Gardening with a (Re)Purpose

April 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, DIY, Front Page, Gardening, Repurposing, Slideshow

Beeby, Leicestershire - geograph.org.uk - 35594

Your backyard garden can take advantage of any number of unique containers, as this one does in Beeby, Leicestershire, UK.

Starting a backyard garden doesn’t have to involve spending a lot on containers, watering systems and soil additives. In fact, you could probably plant a rich, healthy and visually attractive garden right now with what you have lying around your house. Everything from that pile of recyclables to the yard waste sitting at the curb can be used to build a low-cost, low-maintenance source of kitchen herbs, vegetables and day-brightening flora. Following are a few ideas to get you started and to spur on your gardening imagination.

Mulch Obliged

Consider using all those leaves, sticks and pinecones you rake out of your yard every couple of months as free and effective mulch in your garden. Leaves and pine straw are a great finishing touch to your garden beds as they help your soil maintain a consistent temperature and moisture level as well as help to keep out weeds.

Planters with a New Purpose

Instead of asking yourself,  “What can I repurpose and turn into a planter?” you should be asking what you can’t, because just about anything that can hold soil and drain water can be used for your planting purposes. Assorted old coffee tins make great containers for flowering gardens and the two center holes of stacked, staggered cinderblocks can be filled with potting soil for a unique wall garden.

Have an old wooden wine box? Drill some holes in the bottom, fill with a short layer of gravel, top with potting soil and hang from sturdy eyelets screwed into the four corners for an intriguing and useful kitchen garden.

Old gutters can also be used as an easy, inexpensive and space-saving garden alternative. Gutters can either be suspended from gutter hangers or drilled into place, depending on whether you’re comfortable with drilling into the wall you’ll be using. Also, make sure to secure these properly since they will be holding quite a bit of weight after you fill them with water.

Start by drilling half-inch drainage holes every six inches or so along the gutter’s length and then suspend or attach it to your wall. Fill the gutter with a short layer of gravel to allow water drainage and top with potting soil. You won’t want to plant any deep root vegetables or top heavy produce in your gutter planters, but plants such as herbs, onions, strawberries and bush beans should do well. If you have the space, consider stacking the gutters for a visually interesting — and well-producing — wall garden.

Self-Watering Planters

Illustration-Sub-Irrigated Planter from pop bottle

Make a self-watering planter using a soda bottle cut in two. Illustration by Zakgreant via Wikimedia Commons

Self-watering planters come in all shapes, sizes and containers, but they all follow the same basic concept. All you need are two containers, one of which can fit in the other, and a wicking device to draw the water from the bottom (reservoir) container into the soil in the top container.

Innovative gardeners have created self-watering containers out of everything from to-go deli containers to storage bins to soda bottles. To make a soda bottle self-watering planter, for example, simply cut a plastic soda bottle in half and invert the top half in the bottom half so you have the planting container (top half) sitting in the reservoir container. Then drill a small hole in the cap of the soda bottle and run a thick piece of yarn half way through it. When you place the top half of the soda bottle back in the bottom half, the yarn will work as your water wick. Fill the bottom container with water and the top container with potting soil and your plant. Refill the reservoir as needed and you’re done!

For larger containers, of course, the wick needs to be a bit bigger. For self-watering planters with large plastic storage bins, for example, the wick could be a small plastic container with holes drilled in it, big enough to allow water to collect. Place it under a central hole drilled in the top container and fill the bottom container with water. You might also want to drill a hole in the side of the bottom container at a level where you can refill the water so you don’t have to lift the top container off every time it needs refilling. Once the sun hits your planter, the water will evaporate through the deli container and water your plants.

Planting a garden doesn’t mean you have to stick with any strict rules of gardening. As long as you have soil, light and water, you can plant just about anything in any style…or container.

What are some unusual containers you’ve used in your garden? What self-watering systems have worked best for you?

Mike Tuma

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

About the Writer

Mike Tuma is a Home Depot store associate in the Chicago area, where he has been helping customers since 2005. Mike focuses on outdoor living writing, ranging from tips on using a wood chipper to the latest in lawn mowers.

