Harrisonburg Gardening 101: Composting & Other Garden Tips

Renee -- May 6th, 2011

This is the 3rd post in our local gardening mini-series. Previous posts can be found at this link. I’ll reiterate that I’m no expert! I just do a lot of reading about gardens online and I started my own small plot here in Harrisonburg for the first time last year.

For this installment in the mini-series, I’ll just cover some tips that I’ve learned and found online. If you have more tips, please share them in the comments!


Composting is easy, and it helps reduce your contributions to the landfill while it also helps your garden grow! I started composting last year and got a good batch to add to my garden this spring instead of buying fertilizer at the store. Here’s how you do it:

  • Create a compost bin. Some people use open piles contained with fencing or wood pallets, and some use raised bins that can be easily spun to mix the compost, or specialized barrels like the ones sold recently by the city and county. Another method (and the one that I use) is to drill holes in an old garbage can like this and roll it around the yard every once in a while to thoroughly mix the contents. The holes are a necessity for proper air flow and drainage.

3 skid compost bins

  • Save kitchen scraps like vegetable peels and coffee grounds instead of throwing them in the trash can or garbage disposal. (A list of compostable items can be found at this link.) In the winter when it’s cold outside, I keep fresh fruit and vegetable scraps in a plastic coffee container with holes poked in the lid and layer the vegetable matter with used coffee grounds until I am able to empty the container outside every few days. I have never noticed a smell while the container is closed. There are also special cans you can buy for storing compost materials temporarily in your kitchen, and even indoor composters.
  • In your compost bin, layer the kitchen scraps with yard waste like grass clippings and any other compostable materials. I use newspaper-based pelleted litter for my rabbit and empty that into the bin occasionally, too. There is a formula for mixing “green” and “brown” materials, described here, but you don’t have to follow it to the letter to get good compost, just provide your pile with a variety of materials.
  • Keep your compost sponge-damp. You don’t want it to be too soggy or it will create swamp-like conditions (and smell), but it does need some moistness for the beneficial organisms to survive and break down your compost. When it’s breaking down, it will have a sweet earthy smell.
  • Over time, you will notice your compost breaking down into dark, fertile soil. You can keep two separate piles to ensure the materials have completely broken down in one before it’s time to add it to your garden, or you can just empty the contents of the bin into your garden about a month before you plan to plant anything and start a new batch in your bin.
  • Another way to add compost to your soil is to make “compost tea”. This is basically compost soaked in water to create a liquid fertilizer. For “high end” compost tea, you can add fish emulsion or molasses and apply with a sprayer as explained in this video.

Growing Upwards

Both small and large gardens can benefit by growing vegetables up posts and trellises vertically. This can allow you to plant more plants per square foot, but also creates shady spots, so plan carefully so you don’t overshade plants that don’t climb and need full sun. “Indeterminate” tomatoes can grow long vines and can be tied to tall stakes or tied to strings from above to encourage vertical growth, and other plants like climbing beans and peas naturally grow up fences and trellises.

pea teepee Tomato Support

For a natural look, you can create low fences or tall “teepees” out of sticks for your vegetables to climb. Another popular method is the “three sisters” garden, which has corn planted in the center, surrounded by pole beans which vine up the stem of the corn, and squash, which shade the ground to keep the moisture in. Below is a photo of a “three sisters” garden.

The Three Sisters at the end of May

The most extreme example of vertical gardening I’ve seen is YouTube user John from “Growing Your Greens” who has converted his suburban California lawn into a raised-bed garden with many vertical gardening features (skip to 2:20 for the garden tour):

Finding Gardening Information Online

The web is a treasure trove of gardening information, (both good and bad – so if you hear something that sounds crazy, try to find verification to make sure it’s not bad advice)! YouTube is a great resource for instructional videos. I enjoy watching videos by Christian from “The Produce Garden” in the winter because he’s in Australia where they are in the opposite seasons and I can get ideas ahead of time to implement in the summer! Patti Moreno, “The Garden Girl“, has a lot of good ideas and how-to videos, too. If you’re planting a certain variety of vegetable and want specific tips, search for it on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of people willing to share their tips with you!

Another thing I enjoy doing is reading gardening blogs. If you find a few with similar planting zones to our area, you will get especially useful information. Bloggers in Florida and California have a much longer growing season, so I enjoy reading Northern US blogs such as Chiot’s Run and Annie’s Kitchen Garden to get more usable advice.

Have a garden question? Just “Google it”! If you find information that’s especially helpful to people in the Harrisonburg area, please share it in the comments!

Photos by Flickr Users knittingbrow, found_drama, inkandpen, and philcalvert under the Creative Commons license (hover over photos for links and attributions).

