Local Food Sandusky

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Growing Food Locally: The New Way of Nutrition

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Recently, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur  (D – Ohio) held the summit, “City in a Garden”, at the Toledo Botanical Gardens to explain her initiatives with the stimulus money that is available for Urban Agriculture programs. She also highlighted the potential of the 9th District (Lucas, Ottawa, Erie and Lorain Counties) to solve their struggle to feed the growing number of hungry citizens with locally grown food.

Incase you are unfamiliar with the various efforts that fulfill the concepts of local food and urban agriculture, we recommend the article Growing Food Locally: Integrating Agriculture into the Built Environment. In it, you’ll find the following topics:

Erie County and surrounding areas have an opportunity to provide for themselves.

Erie County and surrounding areas have an opportunity to provide for themselves.

– Green Rooftops & Container Farming
– Rooftop Greenhouses with Soil
– Structural Loading Issues for Rooftop Greenhouses
– Rooftop Hydroponic Greenhouses

CIFT's Vertical Hydroponic System can be set up in an empty parking lot or on a roof top.

CIFT's Vertical Hydroponic System can be set up in an empty parking lot or on a roof top.

Vertical Gardening

Here is an abstract that gives a brief summary of the article:

Tremendous energy is expended transporting food from fields around to world to our tables. Large-scale, centralized food production is vulnerable to disease and other threats, and there are health benefits to more local food production. In this context, there is growing interest in producing food closer to home, even in urban areas.


There are two broad approaches to more localized food production. First, the vacant land around buildings—which comprises about 15% of urban land nationwide—can be turned into productive gardens and farmland. There are thousands of community gardens and hundreds agricultural enterprises (both nonprofit and for-profit) that are converting this unused, urban land into productive land for vegetables, fruits, and other crops. In some urban farms, isolation from contaminated soils is provided with a layer of clay.

Second, there is a tremendous amount of commercial roof area in urban and suburban locations, and some of this space is suitable for productive green roofs or rooftop greenhouses. With greenhouses, soil-based growing is practiced by some, but most growers have turned to lighter-weight hydroponics (growing in which nutrient solutions replace soil). The innovative field of aquaponics marries aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics to permit ecological systems in which fish waste provides the fertilizer for plant growth.

Both of these approaches offer challenges to architects and farmers alike. Finding plots on the ground that are uncontaminated and receive enough sun for vegetables can be difficult in dense urban centers, and rooftop systems can easily overload existing structural supports if not carefully planned.

An observation from Eat. Drink. Better.,

Urban agriculture has been used by the United Nations in many developing countries to encourage a healthy food chain and to generate jobs in the poorest cities of the world. Conversely, a few enterprising Canadians started farming their backyard and their neighbors’ backyards two decades ago with the mission of reconnecting North Americans to sustainable farming methods. As a direct result of their labors, new methods for intensive planting and harvesting in order to generate much greater yields from small plots of land have been developed to make farming in the city not just possible, but quite often profitable.

The co-founders of The Erie Wire and Local Food Sandusky are going to be launching the Erie Community Gardening Collective in order to bring the success of these concepts to our area. If you’d like more information on how you can be involved, please contact Lauren Berlekamp by emailing her at lcberlekamp@gmail.com. We encourage you to read the report on Congresswoman Kaptur’s summit published on The Erie Wire. For more on this topic, we recommend the articles at www.cityfarmer.info

Backyard Gardens: Seeds and Starters to Companion Plants and Wonder Bugs

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Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm 


Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm

With the effort you will put into creating the perfect environment for growing food, you will want to make sure you get quality seeds in order to grow the healthiest plants. The most coveted of seed varieties are heirloom or heritage seeds. These seeds are sourced from plants whose lineages have consistently produced fruits or vegetables with the fullest flavor and color, without being genetically engineered or modified. When buying seeds, don’t be afraid to ask questions about them and their source. Honest people won’t hesitate to share this information with you.

If you prefer starter plants to seeds, Mulberry Creek Organic Herb Farm on Bogart Road in Sandusky is the place to go. Not only do they have an enormous selection of organically certified herbs and miniature perennials but they have some of the most reasonable prices in the country for quality culinary, ornamental, medicinal and crafting plants. You can view their full catalog online to plan ahead or go and be pleasantly surprised at their seemingly endless selection. They offer profiles on each of their plants with information on growing and usage, including recipes.