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5 Things to Consider When Picking a Spot for Your Urban Garden

August 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Gardening, Slideshow, Sustainability, Tips

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A windowsill makes a great place to begin your urban garden. Photo: Courtesy SnorkMaiden_Creative Commons

A window ledge makes a great place to begin your urban garden. Photo: Courtesy SnorkMaiden_Creative Commons

People who live in an apartment or townhouse don’t usually have the luxury of available green space to start a garden. And those who rent houses and have the green space may not be able to use it to grow fruit and vegetables, since the land doesn’t belong to them. Yet, those in tight living spaces can still get involved with urban gardening by using the space they do have to grow herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Growing a garden not only saves money in the long-term, but it also creates a sustainable lifestyle by reducing the waste and carbon emissions that come from transporting these goods all across the world — and from making trips to the store and back to buy them. Plus it’s a commonly known fact among gardeners that if you grow something, it tastes better!

Your urban garden doesn’t have to be large or diverse in order to bring pleasure and greenery into your home. Even if all you have is a windowsill or some unused room in your kitchen or basement, it can easily be enough to start an urban garden of your own.

To begin, you first need to figure out where you will put your urban garden, and how much space you actually have. You don’t necessarily have to do any measuring if you only plan to grow herbs and/or vegetables, but you do need to consider these factors when picking a spot in your apartment or townhouse for your urban garden:

  • Lighting – It’s best to choose a spot with lots of natural lighting, like a window or a kitchen. However, if you decide to have your urban garden in your basement or in a closet, you would then have to provide artificial lighting with lamps. In this case, you would have to consider outlets and power strips. Whatever the case, make sure your garden gets six to eight hours of sunlight (real or artificial) a day.
  • Heating – With artificial lighting, this isn’t a problem, since the lamps should be enough to keep the soil warm. But, a window that’s too drafty could make the soil too cold for your seeds or your baby plants to grow.
  • Humidity – Some plants require lots of humidity, and if you live in a humid area, this might not be a problem. If you live in a dry climate, however, then a location like the bathroom or the basement may be better. Remember though, if you choose to grow plants that don’t need a lot of humidity, keeping them out of the bathroom is probably a good idea.
  • Away from Pets and Children – Some plants may be poisonous to Fluffy and Fido, and even to humans if ingested. Others may have some sort of special appeal that Fluffy and Fido can’t resist. All plants will probably interest your toddler (what doesn’t?) and he may accidentally damage it or knock it over. If you have pets, putting your urban garden on the floor is probably not a good idea. If you want to grow plants with fruits and leaves that droop low enough for your pets to get a nibble, make sure to hang them from the ceiling so they are well out of reach.
  • Easy to Clean – Pick a spot that’s easy to clean in case dirt or water is spilled, and when leaves shed. Or find an area that could easily be protected with a mat or newspaper. Positioning your garden over carpet may not be a good idea unless you have a particularly old or ugly rug that you don’t mind ruining.

Kitchens often serve as the best place to start a small urban garden, but this still differs from home to home. You have to consider your own situation, what you want out of your urban garden, and what sort of plants you would like to grow. Don’t let living in a townhouse or small apartment hinder you from creating your own urban garden. It doesn’t take much to start one, and you can easily add more plants as you gain more experience.

Learn to grow your own food, and you will be well on your way to living a sustainable lifestyle.

Kaylee Osborne

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Kaylee Osborne is a writer and green living enthusiast. She spends her days writing informative content for Sylvane and spends her evenings bike riding and enjoying delicious local foods in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting by Chris McLaughlin

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting

Maybe you’re already a gardener, ready to plant some vegetables to reduce your grocery bill and gain some peace of mind about what additives you will not be putting into your family’s bodies. Or, maybe you secretly yearn for a yard filled with colorful flower blossoms from early spring until late fall.

If you see yourself in either of these scenarios, then The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting: Turn your organic waste material into black gold, is for you. No, this isn’t a book about planting a garden. It’s about how to nourish the soil you will use to grow amazing veggies and posies. And, I have to say, it’s even fun to read.

Compost Happens

“The first thing you need to know is that no matter what you do—compost happens,” author Chris McLaughlin says. She sets out to educate, support, inform, and entertain her readers.

