Suburban Garden Planning 101

It's raining compost.

It’s raining compost.

Fall really is the time to start your garden. It’s just raining compost as the leaves fall from the trees. The days are cool and much more pleasant to work in than the muggy days of late Spring and early summer. Your soil needs to feed itself, and if you are starting a new garden, it needs time to make the adjustment from sod to garden soil.

Everybody knows what a vegetable garden looks like, right? It’s a square or rectangle in the middle of the backyard. That’s why a lot of people don’t grow gardens. They have kids who want to play in the backyard. Dogs who want to chase frisbees and squirrels.

So I’m going to suggest that you think outside of the box, or square, or rectangle. You have no problem with planting ornamentals in narrow beds next to the house. Why not put your veggies there?

Here are some thoughts on how to do it:


Veggies like sun, as a rule, six to eight hours a day. Look to the south side of your house for optimal exposure. Some crops, like lettuce, spinach, and peas, prefer cool weather. If you have a place in your garden with early morning or late afternoon shade, plant them there. On the one hand, they will grow a bit slower, but on the other, the shade will help extend the season for a longer

Land use

What path does your dog follow as he patrols the yard? Don’t plant there. Where’s home plate for your kids’ kickball games? Where’s the outfield? Put the garden behind home plate or along the baselines. (But set back, please.) Do you have a deck or patio? Consider planting a border of salad greens, herbs, and a tomato plant or bush cucumber along the edge. Leave a path or two to access the yard. (And put the paths where everybody walks anyway. It’s easier to teach plants where to grow than teach people or animals to change their habits.)

Or the end of the driveway.

DSC01065Maximize your growing space

In another article on this blog, I wrote about trellises. You can grow an amazing quantity of pole beans or cucumbers in a bed a foot wide if you give the vines support so that they grow up instead of sprawling all over the lawn. Trellises can be quite cheap and easy to make. We’ve made them from 2’x2’s, eyebolts, and string hung from the eaves; PVC pipe with fence wire held on with zip ties; old 2”x4”s and string; and 4”x4” posts sunk into concrete with wire fencing stapled to it. This last one will eventually have the wire removed and turn into the support for the south wall of our future greenhouse. You can put sticks or metal fenceposts in the ground, run wires between them, and zigzag string between the wires. Your imagination’s the limit.

2"x2s, eyebolts, and string.

2″x2s, eyebolts, and string.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.


Five gallon buckets with 5 or 6 holes drilled 2 inches from the bottom can each hold a tomato, eggplant, potato, or pepper plant. If you don’t like the look of a line of pails on your deck or patio, you can build a big box around them. (I’ll post pictures when we get ours done next year.)


This is up to you and your needs. Are your kids old enough to walk around things, or are they still in the “Damn the torpedoes” phase of child development? Does your dog dig? Rabbits? Squirrels? We’ve found the cheapest is 2′ chicken wire mounted on rebar with zip ties.

Getting Started

I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll keep saying it, but start small. If you overburden yourself with taking on more garden than your experience warrants, you’ll feel stressed and end up getting turned off by the process. If you have no gardening experience at all, keep your garden smaller than ten square feet. That’s a strip one foot wide and ten feet long, two feet by five, or three and a bit by three. If you can restrain yourself, you’ll have a garden that’s easy to manage and will leave you hungry for more.

If you go nuts and plow up a huge plot, (been there, done that) you’ll likely find that it’s more work than you bargained for. You’re simply not used to it and it becomes one more damn thing you have to do. Like any other activity, it takes time to work it into your schedule and make the few minutes of routine maintenance a day a habit. (Remember that exercise bike?)

You can always make it bigger next year. If you’re a normal suburban person with a job, a commute, a family and, well, a life, you probably won’t want to add more than ten square feet per year.

