How to Build a Solar Powered Drip Irrigation System for Your Garden

There are multiple systems that must be in place in order for our gardens and farms to be productive and worth all the labor and money we pour into them.

The more efficient we can make any of these systems, the more time and money we will save in the long run.

A solar power drip irrigation system combines two resource-saving systems into one: power and water.

Both systems take a little extra work and money in the beginning, but the rewards that you will reap in the long run make these efforts worth it.

I have split this guide into two sections: the first phase is a detailed tutorial on how to set up and install a drip irrigation system; the second phase is a tutorial on how to add solar power to your irrigation pump.

By the end of this article, you will have the knowledge to set up your own solar powered drip irrigation system.

C'mon, let's go!

Phase 1: Building Your Drip Irrigation System

Is drip irrigation worth it?

Before we delve into the design and construction of our watering system, you may be wondering why using a drip irrigation system is right for your garden in the first place.

After all, if your sprinkler system is working decently enough, why go through the hassle and expense of taking on a more complex garden watering system?

Before you decide that installing a drip irrigation system is worth it or not, take a look at the advantages and disadvantages first.

 

Advantages of drip irrigation

There are loads of advantages for installing a drip irrigation system over a sprinkler or hand watering system.

Water efficiency is superior in comparison to a sprinkler system. A drip irrigation system works by depositing the water directly onto the soil and into the plant. Hardly any of the water runs off as the system directly soaks the soil.

There is also very little evaporation, leaving the drip system to produce the least amount of water waste.

Nutrient loss is minimized as fertilizers do not run off the ground as opposed to hand or sprinkler methods. Therefore, less fertilizer needs to be used, by as much as 30%, which saves money and lessens groundwater contamination.

A drip system can be installed on any type of terrain, including hills and sandy lands, making more areas open to cultivation.

Arid, windy, and sandy environments that used to be barriers to cultivation can be utilized with a drip system.

Yields can be increased drastically. A study done by the Directorate of Water Management Research found fruit yields to be 12% higher while using over 30% less water.

Weeds that grow around the crop are greatly reduced as the water and nutrients only go to the intended plant.

Operational costs are lower as the pressure needed is reduced; costs are driven even lower when combined with a solar power pump system.

Unusually shaped or hard to reach areas can be used for planting which is traditionally difficult to water. This could be by a twisting walkway or a narrow strip of yard along a driveway.

You can use a drip irrigation system for just about any farming method, including vertical farming. You can read about my vertical farming systems guide here.

Although there are many numerous advantages to drip systems, there are cons as well to consider.

Disadvantages of drip irrigation

As I have come to find out through all of my research, there are always downsides to any system, including systems that seem like a perfect solution. Drip irrigation is not perfect and does need to be evaluated for each unique gardening and farming situation.

There is a higher initial cost for starting a drip irrigation system. You can save money in the long run from saved resources, but be prepared to shell out a good buck or two upfront.

Drip systems are great for small scale farming, but on a larger scale, the cost to replace damaged and worn equipment from UV light and movement will require a recurring investment.

The little holes in the hoses can get clogged up, causing them to dysfunction. Filtered water is a must and regular flushing maintenance is required to keep the system running.

Although water distribution is much easier, figuring out how much water to use for each growing phase will require some observation and research.

The salinity of the soil can increase over time as the saturated wet soil evaporates and leaves the salt on top.

In most backyard gardens, small farms, growing in arid climates and on difficult terrains, a solar power drip irrigation makes plenty of sense.

Drip irrigation vs sprinkler irrigation

Still not sure if drip irrigation is worth it? I have made this handy comparison table so you can compare drip to sprinkler:

Overall, my consensus is that drip irrigation is the better watering choice for home gardens, hobby farms, and arid climates. You can utilize more spaces and soil types and will save money in the long run. Just be sure to maintain your system to get the maximum life out of the components.

How to install a drip irrigation system for your vegetable garden

For the sake of simplicity in this tutorial, I will be using a basic square vegetable garden as an example.

Step 1: plan your drip irrigation design layout.

Propper planning prevents poor performance! You don’t want to haphazardly construct your system only to find points of failure down the road.

Making a sketch of your garden will help you engineer the right layout and could help you see problem points that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Take note of dimensions and unmovable structures and objects.

Considerations when designing your drip irrigation system

  • Where your water source is located and if there are any obstacles along the way
  • The distances you will need to run your irrigation tubing
  • Designing your system without crossing over walkways or burying the pipe under walkways
  • Utilizing spaces along paths to grow vegetables and herbs (a permaculture philosophy)
  • Laying out your system to use the least amount of pipe and tube for efficiency
  • different gardening zones may require different amounts of water (a more complex form of drip irrigation)

 

If you are still in the design phase of planning your garden, take a look at my Guide to Permaculture Farming for some interesting principles you can apply.

Drip Irrigation System Diagram

drip irrigation system diagram
© Maximum Off Grid

This particular drip irrigation system that I designed is more complex than just running one mainline, but is fairly easy to execute as long as you measure and plan accordingly.

Step 2: Calculating drip irrigation formulas

There are some calculations that need to be made when planning out your drip irrigation system. Luckily, the calculations are quite simple and don't take but a minute or two to figure out.

Calculating drippers by soil type

The first calculation you need to make is to determine what soil type you have to get the proper gallons per hour (GPH) flow rate:

  • Clay - .5 GPH drippers
  • Regular soil - 1 GPH drippers
  • Sandy soil - 2 GPH drippers

*Note that you can purchase adjustable drippers up to 20 GPH for large bushes and trees.

Calculating GPH drip irrigation flow

Now that you have selected your soil type, you can calculate your Gallons Per Hour flow to your drip irrigation system.

 

X amount of drippers * GPH of drippers = Total GPH usage

For our example, if you have 75 drippers (1 per plant), multiply 75 by the GPH of the dripper (1  GPH) and your total GPH flow rate is 75 GPH.

Calculating the diameter of mainline tubing

Now that you know your GPH usage, you can select the correct mainline tubing.

The most commonly found sizing for mainline tubing is 1/2 inch which should take care of most household gardening setups.

 

With this knowledge, we can select the .50 inch tubing as the correct size mainline for our garden. We can run branches of tubing as shown on my diagram in the .25 inch size, you will need a 1/2" to 1/4" fitting.

Make sure not to surpass the maximum GPH of the tubing which will be listed on the manufacturer's instructions and do not overextend the tubing past its maximum run length.

Step 3: Gather drip irrigation components

I'd like to start off by noting that many components for drip irrigation systems are measured in the metric system. There are labeled conversions that are not entirely correct which can cause your system to fail.

It is recommended that instead of trying to convert from metric to imperial (15mm and 16mm are both labeled as ½ inch!) stick to the metric system.

Your fittings need to be precise. Even a millimeter off can blow your entire system over time. Plan accordingly.

You can always purchase a preassembled drip irrigation kit that will guarantee compatible components.

These are the basics for a simple drip irrigation system:

Drip tubing – this is a special tubing specifically designed for drip irrigation systems. It is a thin polyethylene tube that is much thinner than a standard hose. Drip tubing is meant for above ground use, do not bury the tubing underground, it will ruin it.

