Gardening Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Composting

I have created compost using a variety of methods over the years, and I have never struggled to create rich “black gold” until we moved into this house.  You can see my composting at our old house here.  At our new house, I made a few assumptions that ended up being disastrous lessons learned.

1.  A compost pile or compost bin needs a mix of “greens” and “browns”, freshly cut greens, and dried out “browns”.  Previously, I have created a large pile of leaves in the fall that I add in periodically with grass clippings and kitchen waste to find that right balance.  When we moved into this house, my husband thought I was crazy when I asked if we could bring a pile of leaves from the old house to the new house, and refused.

The majority of the “browns” at our new house were dried pine needles when we moved in.  I made the incorrect assumption that they would work in a similar manner as regular dried leaves.  I put them into my compost tumbler along with grass clippings and kitchen scraps.  Weeks went by and nothing decomposed at all.  I knew that something was not right, and then learned that pine needles take a really long time to decompose, making them better as mulch than compost material.  I emptied the compost tumbler out, and decided to start again.

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2.  I started again with an empty compost tumbler.  I still didn’t have any dried leaves, and could not locate the box where I was saving all of our used newspapers (which can be shredded and used as “browns”).  My husband stopped me from transporting the dried leaves, and my backup plan of the box of newspaper could not be located at the moment.

I tried doing an experiment of adding in only “greens” and some compost accelerator (a powdery substance purchased at garden centers).  No luck….nothing happened.

3.  I had by now trimmed back some of the ivy in our new yard, and left the clippings in a pile to dry out.  For my third attempt at making compost at this new house, I added in dried ivy leaves along with the usual grass clippings & kitchen waste.  Things started to finally show signs of breaking down, and then I added in more in the tumbler.

When the compost tumbler got too full, signs of decomposition halted.  I decided I needed to start a secondary compost bin since I obviously have a lot more green waste at this house than I had at our old house.  I am using a regular trash can with holes drilled in it for my backup compost bin.  Once the compost tumbler had room again, things have finally started to break down properly.  Hopefully I will have homemade compost again soon!

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My Flower Bed Planting Process

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This recent garden transformation has been a multi-stage process.  This has been my process so far:

1.  Weed flower bed.  Repeatedly.
2.  Mix rich homemade compost into flower bed soil and aerate the soil, mixing the compost in well.  I also brought in some earthworms so they would start making themselves at home in our soil.
3.  Transplanted my existing perennials that I planted at our old rental house (I think the landlord was sad that I didn’t leave them behind, but I am quite attached to all my flowers!).
4.  Pruned all dead growth that was currently in garden from previous owners, and trim all the hedges.  They were quite unruly.  I also deadheaded the rose bushes where needed.  Unfortunately it appears that someone may have pruned them too hard previously, so they are a little slow at catching up this year.
5.  Start fertilizing the grass and watering regularly.
6.  I had a huge task of removing months of pine needles from the four huge trees.  Pine needles can be good mulch for certain plants, but not for most.  There were so many on the grass that it was a little overwhelming.  I think that removing them and trying to keep up with raking them off on a regular basis has helped everything a lot.
7.  Once the grass actually started growing, I realized I had a huge weed problem on my hands.  I found a handy tool that made much easier work of removing all of the weeds in the lawn.  I am still not finished with all of the areas yet, and will do a blog post on this handy tool soon!
8.  Fertilize the existing (neglected and near dead) grape vines growing on the fence.
9.  Started shopping for new plants!  I love an informal country cottage garden look, so I went with a mix of colors: pinks, purples, yellow, orange, white, silvery grays, with a touch of blue.  I selected a mix of annuals, perennials, and a few bulbs.

I tried to select the bulk of my planting with perennials, with a few of my favorite annuals thrown in for some quick color (mostly snapdraggons, poppies and cosmos).  I also selected some drought tolerant plants that I have seen growing natively in our local hiking trails.

I made sure I planted the appropriate types of plants for each area in our garden.  It varies from full sun, to part sun, to part shade, to full shade.  It was quite a challenge to find appropriate plants for each area!
10.  Fertilized all the new flowers.  We wouldn’t look very good on a diet of only water, and neither do plants!  I use a dry organic fertilizer, and alternate with a liquid seaweed supplement.
11.  Once all the new plantings were set up, I added some of my favorite annual and perennial seeds, as well as a wildflower mix in the empty spaces.  I love a very full garden with continuous color, so I am hoping that staggering the growth like this will help give me a garden that continues to amaze me (and the neighbors!).
12.  Next we reinforced the falling over fence (actually my dad and my husband did this part).  We were originally planning to replace the fence since it is obviously falling apart, but once I was able to get some life out of the grape vines, we decided to postpone that project until they are dormant.  For now the fence is supported so the grapes don’t make the whole thing collapse.
13.  Next up will be finishing my project of freeing the fruit trees in the corner from where the grape vines were smothering them.  I have them mostly freed, but they need a little more work.
14.  The last item on the to-do list will be adding mulch.  I am waiting until my seedlings are big enough, which for now means very regular weeding.  It is important to know what is a weed and what is a seedling though!

To keep everything looking nice, I try to go out every morning (or every other morning), and do a quick round with the clippers and compost bucket to check for any flowers that need to be deadheaded or any petals that have fallen.  I also am trying to get in a regular habit of raking/blowing/sweeping/vacuuming up all of the pine needles.  It is a huge job!