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Nothing beats fresh, homegrown vegetables and fruits. The taste and nutrition can't be beat. No fossil fuels are burned trucking them all over the continent. You know where they came from and what fertilizers and chemicals they've come in contact with. And the price can't be beat. The process of growing them can be laborious, but it's not rocket science, and I find it very rewarding.
                                                                                                                                                 Thessaloniki Tomato - Greek Heirloom Pictures, Images and Photos

If you don't have space, time or energy for a traditional garden plot, consider container gardening. Many traditional crops come in varieties suitable for growing in containers, which can range from artistic ornamental pots to 5-gallon buckets to plastic shopping bags packed with soil and slit to accept seedlings (especially suited for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash (any vine crops) and strawberries). And herbs, of course!
                     Herbs Pictures, Images and Photos

I don't bother growing things that take a lot of space and can be bought cheaply, like potatoes and onions. I do like, however, fresh scallions, salad greens and the like (expensive in the supermarket) and "heirloom" varieties of anything bred for taste rather than durability during shipment (unavailable in the supermarket).

The most important thing you need for organic gardening (any kind, really) is compost. You can never have too much compost. It's best to have plenty before you plant anything, but it's precious any time.

If you have space for a compost pile, you don't need expensive gizmos nor really any equipment at all other than a rake. Some sort of bin (a small area surrounded with wire fencing works great) will keep things neat but is not required. On the other hand, various forms of bin may be the only choice for people with limited space or nasty neighbors. Commercial ones are available, but if you're handy, you can build these yourself from trash cans. I like the kind that are mounted on rollers so they can be "tumbled". You can invent something ingenious from scrap lumber and roller skates.

Although Fall is the time to harvest fallen leaves, you can start compost in the Spring. Just rake up all those leaves and other dead bits littering your yard. Beg or steal leaves from your neighbors. You want as big a pile as you can get because as they compost, they will shrink in volume to an amazing extent. Guaranteed you will be disappointed when you see how little compost comes out a huge pile of leaves.

When Fall comes, pile leaves as high as you can throw them. Use a stepladder if necessary. Large trash bags or an old bedsheet or blanket will help you carry them.

Traditional advice was to mix some soil with the leaves as you build your pile, but this is not really necessary. Fallen leaves already have the necessary microorganisms on them, but a little soil won't hurt. You should, however, include kitchen wastes (no animal products; they attract raccoons and other vermin) and any green plant matter you can get your hands on. Weeds, grass clippings, prunings from the garden, whatever you have. It's tempting to stockpile grass clippings during the Summer, but if you don't mix them with coarser material they won't get enough air to compost properly, and you'll get a smelly, slimy pile of goo. Better to mix grass clippings, pulled weeds, etc. with
last fall's leaves. Green plants contain more nitrogen than brown stuff (which is rich in carbon); you need both for good compost. I add green matter whenever I can, though I save coffee grounds separately for acid-loving plants like berries and azaleas (my soil is too alkaline for these; yours needs testing, of course). Manure (from birds and herbivorous mammals only; cats and dogs can have parasites) helps a lot if you can get it. It's an indelicate subject, but I also include nitrogen-rich urine. Better than wasting water to flush it into waterways, and there's no danger of spreading disease of any kind. 'Nuff said.

The other necessities are water and air. The compost should be evenly moist, but not wet. If you can squeeze water out in your fist, it's probably too wet. If it's too dry, it won't compost at all. Air is also necessary; the microbes that thrive without oxygen are not the kind you want (see grass clippings, above). I like to start my pile on a layer of twiggy branches to lift it off the ground a bit; coarse things like vines or small branches may not break down easily, but can keep things from getting too compact and are easy to pick out later.

Turning the pile is not strictly necessary, but speeds the process greatly. I try to turn it every other day from the late Spring onwards. I keep telling myself the exercise is good for me, and it's certainly good for the compost. I have found claims that proper technique can produce finished compost in as little as 14 days to be too optimistic; a month is the best I have done, but piles that are not turned take much longer; a year or more, and the outside doesn't "cook" at all.

The idea is to turn the pile inside out: rake off the top layer all around into a new pile next to the old one. Sprinkle with water if necessary, then rake or fork the inside of the old pile on top. Add water if dry. I like to make a depression in the top of the pile to funnel water to the inside; if your climate is wetter you may want to cover the pile with a tarp or plastic sheeting to keep it from getting waterlogged.

If you are not able to turn the pile, it's wise to aerate it as best you can. Some people lay perforated rigid plastic pipe like the spokes of a wheel in several layers as they build their pile. Others poke a long rod into the pile, lifting and twisting to loosen the mass and get air inside. Both methods are better than nothing, but nothing beats regularly turning the pile inside out.

If all goes well, your pile should heat up. The microorganisms produce heat (which they thrive in). This has the advantage of killing many weed seeds, pests, and diseases; turning makes sure all the material gets this heat-treatment. This also means that composting proceeds slowly in cold winters; don't be discouraged if you don't see much change in last fall's leaves in early Spring, just turn the pile, add any contributions you may have (and water if needed). As the weather warms, things will pick up speed.

Where I live, earthworms don't invade the pile; they prefer to stay underground. You can buy imported "red" worms, sold to process kitchen waste, which live above ground, but I am leery of introducing alien species into the environment. I have read that in places where they have gone wild, they've caused problems by being larger than than the native species; adult salamanders enjoy hearty meals and lay lots of eggs, unfortunately, juvenile salamanders can't overpower large worms and so go hungry. If you find worms in the leaf litter on the floor of your local woods, bring some home for the compost pile. I have decided to do without.

When your compost is black, crumbly and smelling sweetly earthy, it is done, and it's time to use it! If it's the wrong time to dig it into the soil, pile it around plants as a mulch. This will suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and add nutrients to the soil. Rain and earthworms will carry it below the surface for you. Apply a layer between crop rows before hoeing to control weeds. And of course, use as much as you can spare before planting anything new, especially perennials that will stay in place a long time.

Healthy, living soil is the secret to successful gardening, and compost is the secret to healthy soil.

Macca's Meatless Monday for meatless recipes & recipe sharing every Monday @ 6p eastern

Meatless Advocates A group for those reducing their consumption of meat for environmental, health, animal rights etc. And who also love good food, sharing recipes and good times!

Originally posted to Meatless Advocates Meetup on Sat Feb 26, 2011 at 05:37 AM PST.

Also republished by Environmental Foodies, Living Simply, Team DFH, and Community Spotlight.

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