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Faster Composting

Q: I convinced my husband to start composting last year, but he’s doubting me since we haven’t seen results yet. What’s the best way to speed up the composting process?

A: Convincing the rest of the family that composting is important is the biggest hurdle, so you’ve cleared that. Now, there’s no better soil amendment than compost; feeding the soil instead of the plant is what gives us the proverbial green thumb.

Anything that was once living will become compost. To convert that matter to compost quickly, keep the pile moving. Every time the compost is turned, it speeds up the process exponentially. It’s also important to have the right ratio between “green” and “brown” ingredients. Some examples of green ingredients are kitchen scraps like vegetables and fruit peelings. Leaves and dried ornamental grasses are examples of brown. Two parts green to one part brown is said to be the perfect ratio, but it depends on who you ask. A good way to achieve that is to have brown material, like leaves next to the pile. Add the appropriate amount of the leaves every time you dump in the green.

The idea is the get the pile hot; one that’s built 4 x 4 x 4 feet will reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit as the decomposition process gets underway. Since you’ve just started, your pile is probably smaller than that.

My system uses three bins made out of pallets. The first bin is filled, then the second. By the time number two is filled, number one is usually close to being ready. I’ll start filling number three and harvest the first one when it’s done.

I don’t pay any attention to the ratios and I never turn my pile because I’m not in a hurry. It will be compost when it’s ready ; my bins usually take a full year to make the wonderful rich compost I use all over the garden. One thing for sure, you’ll never have enough.

DIY Seed Starting

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Photo by Flickr/Jennifer C
Tomato seedlings are easy to start at home.

Q: I’ve never started my vegetable plants from seed. Since I don’t have a greenhouse or any lights, is this something I can do outside? I like the idea of trying to raise my own plants to save money, but also to see if I can do it.

A: We’ve all been there, and there’s special satisfaction in seeing something go from seed to fruition in a season. It’s like raising kids without many of the headaches. Everyone has a different way to get started, and it can be done outside depending on what you want to grow and where you live.

Tomatoes are a great place to begin, but in most parts of the country you’ll have to have some kind of protection for outside sowing. A cold frame can be made from and old window and some cheap lumber — there are plans all over the Internet. The glass is set on a 35 degree angle facing south. Find out which planting zone you are in. If it’s 5 or higher, tomato seeds could be germinated inside, then set out in a cold frame in early spring. Temperatures can never drop below freezing in the cold frame or you’ll lose the plants.

For tomatoes, a safer bet is to hang a couple of fluorescent shop lights right above a couple flats of started tomato seeds for 6 weeks inside, before setting the plants outside. The lights are cheap and can be raised as the plants get taller. You’ll find lots of uses for the light over time, before I had a greenhouse my basement was filled with lights over a 4 x 8 foot table.

But there are lots of plants that will thrive in cool weather and will happily sprout in the cold frame. A flat filled with moist seed-starting mix sprinkled with a mix of lettuce seeds will give you hundreds of plants to transplant into the garden in the spring.

Published on Jan 18, 2018

Mother Earth Gardener

Expert advice on all aspects of growing.