The Easy Way

Figure out where you want to plant. Build the fence, if you need one. Get your soil tested at Co-op Extension or buy a soil test kit at your local hardware palace. Sprinkle whatever minerals your soil needs over the top of your future garden. Cover it with a couple layers of newspaper. Wet the paper down with the hose to keep it from blowing away. Run the lawnmower, bagger attached, over your lawn, fallen leaves and all. Dump the chopped leaves and grass clippings on the future garden, the deeper the better.

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, spread the ashes over the leaves as you clean it out over the winter. The alkalinity from the ashes will neutralize the acidity of the leaves and help them break down faster.

If you do it the hard way, raking all those leaves and throwing them onto the garden whole, you’ll end up with an impenetrable layer of wet, slimy leaves. Chopping them up with the mower lets them decompose faster. Whole leaves can take two years to turn into humus. Chopped leaves, mixed with grass clippings or other nitrogen-rich material and neutralized with wood ash can rot in less than half the time.

If you don’t have wood ash, sprinkle dolomite limestone over the top. If you find you are gathering leaves with no grass clippings mixed in, you can add nitrogen by means of a weak ammonia solution: one tablespoon per gallon, poured on with a watering can. Add another layer of leaves on top to prevent the ammonia from evaporating. If you opt out of fencing, get some straw and put a thin layer on top, spread like a lattice to keep the winter winds from blowing the leaves back onto your yard.

That’s all for now. Put your feet up, make yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and check out those seed catalogs.

Just don’t get carried away.

Unexpectedly Happy Ending


Ralph discovered these things in our compost heap. Yikes! There were millions of them, it seemed, busily munching on a head of cabbage that had split and gone bad. We’d dealt with an earwig infestation earlier in the season. Was this a harbinger of future earwigs?

Ralph put a few in a jar and took it to the Master Gardeners at our local college. They scratched their heads and told him they’d get back to us. We got on the Net and decided that the most likely culprit was Black Soldier Flies.

A few days later a Master Gardener showed up and confirmed the diagnosis. Black Soldier Flies are beneficial. They lay their eggs in decaying material. If the heap is too moist to support earthworms, the BSF larvae take over. They eat things (like cabbage leaves) too solid for earthworms to feed on, and poop out earthworm chow. The adults are pretty unusual, too. Most flies eat by barfing stomach acid, then lapping up the resulting slime. (This is why they are disease vectors.) BSFs eliminate this problem by not having mouth parts.

You read that right. Adult BSFs have only one thing on their minds: making more BSFs. They do all their eating  as maggots, and boy, do they eat! A few days after this photo was taken, Ralph emptied a vacuum cleaner bag  full of dust and dog hair into the heap. The maggots (having run out of cabbage, I suppose) rose up through the heap and started eating the dog hair.

But here’s the really neat part. The Master Gardener looked at our garden and said, “I’ve been gardening for 30 years, and this is the nicest garden I’ve ever seen.”



How Not to Sheet Compost: Learning by Doing

We had a bumper crop of leaves last Fall, courtesy of my brother in law. Nice! Organic matter! My husband dutifully hauled them, ran them over with the mower, and spread them on the garden, along with liberal applications of wood ash from the stove. It worked for us in Oregon, right?

Not so much. The Oregon leaves had grass clippings mixed in, providing nitrogen, plus, the soil there is denser and more acidic. (Plus Ralph had a 55-gallon fish tank then, and we regularly added the sludge to the compost bin. When I tested the soil before planting this Spring, I had a shock. pH, um, a little high, at 7.5. (Too much wood ash.) Phosphorus and potassium? Fabulous! Nitrogen? Zilch. Ouch. The decomposing leaves had sucked all the nitrogen out of the soil in the process of turning into nice garden dirt.

We remedied this with bagged cow manure, but still, it’s an expensive way to learn. The cheap way to fix this is a weak ammonia solution, but we decided to keep our organic cred.

Making Compost

Front boards removed.

Front boards removed.

Why bother composting? Well, other than that whole virtuous “waste not, want not” ethic, there’s an entirely practical consideration.

