lays down a mixture of sand, clay, and silt. The greens keeper is planting perennials (grass) and will not be able to add significant amounts of humus to the soil in ensuing years. The preferred soil mix drains quickly, but not too quickly, and it doesn’t compact easily (ensuring air-flow to roots). When I see a scoop of this stuff, I wish my whole yard was built on it.

Even when I add humus to my clay-heavy soil, at the end of the growing season, the soil is crusty and hard to penetrate with a shovel… if there were more sand in the soil, this would be far less of a problem. Here’s a link to a web site that discusses what should be in your soil, and at what percentages: Organic Vegetable Garden

But what about Compost?

OK, this is a discussion about using compost, but I’ve rambled on about soil composition. Please forgive me. Here’s how I use compost on my small kitchen garden:


I don’t use compost as mulch. I mulch with lawn clippings throughout the growing season. Being lazy, I don’t mow often enough, so I dump a lot of grass seeds, plantain seeds, and dandelion seeds on my garden.

Off-season soil amendment

At season’s end, I cover the garden with all the leaves we rake off our lawn. The grass clippings and leaves reduce to a thin organic layer by spring.


I don’t till my garden, I till my planting areas. So, for example, when I set in a new tomato, I dig a hole about two feet in diameter and 12 to 18 inches deep. That’s where the compost goes. I put a generous amount of compost into the tomato hole and add about as much loose soil. I mix the two together, filling the hole so it is only about four inches deep. Then I put the tomato’s root ball in the hole and cover it over with soil. The upshot is that each tomato plant gets its own bowl of compost-rich soil two feet in diameter and eight to twelve inches deep.

This is my approach for whatever I plant: dig a hole or a trench, lay in a generous heap of compost and mix it together with soil, then plant something on it.


Does my garden have a weed problem? Well… it’s weedy, but it’s not a problem, and it has nothing to do with my composting habits… it has to do with my laziness. When I mulch with lawn clippings, I heap them deep. In a particularly rainy year, I might put 18 inches of grass and weed clippings on the garden seven or eight times. In a dry season as this one was, I get only two or three such heepings.

In either case, if weeds do come up through the lawn-clipping-mulch one week, I bury them in more mulch the next week. By the end of the season, the only weeds in my mulched areas are rooted in mulch and they come out with a relatively gentle tug.

Weeds grow out of the holes where I plant desirable plants; this is unavoidable because the conditions that make my vegetables want to grow in those places make weeds happy as well. For a month or so, I keep the weeds down by pulling them when they’re small. Eventually, my enthusiasm flags and the weeds have their ways… but by then the vegetables are well-established, and the weeds don’t overshadow them. Despite the weeds, I’m very satisfied with the food-production. I pull bigger, more annoying weeds—especially if they look like they’re going to flower—but generally I let them go.

What’s right for your small kitchen garden?

Is there a right way to do compost? Sure. But the right way isn’t necessarily practical, and in a very limited space, you may not have many options. In upcoming entries, we’ll explore design and planting schemes for home kitchen gardens. Your garden’s design will help determine the best composting scheme for you.


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Compost for My Small Kitchen Garden

In my last post, I suggested three advantages of compost, and mentioned different composting strategies to fit both your space and your intensity of involvement with your small kitchen garden. I also promised to tell you what I, in my lazy garden manner, do about compost. But first, I want to expand on the three advantages of composting:

I mentioned that composting reduces the amount of garbage you pay to get rid of, and that it produces nutrition and humus for your small kitchen garden. What I want to emphasize is that if you don’t continually add nutrition and humus to your garden soil, the soil will eventually cease to support worthwhile food crops. So, while composting saves money by reducing the amount of stuff you throw out, it also saves by reducing or eliminating the need to buy amendments for your soil. Here’s my lazy garden approach to compost:

Compost for a lazy garden

You can do better than what I’m about to tell you, and we’ll explore better in later blog posts… but you don’t need to do better. I promise, this works, and I can’t imagine spending any more time at it than I already do.

My Small Kitchen Garden Compost Heap

I have a compost heap—no container, no bin, no phased plasma inverter. The heap is right at the end of my garden. It used to be under a gorgeous blue spruce tree, but the tree blew down in a thunderstorm about five years ago, so my neighbors and visitors can clearly see my compost heap.

Here’s how my heap works: I picked a spot and started heaping stuff there. At first, it was lawn clippings, raked leaves, and weeds. As my yard maintenance generated these waste products, I collected them and threw them on the heap. During the growing season, I also threw peelings, pits, and mash from the kitchen onto the heap. These included cherry and peach pits, apple cores and skins, strawberry caps, the mutilated raspberries and other fruits I’d juiced to make jellies, and random vegetable parts that we didn’t want to eat (those outer leaves of lettuce heads and the thickest parts of broccoli stems, for example).

Occasionally (and I mean, maybe, twice a year), I tossed a few shovels full of soil from the garden onto the heap. When I did pull weeds (almost never), I didn’t knock soil off the roots—I tossed the weeds on the heap along with any attached soil.

My Compost Scorecard

Throughout the summer, the heap would grow until is was four feet above the soil… and immediately after rain, it put out a very strong odor of decaying grass—especially if it rained within a day or so of mowing. Over winter I added a lot of ash from my wood furnace, but by spring the heap would subside three feet or more.

Superficially, the heap looked like dead, dried grass and leaves. However, when I turned up the edge with a pitchfork in hopes of finding nutrient-rich humus, that’s what I found! Depending on rainfall in the preceding season, the compost wasn’t always fully-reduced; after a dry summer I could still recognize the shapes of grass and other items at the bottom of the heap. Knowing I could have better compost, I still used whatever came out from under the dry cap on my heap.

Today’s Compost is Easier

I’ve gotten lazier with age, and my compost heap has gotten more unruly. Here’s why: I no longer compost the “light” stuff on the heap. By light stuff, I mean grass clippings and fallen leaves—they break down very quickly, and here’s how I use them:

I use grass clippings as mulch throughout my small kitchen garden… and at the end of the growing season, I cover my planting beds with leaves we rake off the lawn. By spring, the semi-decomposed grass clippings and leaves form a scant one-eighth-inch layer on the soil, and they nearly vanish when I turn the soil over in preparation for planting.

The other stuff—weeds, expended vegetable plants, kitchen waste—still goes into the compost heap. When I think of it, I toss some soil on the heap, but otherwise, I ignore it… until I need some extra humus in the spring. Then, at the very bottom of that heap, I find beautiful, dark-brown compost for the job.

But Wait, There’s More

I can hear the purists pointing out the flaws with my composting scheme: I’m dumping weed seeds on my vegetable garden. I’m not cooking the compost hot enough. I’m not stirring it around enough. I’m putting stuff in my heap that shouldn’t be there. In my next blog entry, I’ll explain more about how I use compost in my lazy garden, and highlight factors to help you decide which composting strategies you should apply.

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