I’ve always been a kind of a sucker for the “idiot’s guide” type of book, since I don’t know all that much about anything. I’m not much of a gardener, but I started a compost pile 20+ years ago as an environmental gesture to remove organic waste from the garbage can.

McLaughlin is right, “compost happens.” I knew nothing. I did my composting with the most minimal effort possible. I created a designated spot in the far end of the backyard, put some landscaping logs around it, and began dumping all the kitchen waste there. (Even I knew enough not to put in any meat scraps.)

All I did was keep a covered bucket under the sink, then haul it to the backyard when it was full. Then I dug a small hole and poured it in and covered it up with some dirt. The microbes and worms did the rest. Simple.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know about the valuable applications of the black gold I was creating has been a terrible waste. After reading this book, I realize I have been accumulating a pile of invaluable compost without actually putting it to use.

From “Idiot” to Composter

In this enjoyable, easy to read, and surprisingly thorough and diverse book, McLaughlin moves us from “idiots” to knowledgeable composters ready to create black gold with minimal effort and maximum results. She not only tells us how to make the stuff, but how to use it effectively and with ease.

Most environmentalists are aware of the rebound in “locavore” eating and the mushrooming of home gardening: community gardens, potted mini-gardens on apartment balconies, backyard gardens, plots shared with neighbors, and even indoor greenhouses to extend the growing season.

But we also are recognizing the urgency for using more sustainable methods. These are part and parcel of the composting process:

  • eliminating synthetic fertilizers
  • using natural weed control
  • growing plants that are healthier and more disease and pest resistant
  • conserving water

McLaughlin reminds us that “composting is sustainability at its finest.” It’s good for our gardens, good for us, and good for the earth. She quickly addresses the issue of common myths and bad reps about composting, such as it attracts rodents, or it stinks, or it requires lots of time and effort and is very complicated or expensive. Nix on those. Read on.

Composting Made Simple

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting is well organized, succinct, and rich in information, helpful hints, and DIY instructions. I particularly enjoyed the iconic little sidebar boxes in each section that address potential problems, provide definitions about terms and techniques, offer fun facts, and afford opportunities to “dig deeper.”

Perhaps most encouraging is the admonition: “Ignore anyone who tells you it has to be a certain way. Use a system that fits your lifestyle.” Yes!

The Basics of Composting

Here are the nuts and bolts (or shall we say, “the humus and mulch”) found within the 193 not-dense pages:

Part 1 – “The Dirt Beneath Your Feet”

  • Learn what makes soil healthy and fruitful, and discover the benefits of composting.
  • Find out how it works and the four main things every compost pile needs.
  • What to compost and what to avoid.
  • The difference between a “hot” and “cold” compost pile, and how to do it.
  • Inexpensive do-it-yourself methods of building your pile.
  • How to shop for commercially available bins.
  • Troubleshooting if necessary.
  • How to use the gold, once it’s ready.

Part 2 – “Worm Wrangling 101: Vermicomposting

You can do without the worms, as I have for 20 years—or read it and then decide. You’ll definitely be better informed. This chapter covers:

  • How to harness the power of worms for particularly potent composting.
  • Everything you need to know about housing and feeding worms.
  • What to do with all that rich worm poop

Part 3: “Creative Composting: Beyond the Bin”

  • Bed, Sheet or Sandwich Composting (you’ll have to read it, I’m not telling)
  • Grasscycling for keeping grass clippings where they belong – on your lawn
  • Mulching is composting, too
  • Planting cover crops for adding nutritional value to your soil
  • Taking compost into the community as a way of sharing the wealth and building community

I told you this book was thorough and diverse.

Three Additional Resources

In the back of the book, McLaughlin gives us these helpful resources:

  • Appendix A: A useful glossary of terms for easy reference
  • Appendix B: The “Resource Appendix,” with helpful websites and blogs on composting, a list of retailers selling composting supplies, other books on composting, a list of university extension offices, and some composting organizations
  • Appendix C: “Compost and Worms in the Classroom,” a fun resource for teaching kids, complete with activities and classroom planning

A Gift to the Earth

If you are or are going to be a gung-ho gardener and composter, this book is invaluable. If you are a new or casual gardener, this book is invaluable. If you are no gardener at all and just want to expand your horizons, this is also valuable and fun to read. If you want to help the planet and cease from putting your organic material down the garbage disposal or in the garbage can, by all means, take a look.

