How To Compost On a Small Scale

Composting on a Small Scale

Spring flowers in a container garden fertilized with compost

We’ve talked about composting before, but compost is so vital to healthy plants and beautiful gardens that we are going to talk about it- again.

This time, however, we are going to talk about composting on a small scale.  Many of us in Galveston do not have a large yard, if any, so a large composting bin or pile will not work.  At my home on Winnie Street, there is no soil to dig in, it is all concrete.  So, I have container gardens and a container compost bin. So, if you find yourself in a small gardening situation or even an apartment, this method will work for you.

The average kitchen produces plenty of green matter for a compost pile.  Green matter is fresh vegetation that is high in nitrogen.  Fallen leaves and old newspaper or boxes provide plenty of brown matter.  If you are using paper or cardboard, the smaller you tear or shred it, the better.  The brown matter is dried vegetation that is high in carbon.

What I use for my container is a large plastic pot that housed an ornamental tree from the nursery.  When I first began the compost bin, I layered leaves 2-3 inches thick with kitchen scraps about 1 inch thick then topped with another layer of brown matter.  You want a lot more brown matter than green matter.  I wet this down and left it alone.  In a few days, I stirred it.  If it got dry, I watered it.  My pot does have a few holes in the bottom so that it drains.  Given time, the ingredients break down and look like black soil.

There are a lot of myths about compost.  If your compost smells, you are doing it wrong.  Add more dry brown matter to the pile to correct the smell.  Rodents are not attracted to a compost pile unless you are adding meat scraps or cooked food- which you shouldn’t do.

Regardless of the size of your garden, compost is essential. Feeding plants is crucial to their health, all soil can be depleted regardless of the type of gardening that you are doing. In a container, the soil can be depleted much faster than in a garden bed. So, adding compost is a great way to feed the soil in a container garden.

Composting also keeps garbage out of the landfills. By converting your kitchen scraps such as vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, and egg shells into black gold for your flowers and plants, you are helping the environment in so many ways.

There are many other ways of composting, including vermicomposting, but a simple bucket and some old leaves will get it going. You can also turn your compost into the best liquid fertilizer- compost tea.

As I have created gardens and grown all manner of plants for over a decade, people always ask how I get the great results.

COMPOST is the answer.

Here are some of the results:

Do not spread the compost on the weeds.”

William Shakespeare- Hamlet

Compost does make things grow, but thankfully weeds detest fertile soil. So, the more compost you use the more fertile your soil and the less

weeds you will have. Beautiful!

Here are some common kitchen items that make GREAT compost:

  • eggshells
  • vegetable trimmings
  • coffee grounds
  • old coffee
  • old tea
  • newspaper
  • paper towels
  • tea bags
  • old lettuce from the drawer of your refrigerator
  • any old veggies from the drawer of your refrigerator
  • banana peelings
  • paper egg cartons

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Holly K. Ross, where happily ever after is a way of life. Writer on Galveston Island
, ga

Growing Lettuce!

It’s time to grow lettuce. It has been since September, actually. The thing about lettuce and other similar greens is that they need to be planted in succession. One planting is never enough! If you plant one crop and then follow it with another crop then you always have lettuce in the prime picking stage (succession planting). The weather may have turned cool, but the soil temperatures are plenty warm enough to cause Lettuce seed to germinate.

Now, you may be thinking, “Why bother?”

There are some nasty rumors going around about lettuce.  I hear that it is really hard to grow with lots of insect problems.  It has also been said that lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter because of the heat.  Lies, all of them.

The misinformation comes from the fact that  the instructions on the back of seed packets and those great little farming magazines are written for folks living in the areas of the country that actually have four seasons and one growing season.  Now do not misunderstand me, I love my gardening magazines, but the time lines do not line up. Well, welcome to Texas Gardening.  There is a rhythm to gardening in Texas that is as unique as our Texas spirit.  Once you learn the rhythm you will be amazed at what you can grow.

However, for now we will focus on lettuce and its cousins.  It perturbs me to no end to have to purchase greens of any kind in the grocery store.  Homegrown greens are so easy and tasty!  Also, it is so much easier to have a bed of lettuce and just go pick you some whenever you want, than to have to go to the store when you want a salad.  If you are like me, lots of times what’s for dinner is not something planned very far in advance.  So, having items growing in the garden to have on hand is just the ticket.

One of the perks about lettuce and all the other greens, such as arugula, chard, spinach, etc. is that they can by eaten at all stages.  Baby greens make for a scrumptious salad or sandwich.  Many people, like my children, do not like mature spinach but love baby spinach.  So, while the plants are growing you can pick the outer leaves and enjoy the garden abundance for many weeks.  The greens( the term greens refers to all types of lettuce, herbs, kale, greens, spinach etc.)  do not take a lot of space.  One 5X12  foot bed of greens will keep a family of 6 in fresh greens. If there is only one or two of you, then a container that can hold 3-4 mature plants at a time is sufficient.