Also consider saving the seed from year to year in order to pinch pennies from your annual garden budget. Here is an explanation about seed saving from the Rodale Institute.


Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Garden Planning: Companion Planting

Did you know that if you plant basil with your tomatoes, then you will end up with a bigger, juicier harvest? Or that if you border your garden with a variety of marigolds then you’ll avoid the blight of many garden pests? There are methods to the madness of gardening, and companion planting is your ticket to successful crops without the use of chemicals. The Native American Indians understood companion planting even thousands of years ago. They grew the Three Sisters together, consisting of corn, beans and squash with great success. Even the Mayans passed down the socio-agronomic tradition of Milpa farming, which is the practice of a community-based planting of crops that are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. It is said that the “[building] of a milpa culture is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe…[it] formed the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its traditional religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.” A deep lesson can be learned from naturally-occuring symbiotic relationships.



One of the best explanation resources we found is The Rodale Institute’s Companion Planting Made Easy guide. Here is an excerpt from the experts to explain the concept:

In the simplest terms, companion planting is the technique of combining two plants for a particular purpose.  If your crops are regularly attacked by insects, you can use companions to hide, repel, or trap pests. Other companions provide food and shelter to attract and protect beneficial insects. And some plants grow well together just because they don’t compete for light or rooting space. Expanding the diversity of your garden plantings and incorporating plants with particularly useful characteristics are both part of successful companion planting.

Creating Diversity

In contrast to the wide diversity of natural systems—like forests and prairies—our gardens and farms tend to contain neat, identical plantings of just a few different plant species. These large groups of similar plants, called monocultures, are prime targets for insect and disease attack. Increasing the diversity of your garden plantings is a natural and effective way to avoid a monoculture and minimize pest and disease problems. Technically, adding diversity could be as simple as increasing the number of different plants in your garden. Sounds simple—until you realize that you have a limited amount of room in your garden, which is taken up by your favorite crops. But, if you create a planned diversity, you can still have good (or even better) yields from the same amount of space. For instance, instead of growing the same vegetable cultivars in thesame beds every year, try changing their positions each year, or at least try different cultivars. To get even more diversity, try open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids. The plants from open-pollinated seed are all just a little different genetically, so even if pests or diseases attack some of the plants, the rest of the crop may be spared. An easy and pleasant way to add diversity to the vegetable garden is to add flowering plants. Mix annual flowers and herbs in the beds or rows of vegetables, or create permanent beds nearby for perennials and bulbs. Besides looking good, flowers provide a source of food and shelter for spiders and beneficial insects that eat or parasitize plant pests.

Enriching the Soil

All plants withdraw some nutrients from the soil as they grow, but some actually return more nutrients than they consume. Legumes—plants like peas, beans, and clover—have a mutually beneficial relationship with nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria. These bacteria colonize legume roots, absorbing up to 20 percent of the sugars the plants produce. The bacteria use this energy to capture atmospheric nitrogen (nitrogen gas) and convert it into nitrogen compounds that plants can use. Some of this nitrogen goes directly back to the host plant. Another part of the nitrogen trapped by the rhizobium bacteria is released into the soil as the nodule-bearing roots die off and decompose. This nitrogen is available during the season to boost the growth of any companion plants growing nearby. The big bonus comes when you turn the foliage and roots of the legumes into the soil. When they decay, they can release enough nitrogen to feed the next crop you grow.

Repelling Pest Insects

A key part of creating effective crop combinations is using the natural abilities of the plant to attract, confuse, or deter insects. Some plants produce repellent or toxic compounds that chase pests away or stop them from feeding. In other cases, the aromatic compounds released by plants can mask the scent of companion crops. Summer savory, for example, may help hide your bush beans from pests, while tansy is said to repel Colorado potato beetles from a potato planting. Garlic releases deterrent aromas into the air that may chase away insects such as bean beetles and potato bugs. Mint may keep cabbage loopers off cabbage plants, while basil can discourage tomato hornworms on tomatoes. Try pungent plants as an edging around garden beds, or mix them in among your crops. Or, if you can’t grow the repellents close enough to your crops, try spreading clippings of the scented plants over garden beds for the same effect.