The truth is, I don’t feel like I’m as much of an “idiot composter” as when I began reading. And McLaughlin supports whatever composting efforts I decide will fit in my lifestyle. That’s a gift for me, my garden, and the Earth.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to review only those books we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by free books and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this book or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a very small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.

Miriam Kashia

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living

Energy-Wise Landscape Design – This Book Will Save You Money

Homeowners can keep cool in the summer with plantings that shade the house and the ground. Photo: © jnatkin_iStockPhoto

In the depths of winter, it’s always good to remember that spring is just around the corner. After the holiday rush ends, it will be a great time to start planning and dreaming about your yard. And if you’re planning to build or renovate this coming year, you’ll want to be sure you incorporate landscaping ideas that not only look pretty, but that are also energy efficient.

Careful landscaping can be much more effective at saving energy than many of the other efforts we make each day, like turning off lights and turning down the heat. Having the right plantings outside your home will not only save you money, it will also help you live more comfortably in an esthetically pleasing environment.
That’s the essence of the message embedded in every page of Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden by Sue Reed.

Conserving Two Kinds of Energy

Author Sue Reed provides a wealth of information that will help any homeowner, landscaper, or gardener take full advantage of nature to save energy and money.

From the very beginning, readers can see that this is a serious book about finding all possible ways to conserve with landscaping:

This book presents ideas for conserving two kinds of energy. First it shows how to reduce operating energy — the energy used in our regular day-to-day functioning — that includes fuel for mowers and machinery, electricity for outdoor lights and watering systems and even the gasoline for our cars. Second, implementing the advice in this book will also reduce embedded energy — the energy used to manufacture and transport equipment and materials — that we consume in our landscapes without even realizing it.

The author doesn’t use a prescriptive approach, but instead offers readers “a guide to achieve any landscape design goal in a way that saves energy.”

What’s more, Reed does it in easy-to-understand language, simplifying complex ideas and technical information. She offers easy-to-implement tips and instructions that make this a practical, as well as a theoretical, guide.

Based on Science

Scientific principles form the foundation for Reed’s landscape designs. Did you know, for example, about the “Venturi Effect”?

Reed explains it this way:

When a river narrows to pass between canyon walls, its speed picks up; so too with air… [W]hen air or any fluid flows through a constricted space, its velocity must increase.

We can intensify the power of wind in summer by designing the landscape to make the most of this effect, by arranging things so they create funnels or leave small spaces for wind to squeeze through. In winter we can arrange windbreaks and other barriers to prevent this effect, so they don’t accidentally increase wind speed.

The book is chock full of photos, diagrams, and explanations of other scientific principles that are helpful for even the lay gardener to understand. While you can certainly figure some things out by observation (where an existing tree’s shadow falls in the summer, for example), formulas and diagrams are indispensable for determining how a tree or a windbreak might affect your home 20 years from now. For example, below a diagram of a SW windbreak of evergreens, the author writes:

Evergreens southwest or southeast of the house, or a house northeast or northwest of tall evergreens, should be spaced apart a distance at least three and a half times the trees’ mature height.

The explanation alone is helpful, but the diagram makes it even more clear. And providing the formula ensures that the homeowner won’t plant the windbreak too close to the house or too far away to be beneficial — a costly mistake in either case.

Practical Advice

The book is divided into seven sections, each of which deals with a general topic about ways to save energy. I am impressed by the breadth of topics as well as the depth of discussion and abundance of practical tips. Here’s a list of the section titles, with just a single sample quoted from the abundance of tips you can find in each:

Section I: Arranging the Landscape to Help Cool a House in Summer

[C]elebrate and accentuate any slopes on your landscape instead of leveling or removing them. If possible, position outdoor gathering places midway on a slope, so you’ll feel rising breezes in the morning and sinking breezes in the evening.

Section II: Arranging the Landscape to Help Heat a House in Winter

The power of wind increases with the cube (or third power) of its speed. this means that when wind speeds double, their force is eight times stronger…. Solid fences should be built with extra cross pieces and, ideally, with the nailed side of boards facing the prevailing wind direction, so that in strong wind those boards are pushed in toward their supporting structure and are hence less likely to be ripped off.

