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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