Drip irrigation emitters – these are the dripper devices that are installed along the tubing. Some tubes have them pre-installed, otherwise, these can be bought separately and installed onto the tubing. For manual install, you will need a hole puncher.

There are different varieties of drippers, the most common are standard drippers, bubblers, sprinklers, and sprayers. The spacing between the emitters will depend on the plant type you are growing and how your tubing is laid out. Anywhere from 6 to 24 inches between plants is typical.

Hole puncher - this is a must-have tool if your tubing does not have premade holes. This punches the holes into the tubing where you insert your dripper.

 

Irrigation backflow preventers – an essential piece to the setup, the backflow preventer keeps dirty garden water from flowing backward in the tubing. Backflow can contain contaminants that spread soil born disease. Do not skimp on this piece.

Pressure regulator – this reduces the pressure to a consistent PSI level to not overload the system. If your water pressure is above 40 PSI then you will need a regulator. If your pressure is between 25 to 35, then you do not need one.

Filter – Your water might already be filtered but the tiny emitters can get clogged easily. Take the extra precaution and purchase an additional filter for your drip system. It may feel redundant but is worth the peace of mind knowing that your emitters will not get clogged up.

Hose connect adapter – this connects your water source to the mainline of the irrigation system.

End cap or hose end clamps – the end piece to cap off or clamp the end of the tubing and mainline.

Tubing stakes – keeps the tube from rolling around - which it will - if not fixated onto the ground.

Additional materials for more complex system:

Timer – a timer will allow for a completely autonomous system. If you are connecting to a water spigot, you can get a timer for the hose. You will need a different timer if you are connecting it to the water pump, which I will cover in the next section.

 

Fittings – includes couplings, elbow fittings, barbed tees, barbed connectors, tee fittings. All these components add options for a more complex system such as running multiple drip tubing lines from the mainline, connecting .25 inch line to .5 inch main line, creating branch lines, etc.

Goof plugs - to plug up holes in your tubing that are no longer needed or placed by mistake.

Once you have all your materials purchased and your design engineered, its time to install the system!

Step 4: Installing your drip irrigation system

As long as you have taken the time and planned out all your components and have measured everything correctly, a standard drip irrigation system shouldn't take too much effort to install.

1. Start installation at the water source

This step will vary depending on whether you are plumbed in or running off an off grid water pump.

Install components in this order: Valve or pump, backflow preventer, pressure regulator, filter, tubing adapter, mainline tubing.

2. Layout all of your tubing and fittings

Start by connecting your .5 inch mainline tubing and then position all of your tubing that branches out from the mainline and adjust as necessary. If the tubing is too stiff, let it sit in the sun to warm up, which makes it more pliable.

Start to connect all of the pieces starting from the source down to the very end.

Once you have everything laid out and connected, cut the hoses at the end but do not clamp off just yet.

3. Install drip emitters

To manually install emitters, simply punch a hole into the tubing with a hole puncher, then press the emitter into the hole. Make sure that you have calculated your spacing correctly before you start punching holes. If you do mess up, don't fret! That's what the goof plugs are for.

Once you are done with the emitter installation, stake to the ground.

4. Flush the system thoroughly with water

Flush the system to remove any debris and then cap or clamp the tubing ends.

Run your finalized system for about an hour to see if any adjustments need to be made. Now enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Phase 2: Building a solar powered irrigation pump

In this section, I will go over all the steps and components to successfully build a DIY solar powered irrigation pump. This is a great choice for off grid watering systems!

There are many ways to get solar power to a pump; the goal is to make the system as simple and independent as possible.

I will be focusing on the simplest, most direct use of a solar panel to get the results we want.

How does a solar powered water pump work?

A solar powered water pump works by attaching a solar panel to the pump in order to give it power. The pump then draws from the water source and pushes it through the drip irrigation system.

The pump will run indefinitely while power is being delivered to it, which is why it's important to install a timer to the pump. It is also important to install a battery to the pump for days where the solar panel is not providing enough energy to keep the system going, usually during overcast and cold days.

What are the benefits of solar irrigation?

The main reason I love the concept of solar irrigation is the fact that you can build an autonomous energy saving off grid gardening watering system anywhere and in any climate.

When you add a solar power system to an irrigation system, you can virtually run that watering system anywhere, as long as you have a water source. This could be a spring, year-round creek, well, or pond.

Solar power components used to be expensive but have come down considerably in price and have become more effective.

Solar powered drip irrigation systems are an excellent choice for off grid gardens, remote farms, and any garden that may be too far from a convenient- power source.

There are two routes you can pursue when adding solar to your drip irrigation system. You can either purchase a solar powered water pump kit or build a diy solar powered water pump.

Option 1: Purchase a solar powered water pump kit

There are some decent solar powered water pump kits out there, but there are very few that are specifically built for a drip irrigation system. Most are built for fountains which could be retrofitted for drip systems but it's probably not worth the hassle to do so.

It's even harder to find a solar powered water pump kit with a battery backup included.

Since the kits are cheaper than piecing together the components individually, I have found that the components in these kits tend to be cheap and flimsy.

Option 2: Building a DIY solar powered irrigation pump

Although it will cost you some more money and time to purchase and assemble the components, building a diy solar powered water pump system will be superior to any kit that is available at this point in time.

You can fine tune your components to match your exact needs and the components can range from cheap to robust, depending on how much you want to spend on your system.

Another advantage to setting up your own solar powered water pump is that if a component does go out, you can easily replace each one.

Overall, I recommend building your own system.

Steps to Building a DIY Solar Powered Irrigation Pump

The key to success is to prepare all of your calculations and components before you assemble and power up your system. Solar power systems are not all that complicated but you need to make sure all of your components will be compatible or else you could damage your system.

Let's get started!

Essential Components for a solar powered irrigation pump

Solar panel – harnesses energy from the sun to run the pump.

Stand for solar panel - so it's not just laying on the ground.

Solar charge controller – Keeps the connected battery powered and charged. It also makes sure that the battery doesn't get overfilled or run dry, prolonging the life of your battery. This is an essential component for your solar power setup. Don't worry, these are not that expensive.

 

Battery – keeps the system running in times of limited sunlight.

Cables – connects all the components together.

Water Pump Timer - Switches the pump on and off for an autonomous watering system.

Water Pump - in this tutorial, I am using an above ground water pump, but this will also work for a submersible pump with some minor adjustments.

Step 1: Choosing the correct size water pump

First, we need to figure out how much water we are going to need for our drip irrigation system (calculated in the first section of this article) and then purchase the correct size water pump.

Too little water flow and we will not have enough water to run the system. Too much water flow and we could overload the system, causing damage.

In our example, we need 75 gallons per hour flowing through our system. Most pumps measure in gallons per minute, so we divide 75 gallons by 60 minutes to get 1.25 gallons per minute.

Try to match up the flow rate of your pump as closely as you can to the GPH of the drip irrigation system.

You may not find the exact pump for your calculation, but either err on the side of less GPM as opposed to higher GPM. You can also add a few more (or less) drippers to match up better to the flow of your pump.

 

Step 2: Choosing the correct size solar panel

We need to figure out how many watts are needed to appropriately size the solar panel. If wattage is unknown, you can calculate it with a simple equation by using the voltage output and amps.