Section III: Designing the Realm of Plants

No matter what kind of landscape you have,… consider a drastic new approach to gardening: don’t add anything…. It’s not a recommendation for laissez-faire gardening. Rather, it’s simply a suggestion to let everything new be added by nature itself … and then to remove anything you don’t want.

Section IV: Designing the Whole Property

Driveways must be designed to allow for a turning radius of at least 15 feet. Tighter curves will simply be driven over. And note: the point where a driveway’s curve begins must be well outside the garage (or parking space), by at least half a car length, so a tuning car doesn’t bump into walls (or other parked cars).

Section V: Construction and Care

One of the best ways to repair soil — actually, it’s the same method that nature uses — is to just let fallen leaves, twigs and dead wood remain on the ground and break down gradually in place. You can rake all this material up and chop or grind it into smaller bits, or you can compost and spread it later in a different place, but the most energy-efficient choice is just to leave this precious resource on the ground, right where it falls.

Section VI: Generating Energy in Your Landscape

The fluid inside a geothermal loop can be ordinary water in warm climates where the ground doesn’t freeze. Otherwise, it should be either an antifreeze solution or a mixture of water and antifreeze, with a freeze point at least 10″ below the lowest projected temperature in that area.

Section VII: Lights in the Landscape

[A]s a rule of thumb, when selecting bulbs, choose the size that will give:

  • for low light: 10 to 20 lumens per square foot of area being lit
  • for ordinary tasks: 30 to 50 lumns per square foot of area being lit
  • for reading or fine work: 50 to 100 lumens per square foot of area being lit

Helpful Appendices

If you rarely give much thought to the appendices of a reference book, you might want to rethink that for Energy-Wise Landscape Design. If you’re just enough of a nerd to enjoy reading a simple explanation of such things as how to find a shadow’s direction, but not enough of a nerd to know the calculations by heart, you’ll find Appendix A an interesting read.

Subtitled “Details and Calculations,” Appendix A provides explanations of the following:

  • Finding true north
  • Knowing your latitude
  • Figuring out the height of a tree
  • Calculating shadow lengths
  • Finding the direction a shadow will fall
  • Reading a solar path diagram
  • Determining slope

I have to admit that I don’t remember enough geometry to have figured these things out on my own. I’m grateful for any resource that does the math for me.

Appendix B provides help of another kind. While describing landscaping techniques, the author frequently refers to various trees and shrubs by name as well as mentioning “smaller deciduous trees” and “tall shrubs,” etc. In the back of the book, she provides helpful tables that include the common name and botanical name, growing conditions, and appearance/comments about several common trees and shrubs:

  • Deciduous Trees Taller than 50 Feet
  • Deciduous Trees 35-50 Feet Tall
  • Deciduous Trees 20-35 Feet Tall
  • Evergreen Trees Taller than 40 Feet
  • Deciduous Shrubs 60 to 20 Feet Tall
  • Deciduous Shrubs 3 to 6 Feet Tall
  • Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs

Details

A registered landscape architect, Sue Reed “has helped hundreds of homeowners create comfortable, livable and beautiful landscapes that save energy. She is also an experienced writer and teacher whose work focuses specifically on environmentally sound, energy efficient and sustainable landscape design.”

Energy-Wise Landscape Design is published by New Society Publishers. Suggested retail price is $29.95, though you can find it for a bit less on Amazon.com.

This is an outstanding reference for anyone who is serious about natural landscaping. The ideas, tips, and resources included will save you money while helping you create a peaceful, pleasant environment you will enjoy all year ’round. I recommend it.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

The Small Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

Blue Planet Green Living’s review policy is to only review those books we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by complimentary books and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.

Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this book or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.

How to Build a Compost Bin in Your Own Backyard

Build this simple, yet sturdy, compost bin in a couple of hours. Photo: J Wasson

Build this simple, yet sturdy, compost bin in a couple of hours. Photo: J Wasson

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and you’ve decided that your family needs a compost bin in your backyard. You could go out and buy one of those really nice, plastic-barrel ones, the kind that sits on a fancy rack and rotates with a spin of the handle. But you don’t have to shell out a couple hundred dollars or experience the frustration of trying to assemble it when you get it home. Build your own. It’s less expensive, relatively simple to construct, and — as important, in my mind — easy to disassemble and repurpose if you ever want to. And it takes you one step further on your green living journey.