Way back when I was probably the only Art major in history to take Soil Science as an elective, the professor announced that Muck is the most productive type of soil, provided it’s properly drained. The following lecture, he got into that whole NPK thing and into the weeds of how many pounds or 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 it would take to improve soil. Dumb me. I raised my hand and asked, “What about compost?”

“That’s Muck,” he snarled. I was so taken aback I didn’t ask the obvious question, “Didn’t you just tell us that’s the best soil?”

Now from the NPK standpoint compost ain’t squat. (That’s Nitrogen, Phosphorus & Potassium, in case you were wondering. Why is Potassium “K?” Greek to me. Okay, Latin, Kallium.)  Compost freights in at barely 1-1-1. So what’s the big deal about it? Why is compost (AKA Muck) considered the best soil?

What it lacks in NPK it more than makes up for in a host of ways. Humic Acid, for one, helps break down soil nutrients into forms that are easier for plants to absorb. It also gives a home to mycorrhizal fungi, which interpenetrate plant roots. In exchange for getting a cut of the nutrients the plants produce via photosynthesis, the fungi act as an auxiliary root system, sharing what they absorb from the soil. Win-win, I say. Chemical fertilizers are too harsh for the beneficial fungi, killing them off. I suspect this is why plants need greater and greater quantities of that convenient NPK-in-a-bag stuff each year, once you start down the chemical path. The humus, or fibrous bits, absorbs water, aiding in water retention, plus all the micronutrients from plants past are there to nourish plants present. It’s also in bigger chunks than soil particles, which helps aerate the soil and make it easier for plant roots to penetrate.

Well, now that you have something to put compost in, we might as well deal with the process of making the stuff. So, how, lacking  a herd of muck-producing livestock, do you make your own Muck?

Short explanation:

Everything rots.

Longer explanation:

Mother Nature recycles. Anything that dies, is excreted, shed, or sloughs off becomes food to those at the bottom of the food chain: microbes and fungi. These organisms digest the dead stuff, breaking it down into its component nutrients. Plants can then absorb those nutrients through their roots, and in turn we absorb them through the villi in our small intestines, after the appropriate slicing, dicing, and application of heat.

Looked at another way, those microbes and fungi are the prep cooks for the Vegetable Kingdom. So how do you keep the help happy and productive?

They’re pretty easy to please, actually. They need three things: food, water, and air. Pretty much like us, but not such picky eaters.

You don’t need a bin to make compost: it’s just a way of keeping it in one place and controlling the shape of the pile. I’ve read that 4’X4’ is really the minimum but found that our 3’X3’ design works well. In a pinch you can use a hoop made of chicken wire or other fencing, or if you have a secluded spot in your yard, dispense with walls entirely. If you do, though, your heap will work slower, since it will tend to form into a cone shape and the sloping edges won’t heat up enough to rot quickly. Also, animals will be able to dig around in it, scattering it all over. Messy. So un-suburban.

There are some things that you should not put in a compost heap, however, and this is not so much for the benefit of the bacteria as for the benefit of your sanity. Never put anything containing animal products, with the exception of herbivore poop, into your compost heap. You will have guests…guests that you really don’t want [coughratscough] So, bread crusts, yes. Bread crusts with mayonnaise, no. (Peanut butter will draw varmints, as well.) Rinsed eggshells, yes. Eggs, no.  Rabbit, horse, poultry, or cow poop, yes. Dog and cat poop, no. Dog hair, yes. It contains nitrogen. We’ve been known to empty our vacuum cleaner bags into the compost heap. But I digress…Your poop, hell no. Goop from your fish filter, yes. Dead goldfish, no. See the pattern?

You don’t need animal waste to make a compost heap. You do need a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 35:1. So what’s carbon?

Any dried plant matter, pretty much. Dead leaves, straw, sawdust.

What’s nitrogen?

Green plant matter and poop, basically.

So what do I do with this stuff?

You make a big, fat lasagna. Unlike regular lasagna, you don’t have to make it all at once, and you never, ever use cheese. (See above.)