Volts times Amps = Power in Watts

 

For our example, we are using a 12 Volt DC 7.5 amp water pump. So our calculation is:

12 Volts x 7.5 Amps = 90 Watts per hour

For our pump, a 100-watt solar panel will provide enough electricity plus a little extra to keep the battery charged while the pump is running.

However, since our pump will not be running 24/7, we can downgrade the size of the solar panel and rely on the battery backup to run the pump for an hour or two, and then while the pump is off, the solar panel will charge the battery. In this case, we can choose the commonly sized 50-watt solar panel.

Note that our pump is a DC pump, so we do not need a power inverter to power the pump as the power supplied by solar panels is also DC.

Step 3: Choosing the correct size battery

We want to make sure that we select a battery with enough capacity to run the pump if the solar panel is operating at zero capacity.

Let's stick with the 100 watt solar panel for our example.

100 watts is the amount that the solar panel will produce per hour.

The average amount of power a solar panel can collect per day is typically 500 watts based on being in full sun for 5 hours.

While the battery is charging, there are some power losses of about 15%. So our 500 watts will probably be more along the lines of 425 watts.

 

Battery capacity is expressed in Amp hours (Ah).

We know that we need a 12 volt battery for our pump.

We multiply our battery Amp hours (Ah) by the voltage:

Ah * Volts = Watts by the hour

So if we have a 35Ah 12V battery we simply multiply the two 35 * 12 = 420 Wh which will store most of the output of our solar panel.

Now, our pump will only be running for 2 hours out of the day. We need 90 watts per hour, so our system will only require 180 watts. Therefore, a 35Ah battery will give us a bit more than 2 days runtime without having to be charged.

Step 4: Connecting the solar power components in correct order

Before proceeding, make sure your solar panel is not in the sun. You can place a piece of cardboard over the panel to ensure there is no electricity running through it.

The first step is to hookup the charge controller to the battery with stranded copper wire. Make sure not to cross-connect the + and -.

The second step is to connect your timer to the battery. I suggest using the negative cable as it's not hot. Splice in the timer on the negative cable. A battery-powered timer is ideal if you don't want to mess with wiring power to the timer.

The third step is to connect the pump to the timer and the battery.

 

The fourth and final step is to hook up the solar panel to the charge controller with the appropriate solar panel connector cables, which are usually included with the solar panel.

Make sure not to cross-connect the + and - MC4 connectors as this will damage your system.

Once all the components are connected, you can uncover the solar panel and the battery will start charging. The charge controller will inform you when it is full and regulate the battery to keep it in optimal charge.

I suggest giving the battery one good day of charging before running the pump.

 

And there you have it! A complete solar powered drip irrigation system.

I hope you found this tutorial informative and easy to follow. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.

Regina-MOG-Portrait

Hi, I am Regina, the creator of Maximum Off Grid!

I started this project to provide a database of information on how to become more self-sufficient from the system, no matter how small the change.

I hope you are enjoying my articles and please feel free to share and comment! Have a great day.

Regina C.

Complete Guide to Vertical Farming Systems [30 Plants Depth-Chart Included]

Oftentimes, we don’t have conventional spaces to utilize for gardening. The typical rectangle shaped garden just doesn’t apply to all situations.

Just because you have a small or odd shaped space doesn’t mean you can’t garden with it. Lo and behold, the concept of the vertical garden has arrived! Learn how to vertical garden with my quick and easy guide!

A vertical garden turns impossible spaces into productive gardens with very little work involved. Its a great concept to apply to a permaculture garden and to use on balconies, patios, rooftops and even indoors.

Let’s check out the core concepts of vertical gardening!

How to Vertical Garden

What is a vertical garden?

Technically, any type of plant that uses a trellis, such as a climbing vine, is a vertical gardening system. Plants that are suspended and grow downwards are considered vertical gardens too. The concept of vertical gardening has reached far beyond that and has become a more inventive way of growing vegetables and herbs, counter to the sprawling traditional gardens we are used to seeing.

A vertical garden consists of a support platform that is mounted vertically and allows for plants to be installed in pockets, pots, or cubbies. The system commonly used for vegetable vertical gardening is soil, although hydroponic vertical gardening is also a popular choice.

Why vertical garden?

Other than looking cool, there are plenty of reasons to grow a vertical garden!

You can vertical garden where you can’t traditional garden. If you have poor soil, live in a small space, have lots of pests such as gophers, or don’t have a yard, you can place a vertical garden as an alternative.

Save your back and knees. When you don’t have to keep bending over to do simple gardening tasks, your back will begin to thank you! Think of all the bending and crouching you have to do in a traditional horizontal garden; pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and harvesting all requires being hunched over. When you garden vertically you eliminate all that pressure on your body.

You can be creative with space. A vertical garden repurposes space that would normally sit vacant and unproductive. The side of the house that gets great light, next to a shed, or built up a fence are all great ways to use the space in a creative way.

Vertical gardens are visually appealing. You can use a vertical garden to dress up an area that is not so pretty in your gardening space. Place it to where you can look out your window for some plant eye candy!

You save lots of space for your traditional garden. You can place a vertical garden in small narrow spots and keep your traditional garden for the vegetables that do better in the ground.

You can be creative with plants. A vertical garden is like a living painting. Grow plants with pops of color, leafy plants, and plants that bloom.

Improves the health of your crop. Increased air circulation helps improve the health of plants and keeps them more free of disease and pests.

Environmental benefits. Plants naturally filter pollutants from the air, improving the air quality. Placing an indoor vertical garden can provide more oxygen in stuffy areas and filter out particulates like dust and dander.

Types of vertical gardening systems

There are different types of systems to consider when building your vertical wall. Some have advantages over others depending on what your goals and expectations are.

Container system

This system uses typical soil pots that are placed in a vertical structure. The pots allows for easy swapping of plants and the ability to remove the plant without disturbance to itself or neighbors. However, pots can tend to get quite hot and are a rigid structure allowing for less flexibility in the design process. If plants are grown in a container on shelves, make sure there is enough headroom for the plant to grow.

Pocket system

Wooly Pockets are a popular vertical garden system

Choosing a pocket vertical garden system allows for temperature regulation, unlike standard pots. The roots of the plants are healthier in pockets as they become air pruned when reaching the edge of the fabric bags. Once the plant is growing, it is difficult to remove them and will disturb other plants when doing so.

Hydroponic system

A hydroponic vertical garden allows plants to grow lush and big without taking up much space. You can be thrifty and craft your own DIY vertical hydroponic system or purchase a prefabricated one. Hydroponics does take some special planning. Although running a hydroponic garden has more upfront and operational costs, the space saving and bumper crops might be worth it to you.

Trellis system

Vine crops can be grown vertically to save a lot of space and can make for a healthier crop. Poles, stepladders, and fencing can be repurposed for trellis.

DIY system

You can build your own vertical garden out of common materials, such as pallets, mesh, and wiring. You can make a shelving unit and place pots on the shelves. You can sew your own pocket wall. This brings out so many creative ideas and has an eclectic, shabby chic feel. Some people do not have the time to fuss around with building their own system nor the materials or space to build them.