I’m always looking for reasons to avoid buying anything new, especially new plastic things. I like to use old stuff when I can; it’s eco-friendly and helps create a sustainable lifestyle. Better yet, I prefer to make my own. But I have to be careful to not get carried away. I tend to over-design, and then over-build, so my projects end up costing twice as much and taking twice as long as yours might. Most people build their compost piles with four stakes and some chicken wire wrapped around the outside. That’s an option, of course, but it’s not raccoon-proof, and that was my first requirement.

Essential Requirements

Well, anyway, I had this compost design in my head for about a month, and I finally got around to building it. First, I listed my essential design requirements:

  1. It has to keep the raccoons out. The patriarch of the local raccoon family and I have had an ongoing battle over my trashcans for 5 years. Right now, I have about 10 bungee cords on every trashcan, but he still figures out how to get inside them and spread the contents all over the place. So, from now on, no more food in the trash cans. All food waste goes into the compost bin, and that bin has got to be tough. It has to have a cover that this miniature Houdini cannot lift, pry off, or dismantle (I fully expect to see him down at the local hardware store buying a jack hammer) while, at the same time, allowing a normal-sized adult human to open the lid and dump in our food waste. <strong></strong>

    This bin is sturdy enough to keep even the most determined raccoon out of the compost. Photo: J. Wasson

    This bin is sturdy enough to keep out even the most determined raccoon. Photo: J. Wasson

  2. It has to last. I don’t want to have to rebuild it every spring because it collapsed when a leaf fell on it. I would like it to outlive me. This is just my theory of construction. A few extra materials and a bit more effort now mean I can forget about it later
  3. It has to be mostly enclosed. For one thing, I don’t want to have to look at it. To me, there’s something less-than-attractive about maggots, flies, and worms romping through rotting food. I know they’re all necessary for a compost pile, but they’re not too pretty in the middle of a flower garden. And for another, if it’s too open, the compost will dry out, slowing the decaying process.
  4. It also has to have openings. Bugs, snakes, and spiders have to be able to get in or out. Worms need access from the bottom. And I want rain to fall into it from the top, because moisture helps the whole process move along.
  5. It has to be easily dismantled. Once a season or so, I’ll need access so I can stir the contents. And once a year, I’ll remove the good soil from the bottom.

Getting Started


Once I decided on my essential requirements, I went looking for the supplies I needed. First, I looked in my yard and garage to scavenge any useful materials. The rest, I purchased at my local lumberyard for less than $100. (For items I already had, I’m giving an estimated cost.)

  • 56 – 8 inch x 8 inch x 8 inch concrete blocks @ $0.95 each (on sale). (I had to bring them home in two loads to save the shocks in my Prius.):   $56.00
  • 2 – 8-foot 2” x 8”s of green-treated wood @ $5.50 each:   $11.00
  • 1 roll of chicken wire fencing, 4 feet x 10 feet:   $8.00
  • 2 pull handles (scrounged from my garage):    $10.00
  • 2 door hinges (also free from scrounging):    $10.00
  • Assorted nails, staples, screws (again, stuff I had around):   $3.00
    TOTAL:    $98.00


Of course, I also had the shovel and hoe to level the soil in our flower garden. These would be additional costs, if you don’t have them already. I also take it for granted that I have a drill, a circular saw, sawhorses, levels, a square, a staple gun, tin snips, and a tape measure to accomplish the rest of this project. If you don’t have these tools, you can rent them at your local rental store — or borrow them from a willing neighbor (but be sure to return them promptly and in great condition if you want your neighbor to remain willing).

A word of caution: If you don’t have basic carpentry skills, you may be better off buying that big plastic barrel that comes in a kit. Handling a circular saw or a drill can be dangerous. You don’t want to end up composting a body part.