Start with a layer of coarse material. Corn harvest is a great time to start a new pile. Cut the stalks to the size of your bin. Put down a layer running right to left, then another layer at a 90° angle to the first (front to back in the bin or pile) alternate 3 or 4 layers, then drop in your first nitrogen layer: kitchen waste, fresh-pulled weeds, or fresh grass clippings. An inch or two will do. The sturdy stalks on the bottom will create an air pocket that helps aerate the heap.

Now scatter some dirt on top (if you’re using fresh-pulled weeds, you can skip this step). Top with something dry and brown, like straw or leaves. If you are using leaves, run them over with the lawnmower to cut them into bits. Otherwise, they will pack down into an impenetrable layer that will take years to break down. Layers can be 3” (leaves) to 6” (grass clippings) thick. Grass clippings are in a league of their own. They are high in nitrogen, so they break down fast. If you live in suburbia, (and if you’re reading this blog, that’s likely) grass clippings will be your most reliable and abundant compost ingredient. The only thing to watch for with grass clippings is that if you make a layer of them too thick (more than, say 6 inches) they will tend to clump up, starving the bacteria of air, so if you’ve hit the grass clipping jackpot, toss in a layer of dirt and something with a little structure, like straw, every 6 inches.

Sawdust is a special case. It contains lignin, a form of carbon that it much harder to break down than, say, straw, so if you’re using sawdust, the max is ½ to 1 inch per layer.

Lather, rinse repeat. Eventually your bin will be full. Then what?

You may need to water the pile occasionally. Check it by sticking your hand carefully a few inches deep into the center of the top. Why carefully? Because if your microbes are happy, they will be cookin’. The center of the pile should reach 150°. You may see steam rising off it on chilly mornings. You’ll also watch it get shorter, day by day, as the contents of the pile break down. It’s okay to keep adding to the pile while this happens.

If it doesn’t heat up, it’s most likely too dry. Just add water. However, it should be moist, not soggy. If it’s been raining a lot and the compost is not heating up, well, that means too much water, not enough air. You may have to poke holes in it at 6 inch intervals by ramming a stick down into the heap. The third possible cause for a sluggish heap is too much carbon, not enough nitrogen. Mixing in grass clippings will solve that, but in an emergency, a tablespoon of ammonia mixed into a quart of water, then watered in, will perk things up. (I know…nasty chemicals in your beautiful organic compost heap, tsk, tsk. I’ve never had to resort to the ammonia trick, nor to the nice, natural, organic alternative that you can probably get away with in the country, but not in suburbia…think about it: what’s liquid, high in nitrogen, and produced by animals…need another hint? It’s yellow.)

It’s not necessary to cover the heap with black plastic to make the sun heat it up, The bacteria make the heat. However, if it’s winter and you’re in a very cold climate, you could cover the heap to protect it from the cold.  If you do choose to cover the heap, cut some slits in the top to allow air and water to get in.

After about 6 weeks the pile will cool. The material in the center of the pile will have decomposed and matted down to the point where the bacteria are starved for air. Time to turn it. (That’s why we build our bins in pairs.) As you move material from one bin to the other with a spading fork or pitchfork, (A shovel will be useless with the tangled mass of half-rotted weeds and stems.) try to put material from the outside of the heap to the middle and the stuff from the middle toward the edges, so that you’re turning the heap inside out as well as upside down. At this time, you can add additional layers of grass clippings or chopped leaf/grass mix, which will increase the nitrogen level and help break down the remaining clumps and stems. This, BTW, is a great upper body workout that will save you a trip to the gym.

While the second bin is cooking, you’re probably filling up the first with a new collection of garden refuse. After the second round of decomposition, the first batch of compost will be mostly decomposed. Move your brand new garden soil to the garden, mixing any not-fully-rotted material in with the new batch as you turn it into the second bin.

And the Circle continues.

Links: (Hat tip to Town & Country Gardening)

And check out the book Compost! in the Suburbutopia Toolshed.