Luring Pests from Crops

Some plants have an almost irresistible appeal for certain pests. Nasturtiums, for instance, are an excellent attractant plant because they’re a favorite of aphids. Colorado potato beetles find black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) more alluring than even your best potato plants. Attractant plants can protect your crops in two ways. First, they act as decoys to lure pests away from your desirable crops. Second, they make it easier to control the pests since the insects are concentrated on a few plants. Once pests are “trapped,” you can pull out the attractant plants (cover them with paper or plastic bags first, if the pests are small or fast-moving) and destroy them along with the pests, or apply some other type of control measure to the infested plants.

Sheltering Beneficial Insects

Not all insects are garden enemies. Many actually help your garden grow by eating or parasitizing plant pests. You can encourage these beneficial creatures to make a home in your garden by planting their favorite flowering plants. Growing dill, for example, can attract pesteating spiders, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, which will help control caterpillars on cabbage, beetles on cucumbers, and aphids on lettuce. Plants that produce large quantities of easily accessible pollen and nectar— like yarrow, fennel, and goldenrod— provide shelter and supplemental food for hungry beneficials.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Here are several other websites that give great companion plant lists. When selecting what must-haves that will be in your garden or food plot, look to see what else grows well with them as you plan your garden layout. Be sure to also look at what won’t  work well with what you’ve chosen.

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Companion Planting

Garden Toad Companion Plant Guide

The Green Garden Blog


Praying mantis in defense pose.

Praying mantis in defense pose.

Within your garden, there should be many beneficial life forms working instinctively together to create a diverse ecosystem. However, if you do have a problem with a blight of any kind, we recommend some organically approved, perfectly legal integrated pest management tactics. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service offers advice on insect pests, weeds and plants diseases. Because the majority of plant problems thrive in degraded environments, an article at Thrifty Fun on organic pest control reiterates the point that a healthy garden begins with healthy soil.

Be wary of using petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and weed killers when getting space ready for your garden. Chemical applications can kill off the soil biology; altering the energy cycle with the chemicals being absorbed into your bloodstream, keeping you from benefiting from the essential vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in your fresh food.We encourage you to read Local Food Sandusky’s article on Composting for more on soil health.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Flower Power and Wonder Bugs

Managing your garden for pest control not only cuts down on your workload, but it also reduces the amount of insecticides that you use in your garden. And fewer insecticides means more good bugs, which in turn means help in controlling bad bugs. By planting certain herbs and flowers near your food plants, you can keep insect and rodent pests from invading your garden while attracting native pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and garden guardians, such as ladybugs and praying mantis. We recommend some of these old reliable garden tricks:


  • Marigolds – French marigolds repel whiteflies and kill bad nematodes. Mexican marigolds are said to offend a host of destructive insects and wild rabbits as well. If you choose marigolds for your garden they must be scented to work as a repellant. While this plant drives away many bad bugs, it also attracts spider mites and snails.
  • Chrysanthemums – Also known as mums are beautiful flowers that can help control things like roaches, ticks, silverfish, lice, fleas, bedbugs, and ants in certain parts of your garden. White flowering chrysanthemums are said to drive away Japanese beetles.
  • Nasturtiums – Plant with tomatoes and cucumbers as a way to fight off wooly aphids, whiteflies, squash bugs, and cucumber beetles. The flowers, especially the yellow blooming varieties, act as a trap for aphids.
  • Petunias – These repel asparagus beetles, leafhoppers, a range of aphids, tomato worms, and a good many other pests.
  • Sunflowers – These will draw aphids away from other plants and ants move their colonies onto sunflowers. The sunflowers are tough enough that they suffer no damage. Their big, beautiful blooms will attract plenty of pollinators to your garden.
  • Hyssop – great for attracting honeybees to the garden
  • Lavender – a favorite among many beneficial insects and also repels fleas and moths.
  • Basil – Repels thrips, flies and mosquitoes. Plant basil along side tomatoes for larger, tastier tomatoes.
  • Borage – Repels tomato hornworms and cabbage worms and attract beneficial bees and wasps. Borage also adds trace elements to the soil. This is an annual, but readily comes back each year from seed.
  • Catnip – Repels just about everything, except for cats. Use it to keep away flea beetles, aphids, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, ants, and weevils. The cats it may attract will control the rodents that may eat your food plants. Use sachets of dried catnip to deter ants indoors.
  • Dill – Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps, and its foliage is used as food by swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Tomato hornworms are also attracted to dill, so if you plant it at a distance, you can help draw these destructive insects away from your tomatoes. Dill also repels aphids and spider mites. Sprinkle dill leaves on squash plants to repel squash bugs. Dill is best planted with cucumbers and onions. During the cool season, try planting along with lettuce.
  • Chives – Repel Japanese beetles and carrot rust flies. It has also been said that chives will help prevent apple scab when planted among apple trees.
  • Garlic – Great taste and health benefits and when planted near roses, it repels aphids. It also deters codling moths, Japanese beetles, root maggots, snails, and carrot root fly.