Prefabricated system

Although these systems can be spendy, a prefabricated vertical garden is designed for maximum efficiency and has a sleek and sophisticated look. These can be easier to take care of as the engineering of prefab systems is ideal for plant growth and health and will also look amazing in your yard.

How to Vertical Garden Correctly

Placement –

when growing vegetables, lighting is the most important consideration. Fruiting vegetables require more light, whereas leafy and root veggies can grow in partial shade. Place your vertical garden for easy access and good air flow. You will also want to have easy access to watering your garden. Making conditions as easy and accessible as possible will take less energy from you to nurture your garden. This is a philosophy that can be learned from permaculture gardening, which you can read about in my Beginner’s Guide to Permaculture.

Choosing the system –

Choosing the right system depends a lot on the variables of your space. Do you need a standalone system? Then a shelving unit with containers or a prefabricated system would be a good choice. Do you only have a narrow space on a fence? Then a pocket system that can be hung is ideal. Do you have some spare dirt space in the yard? Then growing a vine crop on a trellis can maximize that space. Be thoughtful about choosing your system as it may be difficult to move once the plants have started growing.

Choosing the plants –

It is important to pair plants together that have the same growing criteria. A plant that does well in full sun should not be planted with plants that do well with partial shade.

You will also need to consider minimum soil depths when choosing plants to keep growth healthy.

Best Vegetables for Vertical Gardening:

Vegetable Lighting Growth Depth Pairs with
Leaf lettuce Partial shade 4-5″ Herbs, lettuce
Carrot Partial shade 8-9″ Beans, squash, tomato
Onion Full light 6-7″ Spinach, onion, lettuce
Radish Partial shade 4-5″ beans
Chives Full light 4-5″ Broccoli, eggplant
Garlic Partial shade 6-7″ onion
Kohlrabi Partial shade 6-7″ chives
Peas Partial shade 6-7″ Beans, peppers, radish
Pole beans Full light 8-9″ Eggplant
Eggplant Full light 8-9″ Beans, peppers
Cucumber Full light 8-9″ Beans, corn, peas
Peppers Full light 8-9″ Eggplant, beans
Spinach Partial shade 8-9″ Shard, onions
Broccoli Partial shade 10-12″ Beans, lettuce, spinach
Bush tomatoes Full light 10-12” peppers
Summer Squash Full light to partial 10-12″ Beans, carrots
Chard Partial shade 8-9″ Spinach, onions
Okra Full light 10-12″ Peppers, eggplant
Sweet corn Full light 10-12″ Cucumber, peas, beans
Bush beans Full light to partial 6-7″ Eggplant

Vegetables that do not grow well together:

Beans – onion, garlic

Tomatoes – squash, potato

Onions – beans, peas

Note that spicy vegetables like pepper, onion, and garlic can pass on its flavor to more mild vegetables around it, but is not a problem if the veggies are in their own container.

Choosing your herbs –

Herbs do very well in a vertical garden as their root systems tend to be smaller and they grow nice little manageable bushels. Therefore, when growing herbs, choose what you like to eat! Herbs still need to be paired together correctly.

Best Herbs for Vertical Gardening

Herb Light Depth
Basil Partial Shade 4-5”
Cilantro Full Light 10-12”
Dill Full Light 10-12”
Lavender Full Light 10-12”
Mint Partial Shade 5-6”
Oregano Full Light 10-12”
rosemary Partial Shade 8-9”
Sage Full Light 10-12”
Thyme Full Light 5-6”
Lemon balm Partial Shade 8-9”
Marjoram Full Light 5-6”
Coriander Full Light 10-12”

Take note that some herbs, like Mint, can easily overrun a garden. Keep these sprawling herbs on their own or trim back as needed.

Planting your vertical garden –

Follow the guidelines on your seed packet for planting. Make sure to choose the proper container depth for your plants. You can use typical potting soil for your plants.

Care and maintenance –

Your vertical garden will require more watering as there is less soil than traditional gardens. The air will leach away water quickly, so make sure to check on your soil moisture daily. More aerated plants that require less water can be placed toward the top as they dry out quicker.

If container gardening, you may want to keep a few extra plants on hand to swap out with any that die out.

Other than those factors, garden as normal!

Troubleshooting Problems with Vertical Gardens

Most problems that vertical gardens have can be circumvented by proper planning. Heed these problems in advance and you will save yourself some trouble down the road.

Containers are too heavy. You may find that your containers are too heavy once they are watered and the plant starts to gain weight, especially once the plant begins to fruit.

If the supporting structure is too weak, such as your homemade pocket garden or shabby pallet, you could risk the plant breaking the structure, which would be a disaster.

Make sure that you do not overload your structure beyond its capabilities. If you are using a flimsier structure, use herbs or plants with a shallower root depth or do not bear fruit.

Soil dries out too quickly. The smaller the container and the more exposure to the sun equates to rapidly drying soil, especially in arid climates. You may find yourself watering way more than you expected.

The best thing to deter this problem is to setup a drip irrigation system. A little bit of work initially will save you tons of time and worry.

Adding a substrate like vermiculite to the soil will help retain moisture.

Vertical garden leaks. You may find that after watering your garden leaks all over the place, and depending upon the placement of your garden, may wreak havoc. Leakage can also cause moisture buildup that can cause mold.

If you cannot contain the leakage, add some waterproof backing to protect the surface that is getting wet.

You can affix a water collecting line, such as a gutter or PVC pipe split in half, to drain the water into a collection bucket. You can then reuse the water for your plants.

Move your growing operation away from the wall to allow for air circulation.

Cramped, shocked, or rotten roots. Roots that are in small containers are subjected to temperature and moisture extremes which can lead toward poor plant production.

Proper planning prevents poor performance! Make sure to choose plant root depth accordingly and place in appropriately sized containers. If you live in an area that has overly humid or dry conditions, choose plants that are suited to that environment. You might want to move your operation indoors, or to a more sheltered space if the elements are too much for your crop to handle.

Mildewing and mold. The last thing you want to see is mold growing on and around your vertical garden’s structure and containers. This can greatly hinder the quality of your plants and even cause air pollutants.

The first step is to figure out why your garden is molding in the first place. Overwatering may be creating an environment for mold to thrive. Find a balance where the soil is damp but not soggy. A leaky setup could cause dampness; try to eliminate the leakage or get your setup in a more aerated environment.

If you are having some mold outcrops treat with a vinegar solution. Place ¼ part vinegar to ¾ part water in a spray bottle and spray the moldy area. Let it sit for a few minutes and wipe away with clean cloth. You can also try a hydrogen peroxide solution, 1 tsp peroxide to 1 cup water, wet a cloth and wipe the mold.

If your mold is persistent, a UV grow light can help dissipate any stubborn mildews.

Making a Drip Irrigation System for your Vertical Garden

Flowers being watered with a drip irrigation system

The biggest problem to maintaining a vertical garden is remembering to water it enough. Vertical gardens dry out more rapidly than its traditional counterparts. The best solution to ensuring that your vertical garden gets enough water is to install a drip irrigation system!

A drip irrigation system is a little more work in the beginning but will alleviate the worry of your veggies and herbs not getting enough – or too much – water.