The Process

  1. Choose the location. You’ll need to do this before you run off to the hardware store, of course. I chose to locate the box in the center of a flower bed, along a length of wood fence, where I could plant some taller flowers next season to hide it. You can build your compost any size. My surface space was about 48 inches wide by 40 inches front to back. I calculated the number of blocks this would take before making my purchase. If you want a larger or taller box, buy more blocks.
  2. Prepare the ground. It took me about 20 minutes to level the ground. You must start with a flat surface. Use your level to check it. Tamp it lightly. We’re not using any mortar between the blocks, so, if your blocks are set on any slope, they will not stand. Start building. I set the bottom layer of blocks in place, in a rectangle, side by side, with the flat surfaces of the blocks to the inside. I continued to lay the next two layers of blocks on top of those. All that took about another 20 minutes. Note that I don’t recommend using any mortar, so the blocks can be freely removed from any or all sides. Be aware that the blocks will eventually settle, tip, and separate, especially if you only put a light piece of plywood on the top as a cover (which is an option). If you choose the lid design that I used, it will be heavy enough to help hold the blocks in place for a considerably long time.

     Mitered corners give the lid a more finished look. Photo: Joe Hennager

    Mitered corners give the lid a more finished look. Photo: Joe Hennager

  3. Build the lid. I decided to go for the deluxe lid, so I cut the 2 x 8 for the back anchor board and the front face board, both at 46 inches in length. Then I mitered the corners for the front board. I wanted a cleaner look than just toe-nailing a right-angle joint. I then cut the two 31-inch side boards. I matched up their mitered corners on the front to the matching 2 x 8, and on the back to a 2 x 4 that I ripped from the remaining 2 x 8 stock. To assemble the frame, I toe-nailed all the pieces together with some 8 penny galvanized nails and set all the mitered corners with some four inch coated deck screws, just to be safe. Cutting all the pieces took less than 20 minutes, and assembly took another 20.
  4. Attach the hardware. I screwed the door hinges on the back and the pull handles on the front of the lid frame. I laid the whole contraption in place on top of the blocks, placing the last two blocks on top of the back anchor board, and flipped the lid open.
    I cut the chicken wire to fit using a tin snips, then stapled it into place on the underside of the lid. I tapped the staples down with a hammer to make sure the raccoons couldn’t get the tips of their little crowbars under it. I made sure the sharp tips of the chicken wire were also hammered flat to not scratch any skin when the lid was opened and closed. Attaching the hardware and chicken wire took another 20 minutes.

So, it took me a little over an hour to get two loads of blocks home from the lumberyard, and another two hours of building. For about $100 worth of materials, I now had my first compost. It’s a little sturdier than most I have seen, but remember, I have Guido, the 80-pound raccoon to deal with.

Flexibility


Besides being extra strong (and foiling even the cleverest local raccoon bandit), this compost bin is extremely flexible. If the pile of decaying matter isn’t shrinking fast enough, I can turn one or more of the lower-level concrete blocks a quarter turn and allow more air to enter the box. This should cook the contents a little faster if things begin to fill up too fast. And, if we have a lot more yard waste or food waste than I anticipate, I can easily add more layers of blocks to the top of the box. Since the lid isn’t screwed into the blocks, it’s a simple mater to remove it and then replace it on top of the new layers.

Tips

Cardboard

Cardboard scraps add carbon and reduce the smell of your compost. Photo: J. Wasson

The process of composting needs air, water, carbon, and nitrogen. The carbon is the dead, brown, dry yard waste, and the nitrogen is the green yard waste and food scraps. You want to have a balance of the two. If you find you are putting in too much food waste, and your compost pile is beginning to smell, just add some shredded paper, cardboard, straw, or fall leaves. These will contribute carbon and air space to the mixture. And don’t forget to stir the mixture every month or so with a pitch fork (or a shovel if you don’t have a fork).

Anyway, the important thing here is not what your compost box or bin looks like, it is that you get some kind of container and start using it. Composting your food waste and yard waste should become as natural as recycling your plastics, tin cans, paper, and glass.

Composting helps reduce the tonnage that goes into landfills, provides a home for many creatures, builds your lawn and garden with amazing nutrients, and gives you the sense that you are giving something back to your good earth.