Remember, lady bugs and praying mantis are signs of a healthy garden! Lady bugs, both adults and larvae, feed on aphids (plant lice/green bugs), but are also known to scavenge on wide variety of other pesky soft-bodied insects, mites & eggs. Each ladybug can consume as many as 5,000 aphids during their one year life span. For more information on how to attract lady bugs to your garden, visit here. Praying mantis will eat any bug of a size they can catch and are considered to be very beneficial to the organic gardener.  Each year, tens of thousands of mantis egg cases are sold in some garden stores for this purpose.



Backyard Orchards

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

If your garden space can afford it, fruit trees may offer a better return on effort than anything in your garden. There are many different varieties of fruit trees that grow well in the climate of Northern Ohio. For example, one semi-dwarf apple tree, can produce up to 500 apples in a season, producing up to 15 to 20 years. If you plant several trees with different harvest times, you can eat freshly picked fruit for eight months out of the year.

Although in Ohio, we attribute our apple trees to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, the only native fruit to Ohio is that of the pawpaw tree. The fruit tastes like a combination of bananas and mangoes and grows well in most midwestern and northern states. Other fruit trees that grow well in our area (depending on variety and season) include apples, pears, tart cherries and European plums. Although they can be grown successfully, late spring frost tends to damage peaches, nectarines and apricots making them more challenging to grow.

The following fruit tree varieties are said to grow well together:

  • peaches and nectarines
  • apricots and pluots
  • apricots and plums

For more general information on Backyard Orchards and other Ohio Fruits, check out the following links:

Ohio Master Gardeners: Ohio Fruit

Growing Fruit Trees is Earth Easy!

National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: Backyard Orchards

Backyard Orchard Tips

Fruit Trees in Small Spaces

For more information about Urban Agriculture and food options that will save you money, keep you healthy and build community, visit The Erie Wire and the websites of our partners. We would also recommend listening to Deconstructing Dinner, one of our most celebrated resources for local food security.

Backyard Gardens: Soil and Compost Basics

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As long as you have access to sunlight, water, and soil, your own food plot is possible, to either use for yourself or share with friends and neighbors. However, even with our region’s reputable soil, it is not a bad idea to get your soil tested. Understanding the condition of your soil and water supply can help you forsee potential risks for diseases and pests. A decent soil test can be done for only $25 and will measure the soil pH, organic matter and nutrient levels, and information on how to treat micronutrient deficiency in order to prepare your soil to grow perfectly nutritious food. Soil deficiency and degradation can be caused by erosion, over fertilization, and/or pollution.

Soil erosion can be caused by irresponsible land management practices.

Soil erosion can be caused by irresponsible land management practices.

Soil pH is an important part to the development of vegetable plants. The pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. The pH scale is a range from 1 to 12, with 1 being the most acidic and 12 being the most alkaline or basic. Either extreme can be toxic. Room temperature drinking water, for example, should have a balanced measurement of 7. There are several reasons why gardeners and farmers, alike, should consider their soil pH.

  • Certain plants and soil life forms (like good bacteria, arthropods, earthworms) prefer specific conditions.
  • Some plant diseases and pests tend to thrive when the soil is either alkaline or acidic.
  • The pH can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil. Slightly acidic soil increases the concentration of nutrients potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca), which are necessary for plant life.

Vegetables flourish in well-drained soil that is rich in organic nutrients and measures a little on the acidic side of the pH scale. In fact, the preferred pH for almost all vegetables is between 5.5 to 6.5 pH. Here is a list of various vegetables and their preferred pH.

The pH scale.