You can connect your drip hose directly to a hose faucet that is attached to a timer. The whole point of a drip irrigation system is worry free watering, so the timer is an essential component to the system. You can get a battery powered timer or an even more convenient and green solar powered timer. The timer installs directly onto the hose faucet.

Depending on your setup will depend on how simple or complex your irrigation system will need to be. The essentials you will need are:

  • Hose faucet timer
  • ¼ inch irrigation tubing with faucet adapter
  • Elbows and T fittings

Step 1. Install the hose faucet timer. Make sure your water PSI meets the manufacturer guidelines for the minimum requirements of the timer. Do not place the timer on the end of the hose; place it directly on the water spicket.

Step 2. Install ¼ inch irrigation tubing onto the timer. ¼ inch is ideal for vertical gardens as the hose is small and flexible.

Step 3. Run the hose along your plants, making sure the drip hole goes into the container.  Install elbows and T fittings around corners and crannies as needed.

Automatic drip irrigation watering kits takes a lot of the guesswork out of drip irrigation systems. Everything comes in one tidy box and all the fittings are compatible.

If you are interested in setting up a fully autonomous watering system, check out my How to Build a Solar Powered Drip Irrigation System article.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide on how to vertical garden. its a great way to get started in the gardening world without having an overwhelming garden to tend to. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Have a great day!

– Regina C.

The Beginners Guide to Permaculture Farming Methods [2020 Edition]

Endless rows of crops. Heavy machinery. Toxic pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers. All of these are common tools that largescale farmers use to get the crops we need to feed all the people. Can permaculture farming combat industrialized food production?

Industrialized crops have been heavily manipulated and require an intensive amount of work for them to grow and produce. It has become a vicious cycle where the soil gets decimated and must be amended with heavy duty synthetic fertilizers that take a huge toll on the environment. The crops themselves are dependent on pesticides and genetic modification just to combat being ruined by pests.

There was a time long ago when man foraged for fresh produce; these plants in the wild needed no nurturing, they produced a crop completely on their own.

When man decided to bring these plants closer to home, they required nurturing and work to get them to produce. Why was it that the plants produced in the wild grew completely on their own, while just by simply moving the plant it needed to be farmed?

That is what permaculture intends to address.

Permaculture Farming

What is Permaculture Farming

Essentially, permaculture farming is an enclosed agricultural system that uses natural ecosystems to be self-sufficient. There is a synergy that forms between the people and the environment for a socio-ecological relationship, a relationship that is all but disappeared in our modern world.

Permaculture farming goes beyond just expecting an end result from the crops, there is a philosophy behind it that uses observation and thoughtfulness throughout all of nature’s cycles as opposed to working for a means to an end.

Modern farming has a cultivated ecology that is human-centered; a permaculture farm has a  foundation in the design of natural ecosystems that benefit both man and nature.

Permaculture gardens are completely scalable and can be applied to small urban gardens to large rural farms.

Permaculture thrives on developing multiple disciplines that include agriculture, water systems, energy systems, building naturally, forestry, managing and reusing waste, animal systems, appropriate tools, and community development if on a larger scale.

The 12 Principles of Permaculture

David Holmgren, an environmental designer and ecological educator, developed the concept of permaculture with Bill Mollison.

David created the 12 Principles of Permaculture that have become a code of ethics that are applied when designing and developing a permaculture farm.

  1. Observe and Interact “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”
  2. Catch and Store Energy “Make Hay while the Sun Shines”
  3. Obtain a Yield “You can’t Work on an Empty Stomach”
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback “The Sins of the Fathers are visited on the Children unto the Seventh Generation”
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services “Let Nature take its Course”
  6. Produce No Waste “Waste Not, Want Not” “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”
  7. Design from Patterns to Details “Can’t see the Forest for the Trees”
  8. Integrate rather than Segregate “Many Hands make Light Work”
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions “The Bigger they are, the Harder they fall” “Slow and Steady wins the Race”
  10. Use Value and Diversity “Don’t put all your Eggs in one Basket”
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal “Don’t think because you are on the Right Track just because it’s a well beaten Path”
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change “Vision is not seeing Things as they are but as they Will Be”

As you have begun to see, permaculture is a deep and thoughtful subject that requires time, attention, and research. So how does a beginner approach building a permaculture garden?

Beginner’s Guide to Permaculture Farming

A harmonious mix of plants and herbs

Starting with Permaculture Zones

With permaculture farming, it’s all about the design, and the design is based on zones. The zones closest to home are the ones you will frequent and tend to the most, whereas the farthest zones call for the least tending, or no tending at all. Zoning is completely scalable and is flexible according to the needs of the plant or animal.

Zone 0: Your home. This includes any indoor gardening such as sprouts or microgreens, food production and processing and waste. Education also falls into the home zone, repairs, and the collecting of water in most cases.

Zone 1: This is where your most intensive farming will be. Plants that require frequent tending, herbs, and sensitive crops. You will be most active in this area. You can also place small animals in this zone like rabbits and poultry.

Zone 2: This area requires less work than zone 1 but still needs daily attention. This includes poultry, rabbits, milking cows, worm bed, orchard trees, bushy crops like berries.

Zone 3: low maintenance area for livestock that graze on their own, requiring littler attention. Seasonal crops like wheat, rice, and corn.

Zone 4: This zone utilizes the natural forest for collecting of wild edible and medicinal plants, nuts, and fruits. Gathering of wood, independent trees that self-seed.

Zone 5: The natural area that is rarely visited. This zone links into other wildlife corridors but may need some management such as creating a firebreak, reduction of flood risk, and other stop-gap measures that reduce the risk of catastrophes.

Zone 6: The greater bio-region and beyond!

It is important to note that many permaculturists start and stop with zone 1, which is completely fine. If you plan to only have a vegetable garden or you have a small space to work with, then mastering zone 1 is all you will ever need to do. There is always room to move onto the farther zones.

An example of permaculture zone layout

Start your Permaculture Journey in Zone 0.

You may be wondering why start with the home? It already exists! The symbiotic relationship between zone 0 (the home), and zone 1 (the garden) is the crucial foundation to achieving a successful permaculture space. It is all about the flow, how you access things on a daily basis, and finding a balance between the zones. There are many things you can do to renovate certain areas of your home to make your permaculture flow much better, similar to Feng Shui in a practical sense.

Declutter and repurpose items.

One aspect of permaculture farming is cutting down on costs, resources, and materials. Start by decluttering your home and identifying items that can be repurposed like tables and surfaces, cannisters, and storage containers. Organization is a must and getting rid of clutter gives us more time and energy to focus on the things we want in life. You can also repurpose spaces in your dwelling to accommodate your needs and goals.

Setup composting cannister and start collecting vegetable base food scraps for your compost pile.

Composting starts in the home by collecting the green matter in the kitchen. Place a composting cannister on your counter so you can collect kitchen scraps, reducing trips to the compost pile. Use a cannister you already have instead of buying a new one, such as a coffee can. Just make sure to poke holes in the top for air circulation. Check out my thorough Composting Techniques Section to get your compost pile started quickly and correctly.

Use small areas to start growing your own sprouts and microgreens.

