Are you dreaming of a big, beautiful garden full of lush, tasty vegetables and fruits? Can you image the smell of a ripe tomato or of the earth as you carefully loosen pounds of perfect potatoes from your rich, loamy soil? Do your future beans, corn, and sunflowers climb 12 feet in the air and tower over you like benevolent garden giants?
Is your imagined garden abuzz with all the pollinating insects and beneficial pest eaters? Do borage, nasturtium, calendula, marigolds, and other companion flowers line your paths and intermix with your vegetables? Do you picture yourself cutting fresh herbs from a stunning array of ever-giving plants?
Oh, I love that dream! There is nothing so soul-moving and life-altering as a growing (or even imagining growing) a vibrant garden. And you can absolutely make that dream a reality using simple steps if you know how to grow a garden.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Besides the basics, like seeds, plus sufficient water, light, and air (to be covered in detail later), there are just two more things you need to grow your very own garden of Eden.
- You need soil that is about 2 feet deep, loose in texture, and high in humus content.
- Then, you need a way to return nutrients to your soil every time you harvest.
Now, don’t panic! Remember in the pep-talk post, when I said that as long as you do it slowly, methodically, and with careful intention, then homesteading is easy?
Well, I need you to keep that in mind as you start planning your garden. This is important because the garden is where most new homesteaders start to go really wrong.
You’ve got big dreams, but little skills. And the garden is an excellent teacher. If you start too big, your garden will quickly teach you the limit of your skills. That can be very disheartening to new gardeners. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Grow According to Your Skill Level
Starting simple, by right-sizing your garden to your skills, will get you much better and quicker results than overreach. With that said, how big should you make your garden?
Well, here’s a good rule of thumb.
Match your garden size to your finished compost production.
If you are just getting started, you won’t even have finished compost for at least a year from when you start collecting materials. So, you’ll likely be buying compost for your first year of gardening.
In fact, you’ll probably be buying some things for the garden for at least the first 5 years until you get your soil in shape to qualify for point number 1 above. But, if you don’t want to be spending a fortune on your garden for the rest of your homesteading life, then using your ability to produce compost as your garden-size guide is the way to grow.
Because, if you don’t add enough fresh compost annually to your garden, it will produce less and less each year. Plus your pest, pathogen, and crop failure problems will increase in direct relation to your lack of compost.
Homestead gardens do not grow on dreams alone. The dream is just the seed that gets you started. After that, you must feed the garden dream. For that, you need compost!
How to Start Growing a Compost Driven Garden
Even if you have never composted before in your life and barely know what it is, I will tell you an easy way to estimate your compost capacity. Then I’ll give you a simple way to get started making compost right away.
Estimate Your Compost Capacity
A 5-gallon bucket works great for estimating your compost capacity. The number of times you can fill that bucket in a year equals the number of square feet you can grow in your garden using your own compost.
Think of it like this. Each time you fill that bucket, you’ve earned a square foot of garden space for one year. So, if you fill that bucket once a month, then in a year, you’ll have enough compost for a 12 foot long by 1 foot wide garden. If you fill it twice a month, your compost capacity can support twice that amount so you get 2 rows that are 12 feet long.
You can also rearrange those square feet of space anyway you like. For example, you could have a 6 foot row that is 2 feet wide. Or you could have three square beds that are 4 square feet each. Maybe you prefer a keyhole bed? That part is up to you.
If you’ll be container gardening, the bucket calculation still works. You may just need to do a little math to translate the shapes of your containers into square feet.
It’s easier with square and rectangular containers. For round containers, though, you can go back to your high school algebra or just use an online calculator to convert the diameter of your pots to square feet.
There are two theories on compost. The first is the theory that you can only compost uncooked vegetable and plant matter. The second theory is that you can compost almost everything that was once living or that came out of something once living.
– The Limited List Compost Approach
Nature composts everything. It just breaks some things down at a slower rate. It also breaks some things down using methods we humans can be a bit squeamish about. For example, cooked meat is often composted by stinky bacteria and maggots.
As such, the primary reasons to limit what you put in your compost piles are to reduce potential unsavory smells and get ready-compost faster. Many people prefer to use the limited list approach to composing so they don’t offend their neighbors or have to protect their compost piles from pesky pests (or pets).