Containing Compost

Finished Bin
We’ve always composted, and continued to do so after our recent move. We continued our conserving ways for several months before a neighbor showed up, glanced at the back yard, and cheerfully informed us that the city has fines for people with unsightly properties. Given that everyone else had been complimenting us on how much better the yard looked since we’d moved in, we pretty quickly narrowed down the object of our neighbor’s concern to the pile of dead leaves and grass clippings concealing the potato peels and egg shells.

On a trip to the local hardware palace for yet more perennials, I noticed a plastic compost bin for sale. “51 gallon capacity,” the sign said. That sounds a lot more impressive than “six point eight cubic feet” which also happens to be true. While it might be enough to hold kitchen waste, that’s nowhere near enough capacity for a lawn’s-worth of grass clippings plus  two shade trees worth of leaves. Plus, it looked like Dark Helmet’s hat from Spaceballs. We can do better, I thought.

In a few minutes of wandering the aisles, we located 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers at $3.54 each for the corner posts and 6-foot cedar dog-eared fence planks at $1.17 each that would serve as rot-resistant sides. That, plus a bunch of deck screws and a few metal fence stakes, gave us a two-bin, 3’ x 3’ x 4’ compost heap for $55.05. We used scrap lumber for the boards to hold the front slats in place, and recycled the inner cores from dog poop bag rolls for spacers. Buying a 1” x 6” x 12’ and a foot of aquarium hose to replace the recycled items would bring the cost up to just a little over that of the pint-sized commercial model.

However we get a lot more bang for our buck: 36 cubic-foot capacity in each of the two compartments, to be precise, enough for grass clippings and leaves as well as kitchen waste. That works out to 11 cents per gallon of storage capacity, and, other than the recycled plastic spacers, it uses no petroleum products. Compare that to the $1.14/gallon of Mr. Helmet’s hat. May the Schwartz be with you!

Materials list:

3 – 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers

28 – 6-foot cedar fence planks

9 – ¾” length pieces of plastic or metal tubing, ¼” to ½” diameter

144—2” decking screws, 9 – 3 ½” decking screws

4 – 5’ metal fence stakes


Saw, measuring tape, marker, drill, screwdriver, level, sledge hammer


Cut the landscape timbers into 4-foot lengths.

Cut 12 of the cedar planks into 3-foot lengths for the sides of the bins.

The planks may split if you run screws directly into them, so it’s a good idea to pre-drill 2 holes on the end of each plank plus two more 2” from the centers of the 6-foot planks.  You can expedite this by stacking the planks and drilling them 4 or 5 at a time. Carefully measure the first plank and put it on top of each carefully stacked pile of planks as a template.

Lay three of the posts on the ground, spaced so that they line up with the holes in the 6-foot planks. Space the planks a finger’s-width apart for better air circulation.  Screw the planks to the posts using the 2” decking screws. The top piece will extend above the end of the post. You now have the back of your bin.

Stand the back up in the place you want the finished bin to stand and attach the bottom plank to the end, using one screw. Attach the front post to the plank with one screw. Use the level to insure that the posts are vertical and screw the front and back ends of the plank to the uprights. Attach the remaining planks the same way, again, a fingers-width apart. Repeat this procedure for the opposite wall and the middle wall.

You have a bin! Reinforce the walls by driving a metal fence post on the outside of each side wall and on both sides of the center wall, near the front posts. (Rooftop gardeners might want to place a cinderblock on either side of the front posts for support, instead.)


Attach a 4’ length of board to the center post at top, middle, and bottom, running the 3 1/2” screws through the spacers. Leave a little play between the spacers and the post, rather than running the risk of splitting them by screwing them on too tightly. They’re just there as guidelines. Do the same with the side posts.

Measure the distance between the spacers, subtract ½”, and cut the front planks to that length. Slide the boards into the slots as needed as your bin fills. Remove them when it’s time to move the compost out.

If you have the space and wish to double your capacity, you’ll need to get 12 more cedar slats and four additional fence stakes. Leave your side and center pieces 6 feet long and reinforce the middle of the side and center walls with the stakes.