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23 Responses to “Harrisonburg Gardening 101: Composting & Other Garden Tips”

  1. Lisa says:

    I just love this series, Renee!

    For those who want a leg up in planting, the Harrisonburg High School Horticulture class is having their spring plant sale tomorrow, Saturday, May 7th, from 9-1 at the HHS greenhouse. Lots of tomatoes, herbs, annual and perennial flowers. Come support plant-loving students!

    • Renee says:

      Thanks for the compliment and the info, Lisa!

    • seth says:

      love that hhs has a greenhouse. i remember when we started raising money for the first one. kinda makes me feel old :)

      • David Miller says:

        Every time that I drive by Memorial I see the greenhouse that we sold bricks to fund-raise for. Glad the new HHS has a greenhouse too.

  2. Renee says:

    Here’s an example of a smart idea you can find on a Gardening blog:
    “The Planting Jig”

  3. Ross says:

    What is the best plant food brand? Miracle Grow?

    • Renee says:

      I don’t know which one is the “best” – someone else may have a more experienced answer – but I bought these Organic Fertilizer Spikes at Lowe’s last year, and it seems to have helped (though that was my first year gardening in this yard’s soil, so I don’t know for sure)


    • David Miller says:

      What are you hoping to feed?

      • Ross says:

        All I can tell you is that it is a green leafy plant that was brought home as a school project. The children are to plant it and track its growth. The largest plant get s sizable cash prize.

        • David Miller says:

          Really your best bet is to provide it with what it needs most, plenty of sunshine, daily water and good soil. I’d recommend a soil of 1/3 composted leaves, 1/3 garden soil and 1/3 composted manure. No additional fertilizers should be required, just good potting soil with some good old fashioned organic “mootrients”.

          • Renee says:

            It’s interesting you mention this mix. I had a bag of leaf compost left from last year, a bag of new manure compost, and some generic “garden soil” and was mixing them in a bucket to use at the community garden to amend the clay soil where I was planting. A guy commented “a little of this and a little of that, huh?” since I looked silly scooping 3 kinds of dirt 1 trowel-full at a time into a bucket – looks like I was doing it right, though! :)

          • David Miller says:

            The leaf compost is a great amendment for clay, it loosens and more importantly lowers ph. Funny when you just do things that seem logical and they turn out correct, nice.

          • David Miller says:

            btw Renee, did you do a soil test on your plot?

          • Renee says:

            no, I didn’t do a soil test. Just winging it :)

        • Renee says:

          This could help you identify it by leaf
          (Though I haven’t had success looking up a plant I wanted to know about, it may just not have been in the database yet. I would think a plant they gave out in class would be fairly common.)

          • David Miller says:

            Soil tests are quite enlightening, personally I’d love to hear the results on the soil in the city garden.

  4. Ross says:

    We have had our plant in a little over four weeks now and insects are eating on it. Any home remedy suggestions?

    • Renee says:

      Knowing what kind of insects and what kind of plant would be helpful! Remedies really vary by insect.

      I’ll be doing a post in the future about natural pest control.

      One I hear gardeners talk about a lot but I haven’t tried yet is “insecticidal soap”

    • Joe E says:

      Today I noticed some strawberry damage in our new patch and saw a white milky (bubbly) substance on a leaf. At the Farmer’s Market I asked a very nice vendor what it could be and he thought spittle bug. Googled spittle bug and just returned from the garden having smashed 6 of the little buggers between my thumb and index finger. Very satisfying if you know what I mean. Thank you nice vendor, may your good deed be returned 10 fold.

      • David Miller says:

        I noticed a severe production drop off in my strawberry patch too, I had an infestation. Turns out my dog had discovered the little red wonders ahead of the birds, she decimated the crop but the laugh was worth it.

  5. Hey, Renee…I have a uniquely-interesting offer to extend to you, if you have the schedule and desire to accomodate the offer…

    Email me at briggman@wsvgradio.com or call my cell at your convenience, 246-5252.

  6. David Miller says:

    Just another borrowed garden bed recipe that I’ve come to really like.
    Remove 6″ of topsoil from area to become new bed. Set aside (buckets, piles whatever is most convenient). Add
    1ft of last years weeds piled into the 6″ hole/future bed. Add 1ft of leaves from the city leaf pile. 2ft of spoiled hay. Add 1 more foot of leaf litter, I had to settle for 6″ and got by superbly. If possible place one soaker hose at 1′ spacing throughout new bed for August’s eventual arrival. Replace 6″ of topsoil, mix in 1″ of leaf litter from city pile. This bed requires no external nutrient source throughout growing season and eventually settles to 12-24″ for a raised bed look without lumber or the accompanying slugs that raised beds breed.

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