I’ve been told that people see dirty pictures of me on the internet all the time. No, not the X-rated kind. I mean literally… covered in dirt. It’s just something I do. Don’t judge, okay?
But not all dirt is the same. You should know what you are growing your food in, both for the quality of your plants and the safety of your family. You can start by having your soil tested. Talk to your local garden center about this. In Pennsylvania, you can purchase a kit from the Penn State Extension office in your county. Find it here. A small fee applies. When you receive your results, take them to your garden center for advice on amending your soil to maximize production.
Many home gardeners will tell you that the best soil comes from composted horse and cow manure. So, we set off on an adventure to find some and our friend offered as much as we wanted for free. I think you’ll find that most equestrians and farmers are happy to give it away. So, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day with an old friend and her horse, Man. The girls got to ride him, pet him, and feed him, and I got my bucket of poop “to go.” Score.
If the thought of this makes you cringe, relax. We scooped from the compost pile, where micro-organisms have broken down the animal waste into dirt… black gold, actually. It has none of the aromatic qualities of fresh manure, but all of the nutrients to grow healthy plants. In fact, I rode many miles with the stuff strapped into the passenger seat next to me and I can tell you there was nothing offensive about it.
Another method of natural fertilizing for the home gardener is composting. Compost is simply decaying organic matter. You can transform vegetable peels and weeds into nutritive soil by giving it the right conditions to break down. Not only does home composting save money by providing good quality soil for free, it is a great way to recycle items that would have ended up in your trash. There are a multitude of ways to set up your compost system – bins, piles, worm farms, leaf mulch, and more, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to introduce you to what we do here.
A home compost bin is easy to make and maintain if you know just a few simple “rules.”
- For best results, it should be covered for warmth, moisture retention, and for protection from pests.
- It must be moistened regularly.
- And it must be turned occasionally to aerate.
Dos and Don’ts for the home composter
- Use fruits and vegetable remnants from your kitchen and yard waste.
- Never place animal products or fats (like cooking oil) into your compost. It will introduce unwelcome contaminants as well as attract pests.
- Never use yard waste that has been treated with chemicals, including store-bought mulch.
- Try to use a balance of green ingredients (such as fresh vegetation & kitchen scraps) and brown ingredients (such as dry leaves and thin twigs).
- Whenever you add fresh ingredients to your compost, use a pitchfork or compost turning tool to mix it in.
- Add moisture. Your mixture should be light and fluffy, but moist and not muddy.
When treated properly, it will not produce an odor like garbage. It will smell like dirt.
Establish an area for composting that is convenient for you. If you know you won’t walk your kitchen scraps to the back acre, then choose a spot near your house and within convenient reach of a water source. My first mistake was placing our compost bin too far from the house, making it difficult to water. It helps to have a covered container in the fridge to collect your scraps, or purchase a countertop compost container.
To make your compost area, you can use something like this Earth Machine. It is pinned to the ground with plastic screws. (if you buy a compost bin that does not secure to the ground, it will blow away, I promise) I’m sure an inventive person can create a homespun version from an old trash can. Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t! We acquired this one as part of an educational course. I simply open the top, mix in fresh scraps, add water, and voila!! Out comes pretty dirt from the bottom drawer. Easy.
To use your home-made, nutrient-rich soil, scoop from the bottom. Sifting with a screen makes it more beautiful and allows you to return unprocessed material to the bin, but it’s not a necessity. Spread a layer over your garden in the early Spring to prepare for the planting season. Mix it in when transplanting anything. Side-dress plants, shrubs, and trees anytime.
If composting with worms is something you are interested in doing, find a great article on building a worm farm here. We are big fans of worms around here and their castings make a wonderful natural fertilizer. Some of us think they are fun to play with, too.
Composting is fun, economical, environmentally friendly, and a great science lesson for kids. I do hope you try it if you haven’t already. Some municipalities even have community composting programs, where non-gardeners can participate.