You can use a small space for growing sprouts which are ready to eat in five days. Organic sprout seeds are extremely affordable and can be grown in a mason jar. You can learn how to grow sprouts with my easy-to-follow sprout growing guide. Microgreens are easily grown in a 10×20 tray and only require a small amount of light that can be from a LED growing light strip.

Use the immediate space around your home.

You can turn a portion of your patio into a greenhouse, thereby cutting down on construction materials. A small greenhouse is great for growing microgreens. You can learn how to grow microgreens here.  You can also have a table on your patio where you clean and prepare your crops. Repurposing inside furniture into outside workspaces is a good idea, such as tables, chairs and shelving units.

Can you use external walls of your house to build outbuildings? You could build a shed that holds your garden tools and supplies, or possibly place your chicken coop by your house to help block the elements. Anything that can extend from the house is helpful as this helps cut down on building materials and is highly accessible, bridging the gap between Zone 0 and Zone 1.

Setup a renewable water system.

Collecting rainwater is typically involved in Zone 0. Rainwater collection systems are usually built on the side of the house, utilizing a rain gutter for catching the water into a barrel. Although water is relatively cheap and bountiful, using our resources available to us and reducing waste is apart of the philosophy of permaculture. Plus, its always good to have a backup supply of water.

Setup or save on power.

Another factor to consider is power usage. Although expensive, installing a solar power system is a great way to become independent from the grid. Over time, the system will pay for itself and decreases fossil fuel energy usage. If installing a whole system isn’t in the plan, you can use cheap solar panel kits to power outbuildings, garages, and heat chicken coops over the winter.

You can always work towards reducing your energy usage, saving you money and reducing the use of resources. Unplugging electronics after fully charged, turning off electronics after use and not running the cooler or furnace all the time are all easy ways to trim your energy consumption.

See! You are a permaculture pro and you haven’t even left the house yet!

A largescale permaculture farm – amazing!

Moving onto Zone 1

Zone 1 is the area that surrounds the home and is the most utilized zone. Many will not have to build beyond zone 1 as this zone is primary for the garden and raising small animals like rabbits or chickens. Zone 1 is completely scalable and can be used in small yards and urban gardens.

Think of this zone as a flow to and from the home. The symbiotic balance between Zone 0 and Zone 1 is a highly important aspect. The energy needs to flow harmoniously and unobstructed between all the elements.

What do I mean by that? Within the design, everything is arranged for the easiest access with a flow to all the elements that require frequent tending. If you are making a daily trip to the compost pile, why place it in the back? Move it closer to Zone 0, possibly between the home and the garden. If you are growing hardier elements that require less tending, such as kale and potatoes, place those toward the back of the garden. Crops that require more tending get placed closer to zone 0. Fussy plants like herbs can be placed toward the front of the garden, or can even have their own special planting container like a tub or bin placed right outside of the door.

If you choose to have chickens, building the coop on the side of the house not only eliminates some building materials and provides an extra layer of protection from the elements, it also allows for quick access to the chickens, as opposed to tromping all the way across the yard just to feed and collect eggs. You can also keep a better eye on them if predators start skulking about.

Zone 1 should be nestled in with your day-to-day activities as this is the zone you will most frequent, possibly many times a day. Zone 1 can be in the shape of a block covering a larger area, but can also utilize the small spaces around you, such as your walkways and around entryways.

If there is a little strip of garden along the pathway to your mailbox, you could plant some herbs along the way. If you have some room around your entryway, you could try growing partial shade crops, like brussels sprouts. The sprouts grow tall and narrow and require less light than normal.

The goal is to use your high traffic areas in a thoughtful and meaningful way, costing you less steps and less time having to remember about all these things that needs tending. This equates in a savings of energy that you put forth to tend to all these elements.

Steps for Designing Zone 1

  1. Consider the larger elements first.

Elements that require larger spaces, like the garden, chicken coop, and outbuildings are planned out first. Consider the needs of these spaces; certain vegetables require less light while others need full sun. Fruit trees require less maintenance and can be placed towards the back.

Chicken coops and outbuildings can be brought closer to the home for easy access and electricity, if needed.

  1. With the larger elements in place, utilize the space in between.

Along the way to your garden, you can place your compost pile. You can plant lettuce and carrots in a strip along a path, saving space in your garden, or making your main garden more compact.

  1. Consider your access to water.

If you are collecting rainwater, how will you access and use it? What is the distance relation to the rainwater and your crops? Will you have to drag your garden hose across your space just to water? Setup your water system to be as easy as possible and use the water you collect before utilizing a municipal source.

Also consider what crops will require the most watering. Keep plants that require more water nearer to the watering source and plants that require less farthest. Consider a passive way to water your garden.

  1. Consider your soil.

Before going on a planting frenzy, you want to make sure your soil is sound to produce the best results. If your soil is not in good health, many things can be done to naturally amend your soil. You can add a mulch to the soil that will help protect it from the elements and help hold in water. You can use your homemade compost for mulch that also provides massive nutrients. You can use plants to add an organic layer to the surface.

  1. Go small and slow, per the ninth permaculture principle.

Permaculture farming is basically an organic science experiment. Some things may work, and others may fail. Implement areas one step at a time and observe those areas well. If they are not working, then try something else. Learn from failures and adapt.

  1. Sketch it out.

Time to bust out the notepad and colored pencils! Create a rough sketch of your home and outside space. Place all the elements you want into your sketch. You may find better solutions seeing it visually sketched out. Make a few of these sketches and compare. What could work better?

In Conclusion

One cannot simply convey the concept of permaculture farming in a single article, or even an entire website! Deeper learning is required; it takes years of practice and gathering knowledge to become a master permaculturist.

This knowledge comes in the way of many books and even hands on courses. There are forums that you can use to connect with other permaculturists and help with troubleshooting and ideas.

I hope you have enjoyed my practical guide to getting started with permaculture farming. I would love to hear your feedback about my article! Also comment any questions or additions you have. Happy gardening!

– Regina C.

All About Sprouts! Everything You Need to Know + 4 Step Growing Guide

What is a great way to add a boost of nutrition into your diet cheaply and easily while having a fun DIY gardening project right in your home? Why growing sprouts, of course!

Sprouts are an awesome superfood that go beyond the mung bean variety which we commonly see on sandwiches across health food stores. Technically, any type of vegetable can be consumed in the sprout stage of their life, but some fare better and taste better than others.

Growing sprouts is one of the easiest most cost effective ways of gardening and require a tiny amount of space. No matter where you live, be it an apartment or even dorm room, growing a crop of sprouts is within anyone’s reach.

Let’s get right to why sprouts are so awesome and how to grow them!

growing sprouts

What exactly is a Sprout?

A sprout is the very beginning of the growing process of a plant. Once the seeds are planted, they begin to germinate and grow quickly to form a tender stem. The first leaves form – known as cotyledons, which are seed leaves – and are developed around day five of the cotyledon growing stage. This is when the entire sprout is harvested and eaten, leaves, stems, and root. The sprouts are grown in darkness, similar to being under the soil. The next phase of growth beyond sprouts is the microgreen stage (checkout my microgreen growing guide!), which requires light and is harvested around the two week mark.