The pH scale.

The cheapest way to add nutrients to your soil is by composting. The How To Compost website offers excellent information about composting and pages of tips, tricks and products to help making the process easier. However, you can make it and use it without spending any extra money. Here are some paraphrased explanations and recommendations from their site for first-time composters who want to know more about the process.

Why Compost?

Compost is one of nature’s best mulches and soil amendments and you can use it instead of commercial fertilizers.  Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root developments in plants. The organic matter provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps the soil in a healthy balanced condition.  Soil organisms produce compounds that enhance the growth of plants. The symbiotic relationships within this ‘living soil’ cycles nutrients, enhances soil structure, which improves optimal water and air movement in topsoil. Nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus will be produced naturally by the feeding of microorganisms, so few if any soil amendments will need to be added.

Most gardeners have long understood the value of this rich dark earthy material in improving the soil and creating a healthful environment for plants. Balanced soil biology will protect your plants from disease. Understanding how to make and use compost is in the public interest, as the problem of waste disposal climbs toward a crisis level. Landfills are brimming and new sites are not likely to be easily found. For this reason, there is interest in conserving existing landfill space and in developing alternative methods of dealing with waste. Our hands are being forced to deal creatively with our own yard waste, as one by one, cities are trying to cut costs by eliminating programs to haul off our leaves and grass clippings. About one third of the space in landfills is taken up with organic waste from our yards and kitchens, just the type of  material that can be used in compost. With a small investment in time, you can contribute to the solution to a community problem, while at the same time enriching the soil and improving the health of the plants on your property. Studies have shown that home composting can divert an average of 700 lbs. of material per household per year from the waste stream. Composting is an excellent way to avoid both wasting useful, natural resources and creating environmental problems, while at the same time producing a high quality and inexpensive soil amendment. Don’t throw away materials when you can use them to improve your lawn and garden – Start composting instead!

Rich, dark, earthy humus.

Rich, dark, earthy humus.

The Compost Decomposition Process

Compost is the end product of a complex food chain involving hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects. What remains after these organisms break down organic materials is the rich earthy substance your garden will love. Humus is our goal when we start composting. Composting replicates nature’s system of breaking down materials on the forest floor. As your compost produces humus, it becomes a mixture of nutrients that have been broken down completely, allowing plants to absorb the benefits. Humus also physically keeps soil light and fluffy, optimal for growing plants. Some experts even suggest using soil from a wooded area (if available) to help start your compost pile.

By providing the right environment for the organisms in the compost pile, it is possible to produce excellent compost. We usually want to organize and speed up the process of nature, sometimes to it’s detriment. However, by knowing the perfect conditions of heat, moisture, air, and materials, we can speed up the composting process, aiding the energy cycle without harming the environment. Making the compost faster also creates heat which will destroy plants diseases and weed seeds in the pile, benefiting your garden with you in control.

Carbon and nitrogen are the two fundamental elements in composting, and their ratio (C:N) is significant. The bacteria and fungi in compost digest or “oxidize” carbon as an energy source and ingest nitrogen for protein synthesis. Carbon can be considered the “food” and nitrogen the digestive enzymes.

Composting can range from passive – allowing the materials to sit and rot on their own – to highly managed. Whenever you intervene in the process, you’re managing the compost. How you compost is determined by your goal. If you’re eager to produce as much compost as possible to use regularly in your garden, you may opt for a more hands-on method of composting.  If your goal is to dispose of yard waste, a passive method is your answer.

Passive Composting involveds the least amount of time and energy on  your part. This is done by collecting organic materials in a freestanding pile. It might take a long time (a year or two), but eventually organic materials in any type of a pile will break down into finished compost. More attractive than a big pile of materials sitting in your yard is a 3-sided enclosure made of fencing, wire or concrete blocks, which keeps the pile neater and less unsightly. Add grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps (always cover these with 8 inches of other material). The pile will shrink quickly as the materials compress and decompose. Wait a year or two before checking the bottom of the bin for finished compost. When it is ready, shovel the bottom section into a wheelbarrow and add it to your garden beds. Continue to add greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon) to have a good supply of finished compost ready. After the first few years, most simple piles produce a few cubic feet of finished compost yearly.

Consider the C:N Ratio, Surface Area, Temperature, Moisture and Oxygen Levels  in Your Compost Pile – It is EASY.