Now to dispel the lies.

First, that lettuce is hard to grow.  Not so, you just have to know when to plant it.  If you read many of the labels on lettuce sold in Texas, the labels  say to plant after all danger of frost has passed.  The problem with this is that if you wait that long in Texas you can have as little as 2 weeks until the temps are consistently in the mid- 80′s.  The proper planting times in Texas are February- April and September- December.  Lettuce is a cool season crop.  When most areas of the country are having dead of winter, we are having our cool season.   When we have had a mild winter, I harvest greens from September until June.  That is only 2 months of store-bought greens in a year.  That makes my heart happy!

The second lie is that lettuce has many insect problems. Now there are certain worms- Cabbage Loppers for example- that do like lettuce.  However, these are easily dispatched with Bt.  Bt- (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacterial disease that only attacks caterpillars.  Bt is organic and you can eat the produce with no worries that synthetic pesticides bring.  There are other insects that can be a problem at times, but I have found in my gardens that Bt is all I need to keep things in balance.  Also, there are other methods of insect control, but again the Bt is simple, easy and effective so that is what I use.  You can find it at most hardware and garden supply stores.

Lastly, lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter- hogwash.  Again, you just need to know when to plant and what varieties to plant.  The types that are considered “slow to bolt” are the best for planting in the spring.  Bolting refers to sending up a conical shaft with blooms that will produce seeds.  Warm weather signifies to the lettuce that it is time to make seeds.  So, those lettuces that are slow to bolt will be the most tolerant of warm weather.  While you are looking in seed catalogs for heirloom selections (heirloom refers to varieties that will reproduce consistently if the seeds are saved) look for ones that were developed in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas- of course- or Israel.  These areas have climates similar to ours and those varieties will usually do well here for the summer planting.  Look for varieties labeled “Cool season” or “cold tolerant” on the lettuces, these will be the one for planting in the fall.  When it comes to the spinach, swiss chard, and kale- these are not even stopped by a freeze so they will grow all winter.

Some of my favorite varieties are:
For Fall Planting: Black Seeded Simpson, Drunken Woman, Tom Thumb, Oakleaf
For Spring Planting:  Oakleaf, Jericho- awesome, Tom Thumb
Spinach- Longstanding Bloomsdale is great year round.

Most of your annual herbs like dill, Salad Burnett, chives are best planted on the same schedule as lettuce.
I like to sow the seeds in wide beds.  I thin the seedlings and use them in salads as baby greens.  Keep the lettuce or greens watered one inch once per week and a little shade is very helpful for extending the growing season in the summer.  The seeds usually germinate and emerge in 7-10 days.

So there you have it- the truth about lettuce.  Now what are you waiting for?  September is coming to a close and October is upon us,  I can just taste the homegrown lettuce now.

Herbs: An Overview

When thinking of gardening, cooking, eating healthy, one cannot get away from the beauty and necessity of herbs.  Regardless of your goal- to grow healthy food for you and your family, to attract butterflies, to make your gardens beautiful or to simply delight your senses- herbs fit the bill.

For the most part, herbs are perennials and hardy.  Even in our erratic weather patterns in Texas, herbs have performed very well for me and have brought me much satisfaction and joy.  As with most fresh food, when you have tasted the flavors of fresh sage, thyme, rosemary and more- you can never go back to the herb dust you can purchase off the shelves in the supermarkets.  The taste is just so amazing.  And by fresh, I also mean the herbs harvested and dried by your own hands.

And just to clarify a few terms:

Herbaceous– means that a plant dies back to the ground in winter, but comes back each spring.  You can have plants that are not herbs but are herbaceous and Herbs that are not herbaceous!

Perennial– a plant that returns year after year, can be evergreen or herbaceous.

Below is a tip sheet that will help you get stated in the wonderful world of herbs.

Many more articles on particular herbs and gardening are located in the Herb Category and in the Organic Gardening Category.

basil in the crate

Herbs- From Garden to Table

What To Plant Where

A large majority of herbs are perennials and biennials, so they will be with you for quite a while when choosing herbs:

  1. Consider their origin- did they come from wooded areas, desert areas, wet areas etc. and group like plants together.
  2. Consider water requirements of each plant
  3. Consider growth habits: height, cold hardy, heat tolerant, upright or rambler, etc.
  4. Consider their function:
  • For culinary use- what and how do you cook
  • Attract pollinators or repel insects
  • Or just for looks
  • Medicinal

Each of these points will help you determine where in your garden to locate the plants.  Obviously, a water loving herb does not need to be planted with Rosemary and Lavender as these herbs prefer a very dry climate.  If you consider these aspects before you plant everyone will benefit.

