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YOUR OWN URBAN FARM: Compost and Garden Like a Farmer

By: David Bailey, Katie Conley and Shontelle Reyna

“What goes in, must come out.” 

Our bodies are well-oiled machines that thrive on balanced, organic foods and shut down on a steady diet of processed junk food. Add in concerns of global warming, rampant food waste and our personal carbon footprint, and the alliance between what—and how—we consume food becomes not simply a personal choice, but a global issue. What do we put into our bodies, and what do we put out into the Earth?

We’ll be looking at the cyclical nature of food and composting. What you eat determines the resulting compostable scraps, which fuels your garden’s growth with its rich nutrients; the compost can be used to create an aerobic tea that feeds the soil, which further fuels the garden; you eat from the garden, and compost the scraps…you can see where I’m going with this. The circle of life. What goes in, must come out.

If you’re looking to be truly sustainable, there is no better green endeavor than to create your own compost/garden setup. Even if you have limited space, it’s possible for the compost and garden to feed one another in beautiful harmony. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to begin your sustainable journey.

1.  INTAKE/CONSUMPTION

This process begins with what you intake—not just what you eat, but also what you have on hand in your home or apartment. The foods and products we buy affect so much more than we realize; we have the convenience of packaging them up, shipping them out of sight and out of mind. The beauty of at-home composting and gardening is that the cycle of life takes shape directly in front of you, and responds to what you do and don’t feed it—much like your body.

Experiencing the cycle personally also reveals the effects of negative additives. The one time you add a grease-laden pizza box to your compost, you’ll see the immediate effects on the whole cycle—not to mention you’ll be eating and re-eating that mistake over and over as it passes on to your soil, and eventually through your vegetables, straight back to you. The circle chart we all learned in elementary biology becomes a living reality, linking us to our food and land.

2. COMPOST

Unlike the giant, cow manure-smelling piles you’re used to seeing at farms, home compost takes up a lot less space, and smells a whole lot better! Traditional composting at home can substantially reduce your trash, while simultaneously creating excellent soil supplements and reducing landfill waste. Not to mention, it’s easy! These days there are tons of pre-made home compost tumblers available online or in local stores that comfortably fit in a closet, or even under the sink.

Basically, compost starts with things found around the house. A proper compost cannot thrive on fruit and vegetable scraps alone. In fact, the system would hardly work at all, attracting flies and other animals. Rather, a healthy compost contains a mix of three general groups:

Browns

Dead branches, twigs and leaves. This also includes recyclable cardboards and papers.

Greens

What you generally think of when it comes to composting: fruit and vegetable waste, coffee grounds, etc., as well as grass clippings and other green plants.

Water

A healthy compost needs water mixed in with items from the brown and green categories.

If you don’t have access to a yard or foliage, sawdust, straw, alfalfa and even newspaper can be substituted. Variety is the spice of life in your compost.

By layering, then regularly turning and aerating your compost, you’ll slowly generate a humus-rich mix perfect for amending soils and feeding plants. Additionally, the completed compost batches can be easily stored, so you don’t have to use it all at once. And any excess mix makes a great spring gift for your gardening friends and family!

3. BOKASHI

As anyone who has ever composted at home knows, you always have a lot more food scraps than you do “brown” material. This is where Bokashi comes in. Derived from the Japanese word for “fermented organic matter,” Bokashi composting can break down meats, dairy, eggs, bread and veggies in about half the time as traditional composting, and without the addition of “brown” materials such as papers, leaves or cardboard.

Though it doesn’t break the product down to the beautiful humus you need for soil, it can rapidly decay the more difficult items in preparation for its mixture into the final compost. In addition, the whole process takes place in just one bucket, and without any foul odors, meaning it can easily sit in your cupboard, or under the sink.

Bokashi composting is essentially a rapid fermentation of food scraps, using the same bacteria that are present in your stomach. These bacteria partner with special yeasts and photosynthetic bacteria, creating a magic trifecta ready to clean up your mess. The only maintenance necessary is adding additional bacterial inoculant, usually sold in wheat bran or saw dust, and draining the extracted liquid out of the bucket. After the bucket is full, let it sit about two weeks. It’s then ready to be added to your compost, or a fallow spot in your garden. The extracted liquid can be used to maintain or treat drains, septic systems, make household deodorizers and can even be diluted to feed your garden!

4. GARDENING

Now for the fun part. For most, gardening is often associated with wide open spaces, or at least a decently-sized back yard. Don’t let your lack of space stop you from gardening, city dwellers. Reaping the delicious rewards of growing your own food is still within your grasp, and a great way to use all the compost you’ve created. Utilize those balconies, porches and small patio spaces, and start to grow your own vegetables and fruits in pots, as well as hanging and planter boxes. Here are some tips to get you started gardening in a small space.

Light

Understanding how much natural sunlight your garden location will receive is important. Salad greens like lettuce and cabbage handle the shade well, while most other garden crops flourish in full sunlight. Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers require around 6 hours of sunlight a day.

Water

Water is life, but too much will drown the budding plants. Depending on your location and pot size, correct watering levels can vary, but generally watering once a day and making sure your pots have good drainage makes for happy plants. Also consider the amount of rain your plants will receive.

Wind

If you’re living in a windy city like Chicago, protecting your plants from getting battered can be tricky. Attempt to dry out their foliage using the shelter of a garden roof, or create a temporary windbreak with fencing or fabric. Larger plants can shield smaller plants, and clustering your potted plants close to one another can raise the humidity of each plant.

Once you’ve decided just how you want to set up your garden space, you can finally use your compost! Blending your finished compost with potting soil for your plants is a natural fertilizer that introduces all types of positive bacteria, fungi and organic food to the roots. For established plants, you can even top the soil with compost for additional food, or blend with water and strain like a ‘tea’ to be used as an organic fertilizer.

Holistic green living often scares people off because it sounds like a lot of work. Don’t get me wrong, it can be hard, but it’s mainly just breaking old habits. As the routine becomes normal, you will reap the benefits of fresh food, create minimal waste and a have cool new hobby to show off to your friends. Not to mention, you’re making a marked difference on the quality of your health, and that is priceless.

Choosing the right pot for your plant

  • 4-5 inches: chives, lettuce, radishes, other salad greens, basil, coriander
  • 6-7 inches: bush beans, garlic, kohlrabi, onions, Asian greens, peas, mint, thyme
  • 8-9 inches: pole beans, carrots, chard, cucumber, eggplant, fennel, leeks, peppers, spinach, parsley, rosemary
  • 10-12 inches: beets, broccoli, okra, potatoes, sweet corn, summer squash, dill, lemongrass
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