The list below is taken straight from the EPA page on composting. (Under the don’t compost side, you’ll see the reason why you might not want to compost this stuff.)
|Fruits and vegetables||Black walnut tree leaves or twigs|
|Eggshells||– Releases substances that might be harmful to plants|
|Coffee grounds and filters||Coal or charcoal ash|
|Tea bags||– Might contain substances harmful to plants|
|Nut shells||Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*|
|Shredded newspaper||– Create odor problems and attract pests|
|Cardboard||Diseased or insect-ridden plants|
|Paper||– Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred to new plants|
|Yard trimmings||Fats, grease, lard, or oils|
|Grass clippings||– Create odor problems and attract pests|
|Houseplants||Meat or fish bones and scraps|
|Hay and straw||– Create odor problems and attract pests|
|Leaves||Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)|
|Sawdust||– Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses|
|Wood chips||Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides|
|Cotton and Wool Rags||– Might kill beneficial composting organisms|
|Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint|
|Hair and fur|
Note: Limited list composters may also compost some animal manure. But they often compost manures using different methods than for pure plant matter.
– The Compost Everything Approach
The compost everything approach requires that you have a composting system you can protect from rodents and bigger critters or pets. It also requires that you wait 1 year from the time your pile is 4 x 4 feet tall and wide (large enough to generate heat) to apply the compost to your garden.
The pile size requirement and the waiting period are both necessary to give slower composting materials time to break down and to minimize risk of pathogen reinfection.
What Not To Compost EVER!
Warning! For both composting approaches, there are 3 things to keep out of your pile.
- Plant matter from walnut trees because these may contain juglone – a naturally occurring plant growth inhibitor.
- Diseased plant matter because many fungal pathogens can survive composting and persist in the soil for up to 10 years.
- Chemical-laced organic matter because some herbicides (and other chemicals) can take 2 years or more to decompose in compost. If you want to learn more about this, check out this fact sheet on Understanding Persistent Herbicides from the US Council on Composting.
Which Kind of Composter Are You?
The limited list compost camp is easiest for beginners. It has few risks and doesn’t require any special equipment. You can even just build your pile on some twigs on the ground without using a bin.
The downside of being a limited list composter is that you’ll have a lot less material to compost. Either that or you’ll have to do a lot more work to gather materials to increase your compost capacity.
When you take the compost everything approach, though, it’s hard to switch back to the limited list approach after you start. You’ll already have stuff in your pile that needs time to decompose. So, you’ll need to keep your compost pile protected until it decomposes. Or you’ll need to bag that stuff up and deliver it to the landfill. So, consider this option carefully.
In rural areas, composting everything may make a whole lot of sense. But in a small apartment, when you only plan to grow a few containers, then limited list composting might be the perfect solution.
There is no right or wrong answer here, just the one that makes the most sense for you.
Start Composting Now
I’ve given you a lot to think about. If it doesn’t all make perfect sense now, don’t worry. it will come.
For now, just start to move in the right direction. For your next steps do the following.
- Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket with a tight fitting lid.
- Take a little time to decide what kind of composter you think you want to be. If you are undecided, then start with the limited list approach. You can always start composting more things later when you have more experience.
- Start collecting your composting materials in your bucket. Put the bucket under your kitchen sink or next to your trash can. Or, put the bucket elsewhere (e.g. in the garage, in a shed etc.) and then keep a small container on your counter to fill and empty into your bucket.
- Be mindful about your new composting habit. Remind yourself to sort your compostables into your bucket every time you throw something away until this becomes a habit.
- Make note of the date you start collecting and the date you fill the bucket. Keep track of this information for several months to get a reliable estimate.
There’s a bit more to learn about composting and gardening before you are ready to plant your first seeds. We’ll be getting deeper into those topics in future posts.
In particular, we’ll look at a few easy methods for turning those 5 gallon buckets of collected material into actual compost. We’ll also look at ways you can increase your compost production by sourcing materials for the purpose of composting.
We’re also going to start preparing a garden together. Yep, I am going to start one from scratch so I can show you how to begin and what to do each step of the way.
Remember, simple steps are all it takes. Don’t worry about all that other stuff yet. Just start filling your bucket. That is all you need to do to start composting.
Also, take pleasure in knowing that each bucket you fill brings you that much closer to the garden of your dreams!
Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Simple Vermicomposting.