Managed composting involves active participation, ranging from turning the pile occasionally to a major commitment of time and energy. If you use all the techniques of managing the pile, you can get finished compost in 3-4 weeks. Choose the techniques that reflect how much you want to intervene in the decomposition process and that will be a function of how fast you want to produce compost. Experts have determined that the fastest way to produce fertile compost is to maintain a carbon to nitrogen ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Deciding this ratio in your own yard isn’t as complicated as it may seem. Adding 3-4 pounds of nitrogen material for every 100 pounds of carbon should be satisfactory for efficient and rapid composting. [See chart below for examples of carbon and nitrogen sources that are appropriate for compost.] If decomposition is slow and your pile is dry, there is too much carbon. If your pile is particularly stinky and sloppy wet, then you have too much nitrogen. If you want to get technical with your carbon to nitrogen ratio, you can reference this equation.

The speed with which you produce finished compost will be determined by how you collect materials, whether you chop them up, how you mix them together, and so on. Achieving a good balance of carbon and nitrogen is easier if you build the pile all at once. Layering is traditional, but mixing the materials works as well. Shredded organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly, and produce uniform compost. The decomposition rate increases with the size of the composting materials. If you want the pile to decay faster, chop up large fibrous materials yourself or with a wood chipper. You can add new materials on an ongoing basis to an already established pile. Most single-bin gardeners build an initial pile and add more ingredients on top as they become available.

The temperature of the managed pile is important – it indicates the activity of the decomposition process. The easiest way to track the temperature inside the pile is by feeling it. If it is warm or hot, everything is fine. If it is the same temperature as the outside air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more nitrogen (green) materials such as grass clippings or kitchen waste. Use a compost thermometer to easily measure the activity of your compost. They are inexpensive and quite convenient to have. The following information is for the highly managed pile and the optimum finished compost in the shortest amount of time. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is between 104 F or above 131 F. This keeps the pile operating at its peak. Most disease pathogens die when exposed to 131 F for 10-15 minutes, though some weeds seeds are killed only when they’re heated to between 140 F and 150 F. If weed seeds are a problem, let the pile reach 150F during the first heating period, then drop back down to the original temperature range. Be sure to only let this happen occasionally after adding materials to the pile. If you keep the temperature above 131F regularly, the decomposing microbes will be killed off. Simply turn the pile if it gets too warm.

Water is necessary for plant life.

Water, sunlight, air, and nutritious soil are necessary for healthy plant life.

Organic waste needs water to decompose. If the pile becomes too dry , the decay process will slow down. The rule of thumb is to keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If you’re building your pile with very wet materials, mix them with dry materials as you build. If all the material is very dry, soak it with a hose as you build. Whenever you turn the pile, check it for moisture and add water as necessary. Too much water is just as detriment as the lack of water. In an overly wet pile, water replaces the air, creating an anaerobic environment, slowing decomposition. 



Air circulation is an important element in a compost pile. Most of the organisms that decompose organic matter are aerobic, meaning they need oxygen to survive. There are several ways to keep your pile breathing. Try not to use materials that easily compacted such as ashes or sawdust without mixing them with a coarser material first. People who passively manage large piles often add tree branches or even ventilation tubes vertically into different parts of the pile to be shaken occasionally, maximizing air circulation. The most effective  way to re-oxygenate the pile is to turn the pile by hand, using a large garden fork. The object is to end up with the material that was on the outside of the original pile, resting in the middle of the restacked pile. This procedure aerates the pile and will promote uniform decomposition.

Compost Site Selection

Compost bins can be made from old palettes, bricks, old trash cans and other recycled materials.

Compost bins can be made from old palettes, bricks, old trash cans and other recycled materials.

Any pile of organic matter will eventually rot but a well-chosen site can speed up the process. Look for a level, well drained area. If you plant to add kitchen scraps, keep it accessible to your back door. Don’t put it so far away that you’ll neglect the pile. In cooler latitudes, keep the pile in a sunny spot to trap solar heat. Look for some shelter to protect the pile from freezing cold winds which could slow down the decaying process. In warm dry altitudes, shelter the pile in a shadier spot so I doesn’t dry out too quickly. 