Benefits of Sprouts

Although sprouts are very tiny, they are mighty in flavor and nutrition. Their crisp texture makes for a great addition to salads, sandwiches, and are good eaten directly as well. Aside from their delicious flavor, there are a multitude of reasons why sprouts are so beneficial.

  1. Sprouts are easy to grow – It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get seedlings to germinate and very little is required to get them to the stage of harvest.
  2. Sprouts are cheap to grow – Organic bags of seeds for sprouting make servings of sprouts cost pennies, far less cheap than purchasing sprouts from the grocery store, if there is even any available.
  3. Sprouts require a tiny amount of growing space – since no light is needed, the only space required is a place where you can place jars or small growing trays. Any counter or pantry will do.
  4. Sprouts have a higher nutritional boost than their adult counterparts – The Journal of Science and Food Agriculture released a comparative study that found a significant increase of essential amino acids – lysine, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, phenylalanine and valine – during the germination phase. The sprouts are also enriched with folate, protein, vitamin C and K, magnesium, manganese and phosphorous during the sprouting phase.
  5. Sprouts have an intense flavor – just because these baby plants are tiny does not mean they lack in flavor. In fact, the flavor of the plant is usually intensified in the sprout form. Radish sprouts are spicy and zingy and taste just like biting into a radish, if not stronger. Onion sprouts have that classic onion taste, and broccoli sprouts have a crisp and spicy flavor.

Health concerns of Sprouts

Although sprouts have so many benefits, there are drawbacks as well. Since sprouts are grown in dense, dark, and moist environments, they can harbor e. Coli. The Journal of Food Protection published a microbiological examination of sprouts in Korea. It was found that over 13% of mixed sprout samples contained potentially pathogenic bacterium.

However, when you grow your own sprouts, you can deter most of the risk unlike buying sprouts from a store. Keeping your growing trays or jars sterilized, buying a high quality seed, proper storage in a refrigerator,  and monitoring the sprouts for overall health pretty much ensures the safety of eating your homegrown sprouts raw.

Best types of Sprouts

Identifying the best type of sprout to grow and eat is contingent upon the individual. Everyone fancies different flavors and textures, while others are looking for the easiest and fastest to grow. For this reason, I have broken down the best types of sprouts by three categories.

Best Flavored Sprouts

although this is entirely subjective, there are certain sprouts that are more popular because of their taste and texture.

Alfalfa – Alfalfa sprouts have a mild flavor that is nutty and sweet. They have a smaller leaf and stem which gives them a delicate crunchy texture.

Broccoli – Broccoli sprouts have a crunchy healthy snap to them with a slightly thicker stem and has a spicy note as well.

Daikon Radish – Radish sprouts pack a powerful spicy punch that is just as spicy, if not more, than an actual radish! They make for a great snappy garnish.

Onion – Onion sprouts are actually mild but has the classic flavor of onion. Their tiny leaves and thin stems add a delicate texture.

Mustard – Mustard sprouts have a hot and spicy mustard flavor. With thicker leaves and stems, mustard add a great crunchy texture.

Easiest Sprouts to Grow

All sprouts are relatively easy to grow, but these hardy types make for an easier experience which is good for beginners.

Pea Shoots – Pea shoots take a bit longer for the final product, but their well known “shoots” grow drastically with many leaves, making it an easy grower.

Sunflower – Sunflower sprouts are super quick growers as they have a whole lot of growing to do in a short amount of time. They are of a hardy variety and have straight and strong stems. Sunflowers have a good nutty flavor and crisp texture.

Wheat – Wheat grows like a grass and is a super-fast grower. Within three days, wheat sprouts have a lovely sweet flavor and can be harvested then. Or, keep the wheat growing and you will have a heathy one inch grass that can be used for juicing.

Clover – Clover is so prolific, it practically grows itself! These hardy plants can be grown densely and have a sweet flavor and light crisp texture.

Bean, any variety –  Bean seeds are large and practically indestructible, and when they sprout, they have a thick and hardy stem. Bean seeds germinate quickly and easily and make for an easy harvest. Bean sprouts are so easy to grow and are hardy therefore they have become the most prolific sprout on the market.

Soy Bean Sprouts

Most Popular Sprouts

after scouring the net, there are some sprouts that get mentioned over and over again. These sprouts are in the spotlight more than any others and must be so for a reason.

Broccoli – Broccoli sprouts are highly popularized for their spicy flavor and delicate crunch. They also pack a wallop of antioxidants, making them very popular among the health community.

Lentil – Lentil sprouts come in many colors and sizes making them a popular variety. They are packed with nutrition and are a well-known legume, no wonder they are so popular.

Mung bean – The mung bean sprout is the most common sprout as they are naturally very hardy, have a distinct flavor, and keep well. You will find mung bean sprouts in most salad bars across health food stores.

Wheat – Wheat sprouts have been highly popularized by the trend of juicing. You can find juice bars that serve wheatgrass shots practically everywhere.

Alfalfa – Alfalfa sprouts are commonly talked about because they goes with any dish. They are mild in flavor and delicate in texture, making it an easy garnish.

Growing Sprouts, step by step

Growing sprouts is by far the easiest vegetable growing experience you could ever have, making it an enjoyable hobby. Experimenting with different seeds, flavors, and textures, you will find the ones that are the easiest to grow and that you personally enjoy the most.

Getting started requires a nominal investment and little space.

Choosing your Sprouts Growing Method

Growing Sprouts Indoors – Although sprouts can be grown outside, this can make the sprouts vulnerable to exposure, inclement weather, pests, and disease. It is advised to take your sprout growing operation indoors.

Sprouting in Soil – Sprouts can be grown in soil and can help with moisture control. This method provides additional nutrients to the sprouts. However, when it comes to harvesting, cleaning up the sprouts will prove difficult, especially for more delicate varieties.

Sprouting in Bag – using a hemp bag for sprouting is a preferred choice for larger seeds like beans. Using a sprout bag is probably the easiest method as you simply dip the bag in water twice a day and hang. Within a week or less you will have sprouts ready to go. The bag is also good for storing finished sprouts.

Sprouts growing in a sack

Growing Sprouts Hydroponically – growing sprouts with the hydroponic method is the cleanest of choices. The sprouts grow without any soil or growing medium and makes for a quick and easy harvest. When sprouting hydroponically, the only things you need are your tray or jar and seeds.

Materials you will need

  • Organic seeds special for sprouting. Purchasing seeds that are specific for sprouting are usually tested for disease and are of a high quality.
  • Sprout trays. These are specially designed to grow sprouts, are stackable, and provide proper air ventilation to the sprouts.
  • Sprout bags. Usually made of hemp and are the preferred choice for growing larger bean sprouts.
  • Sprout mason jars. Wide mouth mason jars work the best for air circulation easy access.
  • Lids for wide mouth mason jars. You will need a screen lid for the jar so air can circulate and to drain the seeds. You can also use a piece of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band.

Cheesecloth for the top of the sprout growing jar

Step One: Preparation

Soaking seeds – all seeds used for sprouting must be soaked. Sprouts should be soaked in fresh filtered water for a minimum of eight hours to overnight. Seeds can be soaked directly in their tray or jar. Larger seeds will require a longer soak, up to 24 hours. Soak the seeds until they have about doubled in size. Make sure that soaking seeds have good air ventilation.