What Herbs are good for our area of Texas

  • Thyme- creeping lemon*
  • Sage- Salvia Officinalis*
  • Italian Oregano*
  • Lavender- English and Fern Leaf*
  • Parsley
  • Citronella
  • Basil- all kinds
  • Aloe Vera
  • Lemon Balm*
  • Mints*
  • Salad Burnett *
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon Grass
  • Catnip
  • Stevia
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Garlic (plant in September)
  • Roses

The list goes on as there are so many, but these will get you off to a good start!

*- good for planting in fall as they grow all year long

 Now To Table

  1. Use Fresh- simply snip and use- sprinkle chopped herbs in your dishes while cooking or on top as a garnish.
  2. Dried
  • Cut and tie in bundle (rubber bands work great!)
  • Hang to dry or dry in oven on low or a hot car
  • Grind and store- chop in blender, store in jars in a cool dark place like a pantry.

Herbed Oils or Vinegars-  place herbs in clean jar and cover with oil or vinegar and let steep for 3 weeks. Strain and store in a cool dark place.

Choosing and Planting Fruit Trees

Fall is prime time for planting trees, shrubs, & roses.  The heat of summer has passed and the cooler weather stimulates root growth.  This root growth gives the plants a great start to the growing system and provides them with a buffer to withstand a Texas summer.

Any type of tree, not just fruit trees, should be planted in fall.  Shrubs include blueberry bushes, elderberry bushes, and other fruiting bushes.  Fall planting is also great for roses as well.

When choosing any plant, but especially fruiting trees and shrubs, you must make certain that you choose a variety that is right for this area.  Soils can change with just a distance of 30 miles and chilling hours are quite different from the Red River down to the Texas coast.  Chilling hours refers to the amount of time in the winter where temperatures stay between 32 and 45 degrees.  So, by choosing varieties that have the lowest required amount of chilling hours you can be sure that the trees will set fruit even when we have a mild winter.

You might think that if you are shopping locally that you will be finding choices that are right for this locale.  Sadly, that is not always the case.  You will need to do a little homework so you know that varieties that you need.  Many times, especially at the big box stores, the stock they carry may have been shipped from five states away or more.  Also, if you have ever tried to ask a gardening question to one of their employees, you most likely found that they did not know any more than you did.  The best place to shop is at a local nurseries that have knowledgeable staff (like The Farm On Holly’s Hill!).

Below are  lists of varieties that are well suited for this area.  There are also links to websites with really good information about varieties, planting, and maintenance of your trees and shrubs.  These selections are based on the most popular items I am asked for, but there are so many choices among fruit producing trees and shrubs.  So, don’t be boxed in try your hand at Papaws, Mayhaws, or JuJubes.  The extension websites have lots of great information on these more unusual selections.

http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/peach/peach.html

Texas A&M University Fruit and Nut Resources

Texas A&M Horticulturalist Jerry Parsons Video Archive

Texas Winegrape Network

Blackberries:

Navaho

Cheyenne

Arapaho

Brazos

Apples:

Red Chief

Gala

Super Gala

Mollies

Starkrimson Red Delicious

Starkspur Golden Delicious

Plums:

Morris

Methley

Ozark Premier

Bruce

Allred

Blueberry Bushes:

Premiere

Briteblue

Climax

Tifblue

Peaches:

Varieties for Low Chill Regions
EarliGrandeSmall-medSemi-cling2004/15-4/20
FlordaCrestSmall-medSemi-cling3504/18-4/24
FlordaprinceSmallCling1004/19-4/29
ValleGrandeMediumSemi-free2004/20-4/25
TropicBeautyMediumSemi-free1504/25-4/30
TropicSweetMediumFree1754/25-5/01
FlordagloMediumSemi-free1504/29-5/7
TropicSnowMediumSemi-free1505/14-5/25
FlordaGrandeLargeSemi-Cling1005/16-5/27
Varieties for Medium Chill Regions
SpringoldSmallCling7505/15-5/20
FlordaKingLargeCling4505/15-5/20
BicentennialSmallCling7005/20-5/30
TexstarMed-largeFree6505/20-6/01
JuneprinceMed-largeSemi-free6505/20-6/01
junegoldLargeCling6505/22-6/03     

A Few of My Favorite Roses

Roses are  wonderful and everyone should have them in their gardens.  Below are pictures of roses that are great for Texas.  These Roses are easy to care for and are tolerant of our hot summers.  All of these photos are taken at my home, not in a nursery that has been controlling the environment.  All roses listed are repeat bloomers, unless specified.

