Garden Geek’s Geeky Garden Basics

geeky garden basics series

Today I am launching a series of posts called Garden Geek’s Geeky Garden Basics (As I’ve Discovered Them to be Thus Far). This series aims to discuss a few of the basics of gardening from a beginner’s perspective. Consider it to be peer-to-peer learning for beginners. If you have a differing opinion on how something should be done, or expert knowledge to add, I welcome comments and gentle corrections.

Day One: Love Thy Soil

If you love your plants then you need to learn to love your soil. Your soil is an amazing micro-ecosystem teeming with life. It is incredibly complex and delicate.

Amend Thy Soil

Collage depicting soil being amended

I amended this soil with a mix of organic store-bought compost and homemade compost that was still alive with worms and bugs and microscopic goodies

If you love your soil you will always seek to improve it. I’m still learning how to garden, so I am experimenting with different methods of improving my soil. I’ve experimented with double digging (a lot of work), slightly raised beds, and simple tilling and mulching methods. I am becoming more interested in the no-till method of improving soil as it appears to be better for our land in the long run.

My soil has a slight clay consistency. Adding organic matter helps to make my soil easier to work with. It also makes it a much more welcoming environment for my plants. As for my soils pH and nutrient balance, I have home-tested it, but was not confident with the results. I tried to save money on a cheaper testing kit and the results were ambiguous, to say the least. I recommend spending the extra money on a good quality testing kit, or better still sending a sample to a lab. As a renter I’ve opted not to go the lab-testing route, as my husband and I do not plan on being here for more than a few years. Thus I generally seek to amend my soil according to the needs of the plants I’m dealing with. When in doubt, I just add a layer of compost- which leads me to the next point.

Love thy Compost

Whatever your soil tests results are, soil can always use more organic matter in the form of compost. So that is what I have been focusing on adding to my garden.

I buy compost and avidly make it myself. See here for a post about the compost debate, which includes a great TedTalk.

At the moment my compost methods include a rotating bin for food scraps and shredded newspaper. I also have a pile of compost behind my bin that is nearly ready to use in the garden (I have actually been sneaking some into my soil already). That pile you see in the picture below was once over 3 cubic feet in size and has been reduced due to a friendly donation of a huge amount of grass clippings. The pile heated up to about 160º F- which is nearly a composter’s heaven.

picture of compost set up

My current compost set up includes a rotating bin and several different piles

 

Love thy Earthworms

When I first took a shovel to the soil, and uncovered some earth in my backyard, I was horrified. Beneath the soil was a teeming layer of red worms, pill bugs and a billion unknown and unseen creepy crawlies. I think I may have even squealed! I said a quick prayer: “God, please help me to no longer be frightened of worms”. Luckily, He has answered my prayers- worms are awesome!

The amazing thing is those worms, and those other creepy crawlies, are building my soil for me. They are tilling, and amending and fertilizing, while all I have to do is sit back and watch. Of course, I would have to wait a longtime if I only relied on bugs to amend my soil. But that is not the point. The point is this: learn to love your soil and learn to love the bugs in it- they are doing good for your soil!

To learn more about earthworms see this informative article.

Keep Thy Soil Organic

If you love your soil, you’ll be more likely to think twice before you add any chemicals to it. When you do make additions to your soil try to choose organic. It is ultimately up to you to decide how dedicated you want to be with organic practices in your garden. I think organic gardening is wonderful and well worth it. The imperfections, the challenges and the weeding enrich my garden experience (for the most part).

Build your soil. Prepare your soil. Have it tested. Amend your soil. Love your soil. Compost, compost, compost! Think of your soil as a living, breathing microscopic world!

And if I haven’t convinced you yet, then here’s a little video about how amazing soil is:

Our Gardens Are Little Pieces of Our Earth

In honor of Earth Day, which has just begun for you Aussie folks, and which is tomorrow for those of us in the US:

Gardening For Our Earth- Not Against it

Image

A little piece of Earth

Your garden can be your place to start small in making an environmental difference. (Starting gardening on a small-scale in your garden is a whole other story). When the world seems too big to ‘save’, when we throw our hands in the air and say ‘how can one little me make a difference?”, sometimes the best place to start is simply in your own backyard. A garden is a manageable slice of the world to make a difference in.

I am not dismissing the many other vital large-scale environmental causes. We can, and should, contribute to these things- that is one of the things that Earth Day is all about. What I am saying is sometimes it helps to start right here in our own backyards.

Why?

  • It helps us see that we can affect change- When I began to compost, I very quickly saw the beginnings of a closed system style of gardening. It felt so good to make all of my food waste, paper products and garden waste work for me. Each time I added this “trash” to the compost pile I imagined the dump that they might otherwise be rotting underground in. I began to understand that ‘little me’ could do things to affect change.