As we learn more about our compost, we will be passing it on. And, as always, your tips and suggestions are welcome.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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How to Build a Quick and Easy Vegetable Trellis

Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

How to Build a Quick and Easy Vegetable Trellis

Build this simple vegetable trellis in almost no time at all. Photo: J. Wasson

It’s spring in Iowa, and the smell of the moist, black soil calls out to the gardener in all of us. Ever since the first hint of bulbs peeking through the dirt, I’ve been itching to get started planting an organic garden. On Friday, the temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. By Saturday, it was 35 degrees and dropping. The Weather Channel showed a big snowstorm coming in a few hours. I decided I’d better hurry.

I checked the garage to find wood to cut into stakes and a shovel to turn over the soil. I got out my skill saw, an extension cord, and a hammer. Then a friend and I jumped into my son’s Jeep and headed to the lumberyard.

I purchased two, 15-foot-long by 50-inch-wide, steel-grid fencing sections. These had to be flexible enough that I would be able to bend them into an arch, but sturdy enough not to collapse under the weight of vines and produce I plan to grow on them. The panels cost about $35.00 each, so I was now $70.00 into my experiment, plus gas and time.

“Won’t fit,” the kid at the lumberyard had said, watching my friend and me lift the grids onto the Jeep. He wasn’t prepared for our ingenuity. We tied the panels on the roof, padding it with our coats to protect the paint. (Obviously, we didn’t plan very well. If you decide to do this, bring along some old towels or a blanket for padding between your vehicle and the fencing sections.) This was only possible with plenty of rope, another $4.00.

We bought two steel-grid fence panels like this one. Photo: J. Wasson

Have you seen the movie Mad Max? That’s what the Jeep looked like, with the fencing grid curved down over the hood and tied to the front bumper. We would have been well protected should anyone want to throw a cinder block through our windshield. The whole adventure took about an hour — and the lumberyard is 15 minutes away.

Back at my house, we unloaded the sections onto the lawn. I went to work selecting the best location for the new trellis. My wife and I have a small lot — only 40 feet wide — squeezed between very close neighbors. Most of the backyard already has a perimeter of flowerbeds filled with perennials, so we weren’t anxious to disturb them.

We keep the remaining lawn small on purpose, because we both hate to mow. We don’t like the pollution of belching fumes, and we hate the noise. We dislike starting a mower and storing a mower and tuning a mower. If I had my way, I’d rather pave my yard than mow it. My theory on saving the environment from the evils of lawn-mowing is to keep adding flowerbeds.

This year, we’ve decided to plant an organic vegetable garden. (It’s a great reason to rip out some more sod.) We’re working to become more sustainable, and gardening is a great step in that direction. It’s green living at an elemental level.

Because neither of us feels like crawling around on our hands and knees to garden, we decided to build a trellis and see how many vegetables we can grow on vines. We’ll try peas, beans, tomatoes, and squash, and any other climbing veggies we can find. (Got a suggestion? We’d love to hear from you.)

Most of our backyard is shady, so we chose to place the trellis in the center, halfway between a neighbor’s large garage on one side and our other neighbor’s large shade trees. I figure the trellis will get about 6 or 7 hours of sun on a good day.

Bending the fencing creates an arch. Photo: J. Wasson

Constructing the trellis was simple and took no more than half an hour from start to finish (not counting our Mad Max adventure). With the skill saw, I cut 8 wooden stakes out of some scrap 1″ x 2″ lumber. I then drove 2 stakes into the ground about 4 feet apart, parallel to our backyard sidewalk. I took one end of the first panel and butted it up against those stakes, then pushed the prongs on that end into the ground. Then I lifted the other end until the whole panel was standing almost vertical.

Pressing the panel down hard against the first two stakes, I then pulled down on the free end until it touched the ground. This left an arch about 6 feet wide and 6 feet high, giving us plenty of room to walk under and pick the produce yet to come. The prongs on the back end of the fencing held it in place in the sod while I secured it by pounding in two more stakes.

I repeated all this with the second panel, connecting a second arch to the first one. Ta-da! In less than two hours, from start to finish, I had built a 9-foot long, 6 1/2-foot tall, trellis. It was easy enough to do alone, but having an extra person would make the job even easier.

I was going to go ahead and break the sod, but heavy, wet snow began to fall. It was the 28th of March. That’s Iowa for you.

Watch for the further adventures of Joe the Gardener (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber), right here on BPGL.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

How to Build a Compost Bin in Your Own Backyard