Build the pile over soil or lawn rather than concrete or asphalt to take advantage of earthworms, beneficial microbes, and other decomposers, which will migrate up and down as the seasons change. Having your compost on soil also allows for drainage. 

If possible, look for a spot that allows you to compost discretely, especially if you have neighboring yards in close proximity. Aim for a distance and visual barriers between the pile and the neighbors. In order to keep the area contained and organized, build a three-sided bin to keep your compost in. The locally focused minds at Haag Insight have some excellent guides for building compost bins, from stationary to rotating, as well as guides for managing indoor compostHere is another article for ideas on how to build compost containers out of old wooden pallets, wire mesh, recycled trash bins, or concrete blocks.

Seasonal Schedule for Composting

An effective storage system is the key to successfully using the materials each season provides. In the fall, collect and shred fallen leaves. The best use for them now is as mulch for trees, shrubs and garden beds. Excess leaves can be stored – leaves from 100 bags can be shredded and put in a 4’x4’x4′ container. Some decomposition will take place over the winter, but not a significant amount. Continue to put kitchen scraps in the pile, but it’s not necessary to turn in really cold seasons. If you want your compost pile to stay active during the winter, you’ll want an enclosed bin with insulated sides. A black bin situated in a sunny spot can help trap solar radiation during cold spells. Keep the pile as large as possible so that heat generated from decomposition will endure. You can also stack bales of straw along the sides of your bin to help retain the heat.

In areas with a cold winter, spring is the best time to start the compost pile. There’s an abundance of grass clippings and trimmings. Summer is the time the compost pile is working at its peak range of decomposition, especialy if it has been turned once or twice. Cover and store the finished compost, or use it and start another batch. With enough organic waste, you can produce several batches of highly managed compost during the summer.

What Can Go into Your Compost

The yard waste you can compost is mostly browns (carbon) and kitchen waste is mostly greens (nitrogen). A good rule of thumb is to not add animal-based ingredients to the kitchen waste destined for your compost pile.

Yard waste is primarily made up of brown materials

Yard waste is made up of mostly brown materials

Browns (Carbon)

  • Leaves/Straw/Dead Grass – Shred to break down faster
  • Wood Chips/ Sawdust – Add a lot of nitrogen materials to make up for this high carbon content; Don’t use too much and don’t use treated woods.
  • Pine Needles and Cones – Don’t overload the pile; decomposes slowly
  • Cardboard – Shred into small pieces if used; Moisten so it is easier to tear. If you have a lot, recycled some of it.
  • Cornstalks/Cobs – Best if shredded and mixed well with greens
  • Eggshells – Crush shells as they break down slowly
  • Newspaper – Shred it so it breaks down easier. It’s easy to add too much so remember to recycle if you have a lot. Don’t add slick color pages.
Food waste is made up of mostly green materials.

Food waste is made up of mostly green materials.

Greens (Nitrogen)

  • Algae, Seaweed, Lake Moss – Good source of nutrients and microorganisms
  • Coffee Grounds/Filters/Tea Bags – Worms love coffee grounds!
  • Recently Cut Grass
  • Vegetable Peelings, Salad and Fruit Scraps
  • Old Flowers or Spent Potted/Bedding Plants
  • Weeds – Make sure they are not seeding! Dry out on pavement before adding.

What CAN’T Go into Your Compost

  • Ashes from charcoal or coal – contains materials bad for plants like sulfur and iron
  • Dog/Cat droppings or litter – May contain disease organisms. Avoid!
  • Diseased Plants – If your pile doesn’t get hot enough, it might not kill the organisms. Avoid
  • Fish Scraps, Meat, Fat, Grease, Oils, Bones, Dairy – Avoid. Can attract rodents and cause a stinky pile!

Also, be advised that if you want to use animal manure to treat your soil, you should know the source. In 2007, a University of Minnesota study indicated that foods such as corn, lettuce and potatoes have been found to accumulate antibiotics from soils spread with animal manure that contains these drugs. If the animals were from feedlots that use antibiotic feed and/or hormone injection, then their waste adds these harmful substances to the energy cycle. It’s recommended that the herbivore animals’ diet should be 100% vegetable-based as to avoid potential outbreaks of harmful E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. Common manures used for gardening and agriculture include horse, cow, pig, sheep, goat, chicken, and rabbit.