 

  • It can create a micro-ecosystem- where wildlife and domestic life can co-exist. That same compost supports a budding ecosystem of microorganisms, worms, fungi and creepy crawlies. If you are purposeful, you can also use garden waste to create mini habitats for various animals. Check this article out for inspiration and direction.

 

  • We become more in tune with our consumption- Pushing the whole climate change debate aside, we are still massive consumers of a huge amount of crap. Reducing consumption, reusing and repurposing, growing our own food- all of these things are what gardening should be all about. Gardening in a responsible way allows us to reduce the amount of crap we consume. That is certainly my hope and goal.

 

  • We can begin to appreciate this beautiful earth- Once you’ve seen your arugula seeds turn into super ninja plants you can’t help but marvel at the incredible design of creation.
arugula garden bed

My “Super Ninja Arugula”- prospering despite a slug assault- helps me appreciate the forces of nature

 

What can you do? 

  • I’ve endeavored to use only organic products in my garden
  • I’m weeding by hand instead of using herbicides
  • Compost, compost, compost! Did I mention I love compost?
  • I’ve started to grow my own vegetables- the more I eat from my own garden, the better for the Earth
  • I’ve stopped killing every critter I see!

You, my fellow gardener, can do one of these things, all of these things, or your own thing. When things feel too big and too complicated for you to make an environmental difference, just step outside. Add some compost to your plants, pick some berries, feed some birds, let some wildflowers bloom. Allow your garden to inspire you. And then, when you’ve done all that- if you feel the call, you can move on to the bigger things.

Here is how you can take action, in big ways and little ways, this Earth Day.

Gardening is Not Boring

Gardening is Not Just for the Senile

As a child I had the perception of a gardener as an old frail women. In my mind’s eye, she was crouching over a patch of lavender, or maybe some white lilies. This old women, pained with arthritis, stood up slowly from her lavender/lilies with a basketful of freshly cut flowers. She breathed in the fragrance and peacefully walked into her cottage. Flowers cut. Placed in a vase, by her bedside. In my imagination, that night, she died.

lavender garden new growth memory

Lavender makes me remember

 

Gardening is Not Just for the Grumpy

My own grandmother is a gardener. Fierce and stern. A practical woman, arthritis does not stop her. She was a farm girl and a talented equestrian. My memories are of her shoveling horse crap into her garden beds. Those garden beds always smelled- and not in a nice way. And they never turned out to be all that inspiring- she had a farm to run after all. In her older age my grandmother has softened, but my memories of her gardening are still ones contaminated by her own personal pain. Needless to say I never wanted to be a gardener. I did not want to be old. I did not want to be stern. I did not want to shovel horse crap. What lie was I believing about the art of gardening?

But Gardening is for People who Really like to Compost

Yes, something pulled me in to the magic. Sounds crazy but I became enchanted with composting. Just ask my husband- he had to listen to me rant about the stuff all day long (still does!). Placing all this “trash” into a rotating plastic bucket and 6 months later out comes black gold. I was smitten.

compost pile

Composting has quickly become an obsession

I realized that I’d better learn to garden, because I sure as heck did not want to give away all this awesome compost.

So now my perception of a gardener is a girl, overalls on, trowel defiantly in hand. She is saying “I will make my own food, thank you very much” and “I will create my own beauty today if I wish to do so”. This gardener is not so much a feminist (though that’s okay too), as she is a human being seeking an escape from consuming- consuming all day long. She is a gardener that is partnering with nature, partnering with God (it’s Good Friday- let me have this one), to create magic and sustenance.

wall flowers dianthus

Co-creating beauty

 

What did you think about gardening before you fell in love with it? And how do you feel about it now? Leave a comment if you dare.

Compost Controversy

Composting is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your garden.

Composting:

  • Creates organic matter for you to add to your soil
  • Gets rid of your kitchen craps and yard waste
  • Is a wonderful way to “go green”
  • Saves you money

If you haven’t yet jumped on the composting bandwagon, it’s time you do.

But how?

Cold composting. Hot composting. Worms. Tumblers. Heaps. Heck, you can even compost underground!

My advice is to experiment. Start simple, with cold composting, and work your way to the more complicated methods as you go. The good news is that, if you make a pile, your compost will already be slowly breaking down- even as you are learning what works for you.

If your interested in composting, take a look at this TedxTalk by Mike McGrath. This video puts an interesting spin on composting.

I’m not sure if I agree with everything he says (particularly the part about kitchen waste not decomposing), but I think he raises some very valid points. Plus he’s funny! What do you think? Is everything we know about composting really wrong? Feel free to leave a comment.