Nasturtiums, basil, parsley, succulents, impatiens, rosemary, mint, aloe, avocado – that’s the start to the summer balcony garden. It is a petite space so there is not much room for tall dramas or extravagant experiments which means this summer should be pretty tame in the greenspace department. Since I live so close to the farmers market, the vegetable growing is going to be left up to the farmers this year giving me the opportunity to grow herbs to augment summer cooking and flowers to add a little fancy.
I have my heart set on three things in particular this season- a citrus tree, a trail of climbing roses and pots bubbling over with greenery. The first two will be available shortly at our market garden store and the third will be accomplished with a homemade compost container, mighty but mini.
We have Sir Albert Howard to thank for our modern day love of organic gardening and make-no-waste composting methods. Of course people have been using compost since the dawn of time but in the early part of the 20th century when chemical fertilizers became all the interest, Albert was the guy to remind everyone of the common-sense simplicity of nature.
A British botanist born during the last quarter of the 19th century, Albert was a forever student of agricultural science. During a 30 year stay in India, he studied soil effects on garden outcomes and determined that natural compost was the ideal and most beneficial way to create healthy, happy plants in a supportive environment. Healthy people, healthy animals and healthy food all benefited from the effects of recycling earth based materials.
Documenting his research and his observations Albert wrote several books published between the 1920’s and 1940’s helping to draw attention away from manufactured soil amendments and back to the logical evolution of the land. A big fan of the forest floor, Albert marveled at how forests were like one giant compost heap in and of themselves. Materials fell from the trees, layered themselves in seasons and decomposed through the aid of bugs, worms and microorganisms in the dirt. Essentially when we build our modern day compost bins we do the same thing. We act as the trees providing material and shelter and the natural decomposition process contained in our incubated environment breaks down as it normally would.
Compost bins to me have always been a little intimidating. When I lived in the country they meant snakes and red ants, weird bugs and an occasional long-tailed critter. The always giant, always garbage can style bin either got too much water or not enough water. Half the time I’d forget to turn it with any sort of regular routine. This year though I’m on a different trajectory. I’m starting small with kitchen scraps, traditional yard waste and a 3lb container. This snack- size bin will give the balcony plants a little extra nutrition boost mid-season and hopefully, if all goes well, will be in continual use throughout the fall and winter.
Making a mini compost bin is easy. The trick is finding something that is a good size for your space, so creativity is king here. I used a leftover plastic container that once held 3lbs of trail mix and the lid of a plastic takeout soup container.
After poking 4 holes in the bottom for drainage and about 8 holes in the lid for air, I gathered all the compost materials needed for a 50/50 mix between kitchen scraps and yard waste.
Materials on the yard side included: sticks, dead leaves, a paper egg carton, pine straw, a brown paper bag, dead-headed flowers and pine cones. On the kitchen scrap side I used limp spinach, garlic skins, coffee grounds, a month’s worth of crushed up egg shells, lime rind, some old blueberries and a small bag of pistachio shells. Because my bin is petite, I chopped everything up pretty fine with kitchen scissors so that it would not only fit more easily in the container but also break down faster.
To make sure I had enough of a balance of both sets of materials I filled the same bowl twice with each mixture. I added each bowl to the bin and mixed it up using an old camping spoon (no shovel needed for this little project!). Once it was all stirred the last element to go in was a little bit of water so that the overall consistency was moist but not drippy.
At last, the mighty, mini compost bin was ready and done! With a weekly turn of the ingredients and a little extra water now and then, this compost batch should be ready in about one month.
This size bin will produce a few cupfuls of compost. Just the right amount to replenish soil in the tops of all my pots. Unlike compost bins of the past, this one fits neat and tidy on my mid-century rolling cart and will wait out the month among it’s potted pals.
I’m happy to say that I do not have to worry about snake sightings with this bin. That might just be the very best thing about balcony gardening, no surprise sightings of the slithering kind! Cheers to that! And cheers to Albert, his simple solutions and the important reminder that mother nature knows how to best take care of herself!
More to come on the gardening front all summer long. Interested in learning more about other gardening crusaders like Albert? Read about Hilda Leyel here and Edgar T. Wherry here.