How to Use Your Compost

  • As a Soil Amendment – Work in 2-3 inches of compost into top of 6-8 inches of soil when ground is warm and moist.
  • Vegetables – Amend soil with compost before planting. Side-dress or ‘mulch’ with 2-3 inches of additional compost for intensive cropping and heavy-feeding plants.
  • Annual Flower Beds – Mix 1-2 inches compost into top 2-6 inches before sowing seeds. Layer 1/2-2 inches compost on top of soil during growing season. Spread 1-2 inches partially decomposed compost over planting bed during fall clean-up; dig into soil or cover with mulch for winter.
  • Perennials – Layer 2-4 inches of compost on soil and mix in before planting. Add fresh compost mulch annually to surrounding soil surfaces. Dig 2 inch layer of compost into soil 6-12 inches deep around all perennials just outside root zone.
  • Transplanting – Mix small amount of compost into each hole when planting flowers, small perennials and vegetables.
  • Trees & Shrubs – Rake 1-2 inch layer of compost into soil 1-2 inches thick over root area where plant roots are close to or protrude above the soil surface. Cover with mulch. Avoid use of compost and other amendments when planting holes for trees and larger shrubs because the roots may not spread to native soil. Instead, spread 2 inches of compost on soil surface around the plant, water it in, and cover with mulh.
  • Lawns – Spread sifted compost 1/4 inch thick in fall and early spring. For best results, aerate before spreading and rake in after. In most cases applications of compost will reduce need for other lawn fertilizers. Prepare a new lawn by mixing 2-3 inches of compost uniformly into the top 6-8 inches of soil before seeding.
  • Propagation Mix – Mix up to 20% sifted compost with uniform mix of sand, perlite, vermiculite or potting soil for starting seedlings.
  • Potting Mix – Mix sifted compost with equal parts garden soil and perlite or lava rock, in a soiless mix. Use 30% compost, more for moisture loving plants. use sifted compost as a top dressing for container plants.

Variations of Composting

Sheet Composting or Cover Crop – Spread leaves or plant residues over surface of soil or plant winter rye in the fall. Turn materials and growth into soil in the spring.

Compost Tea – Soak compost in water (a burlap bag is useful) to make liquid fertilizer. Use compost tea to water transplants, garden flowers, vegetables, and container plants. Apply to soil or use half-strength as a leaf spray.

Trench or Posthole Composting – Bury garden/yard waste and kitchen waste 12 inches deep in garden. Soil is ready for planting in 2 – 6 months.

Not Sure if You Want to Compost…Yet.

If you don’t want to deal with compost because you want to get a jump on your garden and can afford it, plan on taking a trip to Barne’s Nursery or Corso’s to look for potting soil or soil nutrition amendments. Here is a great article from the National Home Gardening Club that explains the different terms and options that you may be presented with. This can be overwhelming when deciding what is best for your situation, so a guide is useful.

Whatever you choose, your soil needs to be able to support a healthy living micro-ecosystem that will include plants, earthworms, good bacteria and other organisms. If your soil is able to sustain many earthworms, then it’s likely you have excellent life-supporting soil.

Delicious dandelions attract native pollinators that are essential to the success of your garden.

Delicious dandelions attract native pollinators that are essential to the success of your garden.

Be wary of using petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and weed killers when getting space ready for your garden. Chemical applications can kill off the soil biology; altering the energy cycle with the chemicals being absorbed into your bloodstream, keeping you from benefiting from the essential vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in your fresh food.

What Makes a Weed a Weed?

If you have a yard overtaken by dandelions, make the most of them. Not only do dandelions attract native pollinators (which are of the utmost importance to the success of your garden), but their leaves are delicious in salads. If the blossoms are picked before they go to seed, they can be fermented into a surprisingly tasteful dandelion wine. Also, the roots can be dried and ground into a tea used to treat various ailments. Throw the rest of the plant into the compost pile .

The next installment of the backyard garden articles will include information on seed selection, garden layouts, companion plants and integrated pest management. For more information about Urban Agriculture and food options that will save you money, keep you healthy and build community, visit The Erie Wire and the websites of our partners. We would also recommend listening to Deconstructing Dinner, one of our most celebrated resources for local food security. Listen to this elemental archived broadcast about nature and it’s important role in our survival through what we put into our bodies.