Earthkind Roses

Not every rose is an Earthkind rose because not every rose can make the cut.  To get the Earthkind Rose designation roses must pass a very vigorous test.  Texas A&M does all the research and they take roses believed to be good candidates and plant them in test plots all across the state.  Then, for two years these roses are basically ignored, no extra water, pruning, spraying, etc.  If the roses do well under these circumstances then they are designated as Earthkind.

Belinda’s Dream, a large shrub rose that can reach 6 feet. This has very large blooms with a light scent.
Double Pink Knockout Rose, medium size bloom with extreme hardiness
Duchess D’Brabant, very fragrant

Foundation Plantings For Shade

For those of us with shady yards, gardening can be frustrating.  For years I beat my head against a wall planting things that might make it.  After I grew up and stopped trying to force the gardens to look like I thought they should and let the conditions dictate what should be planted, I found that there are some very nice selections for shade.  Some of these may take a little hunting, but the search is worth it. 

AZALEA-  Most found in this area are evergreen and bloom in the spring.  These shrubs range in size from 3′ to 15′ tall, so check the variety before you plant.  All Azaleas like acidic soil.  If you live in East Texas and have pines or oak trees- you have the right soil most likely.  Let the needles and leaves act as a natural mulch- these will break down and add acid to the soil, organic matter & retain moisture.  Prune if needed just after blooming in late spring/early summer.  Encore is a hybrid that will bloom more than once a year.

CAMELLIA-  These beauties bloom in winter through early spring- depending on the variety.  Being evergreen, these add a lot of color in winter and a lovely backdrop for summer flowers.  The old standards can get quite large.  Pruning will keep these to the size you need.  The C. sasanqua hybrids are smaller and bloom in fall- September through December.  Again, if you have oaks and pines you have the soil needed for these plants.  Camellias do not do well if they are dry, so keep them moist.  Letting nature do the mulching with fallen leaves and needles will take care of the moisture and acid.

MOUNTAIN LAUREL- A native woodland shrub does grow in full shade.  However, the more sun it gets the more blooms that will cover the plant in spring.  If the shrub gets too leggy, cut it back to the base branches of the shrub.  You can also pinch back the new growth just after blooming.

PARTIAL SHADE: This means some light is hitting the plants.  Full sun is defined as at least 6hrs/day.  Any less than this is partial shade.

BARBERRY- Beautiful colored leaves, tiny blossoms and small edible berries make this shrub very useful.  Heights range from 2′-6′ depending on the species.  Thorns do line the stems of this shrub, so consider where you will be planting.  The thorns and berries make this an excellent choice for wildlife planting.  If the shrub gets too leggy, just prune it.  Barberry responds well to pruning.  The more sun the more dramatic the color you will have.

NANDINA- Versatile and easy going, this shrub grows well in woodland settings.  There are many varities so pay close attention to the size of the variety you choose.  Easy to grow, most species produce red berries in the fall.  As trees shed their leaves and allow light to hit the leaves of the Nandina- the Nandina produce beautiful color on the leaves- these are evergreens.

Proper Care and Feeding of Mums

With fall having just begun- even if you haven’t felt it yet- the urge to decorate for all the holidays grows strong!

The most popular plant for fall decorating is the Mum.  With the happy little faces in an array of colors, its easy to see why. 

Mums are easy to get- but not easy to keep looking beautiful.

Here are four things you can do to keep your pretty plants looking their best.

  1. Consistent water.  This can be tricky because the plants dry out so fast.  One reason for this is because there may be as many as four plants in one pot.  The nurseries will pot up multiple plants to get the pots full and big fast.  So, one way to help with this is to put a tray under the plant and water every day.  Also, many times the posts are in full sun on concrete or a porch.  Heat is reflected from these surfaces so the plants will use the water faster.  Water in the morning to avoid fungus.
  2. Fungus- by using a fungicide on the plants you will keep them healthy.  Follow the directions on the bottle.  Most fungicides are a liquid and are sprayed on the plants. Choose an organic fungicide. A homemade fungicide is 1 tsp baking soda mixed in 1 gallon of water.
  3. Feed the plants.  As I mentioned, there are serval plants competing for moisture and nutrients in the pot.  By using a liquid fertilizer weekly, you will get more growth and more blooms. Organic fertilizer like compost tea is best.
  4. Dead head the plants.  Dead heading a plant is to remove the spent blossoms. Mums are no different than other blooming flowers.  They are working to make seeds.  To get more blooms, pinch or cut off the faded blooms.  This will encourage new growth and more blooms.
Pretty Yellow Mums

If you follow these tips, your mums can easily last October through November- maybe longer.  Once the season is over, you can plant the mums in the garden.  They are perennials.