Once the seeds have been soaked, drain the excess water and rinse the seeds, making sure to remove any floating shells or husks that rise to the surface.

Prepare the container – trays need to be washed thoroughly and dried to avoid any contamination. Jars can be boiled for ten minutes for sterilization, but do not boil plastic lids. Sprout bags can be washed and rinsed with hot water and soap.

Step Two: Sow the seeds

Typically, 2 tablespoons to a quarter cup of seeds is plenty to line your tray or jar. Avoid overcrowding the seeds as this will lead to too much density and improper air circulation.

Spread seeds evenly along bottom of tray or jar, or simply remove excess water if seeds were soaking in their grow containers. Make sure to remove as much excess water as possible to avoid sogginess. For sprout bags, place soaked seeds in bag and drain by hanging.

Step Three: Growing and Maintenance

Sprouts need to be rinsed at least twice a day. Three to five times a day is recommended if you have the time. Make sure to use filtered water when rinsing. For mason jar grows, fill the jar with water, swish around, and empty the jar by turning it over. For trays with drainage holes, simply run water over the sprouts. For bags, fill a bowl with water, soak, and hang dry.

Step Four: Harvest Time!

After about five days, the sprouts are ready to harvest. Empty sprouts into a bowl and fill with filtered water. Swish the sprouts around until the husks and hulls rise to the top and scoop out. Drain the sprouts thoroughly and spread over a paper towel to dry. Done and done!

How to Store Sprouts

Sprouts need some moisture to stay good in the refrigerator. With the proper balance, sprouts can stay good for over a week, as they are still alive but in a suspended state from the cold.

Before refrigerating, make sure your sprouts are mostly dry, as refrigerating wet sprouts will kill them quickly.

Reuse fruit plastic clamshells from the grocery store. Just make sure to clean them thoroughly before transferring your sprouts into them!

Store directly in your growing tray, jar or bag. Clean and dry them after growing the sprouts.

Store in a special produce bag.

If your storage vessel allows for air circulation, you can always add a bit of damp paper towel to keep sprouts moist.

Once you have grown sprouts, you will never buy another box of them from the store again!

Say goodbye to store bought sprouts!

What has been your sprout growing experience? Anything you would like to add? Questions? Go ahead and leave a comment below!

You may find my Vertical Farming Systems Guide interesting, check it out!

– Regina C.

The Definitive Guide to Microgreen Farming [in 5 Easy Steps]

You may be asking yourself why on earth you would ever want to grow microgreens. These tiny plants must be grown in many multiples just to barely fill your plate. Why bother with microgreens then when you can grow the full version? There must be something to this microgreen trend….

As a matter of fact, there is! Microgreens have become a trendy and nutritious counterpart to their grown versions for many reasons. Not only do they add bold flavors and color to the plate, they also pack additional powerful nutrients. Some folks are even making a pretty darn good living growing and selling microgreens to restaurants.

If you have been curious about growing microgreens but have been unsure where to start, you have landed in the right place. I have researched and written this extensive guide to help you get going on growing microgreens, no matter what space you have. Let’s get this (tiny) party started!

grow microgreens

Intro into Microgreens

What are Microgreens? A microgreen is your typical salad type vegetable that comes in a mini size. In order to achieve the miniature version, the microgreen is picked just after the first leaves have sprouted and developed. This makes for a super tender and highly flavorful green that is packed with nutrients.

Microgreens have become a popular trend in the past couple of decades as a flavor enhancer and garnish for chefs in fine dining restaurants. You may also find microgreens popping up among the booths at a farmer’s market – both these elements make growing microgreens a potentially lucrative endeavor.

A microgreen doesn’t just have to be of the salad variety; you can grow grains and herbs into micros as well.

Benefits of Microgreens

Mature greens are already super nutritious for you, but studies have shown that certain – but not all – microgreens can pack a higher nutritional punch than their mature counterparts.

The University of Maryland’s Department of Nutrition and Food Science did a thorough study in 2012 to test for the nutrient densities in microgreens in relation to mature greens.

The plant scientists studied 25 common microgreens for tocopherols, phylloquinone, carotenoids, and ascorbic acid concentrations. Although the results found that the results varied greatly between the greens, four forerunners stood out: Green Daikon Radish, Garnet Amaranth, Cilantro, and Red Cabbage all had the highest concentrations of aforementioned nutrients.

Aside from their punchy health benefits, these tiny greens are deliciously intense, have a crisp texture, and offer up a colorful accent to the plate.

As far as farming goes, microgreens grow quickly; the little guys are ready for harvest between 16 to 25 days, and some can be harvested as early as 8 days.

They do not require much room to grow and can even be grown in jars!

Best Types of Microgreens

There is a plethora of edible plants that can be cultivated into microgreens. So which ones are the best ones to grow? This is somewhat of a loaded question because the type you choose to grow depends on your intent. These intentions could be the choosing healthiest, most nutritious green. You might be growing for the fastest results, or you could be planning to sell your greens, therefore choosing the most popular and profitable green is critical. Based on these grounds, the greens that check all the aforementioned boxes would technically be the “best” greens to grow.

Healthiest microgreens

Identifying the healthiest microgreens is subjective as all greens are healthy! I hand picked these ones out of a large variety because they are known to have even more nutrients than their adult counterparts, offer the entire body a health boost, and are common to find.

As mentioned above, the top 4 microgreens for an additional nutrient boost:

Green Daikon Radish – high in vitamin C, fibrous, rich in potassium, phosphorous, digestive enzymes

Garnet Amaranth – offers up calcium, lysine, antioxidants, high in protein

Cilantro – detoxification from metals, phytochemicals, potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium

Red Cabbage – thiamin, riboflavin, folate, iron, magnesium, calcium

Red Cabbage in the microgreen phase

Some notable micros that offer up health benefits:

Kale – one of the most nutrient dense foods, high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and can lower cholesterol

Pea shoots – has beta carotene, folate, vitamin C, and is high in fiber

Beet greens – offers lots of mineral support, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese phosphorus, zinc

Arugula – rich in glucosinolates, antioxidants, vitamin K, fiber, vitamin B, and has been used as an aphrodisiac

Chives – vitamin K, quercetin, antioxidants, has antibacterial properties and lutein

Pac Choi (Bok Choy) – vitamins C, K, A, B6, folate and calcium

Fastest growing microgreens

It takes about 16 to 25 days for the microgreens to become ready for harvest. Anything before this timeframe is considered fast. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representation of the fastest growers among common plants grown for microgreens. The days to maturity are an average and is considered ready to harvest at first true leaf, after the cotyledon stage.

Red Cabbage – 13.5 days at first true leaf

Daikon radish – 8 days at first true leaf

Arugula – 14 days at first true leaf

Red Russian Kale – 13.5 days at first true leaf

Pea shoots – 10 days at first true leaf

Mustard – 12.5 days at first true leaf

Chinese cabbage – 10 days at first true leaf

Broccoli – 12.5 days at first true leaf

Cressida Cress – 13 days at first true leaf

Garnet Giant Mustard – 12.5 days at first true leaf

Pac Choi (Bok Choy) – 13 days at first true leaf

Most Popular Microgreens

Again, this is a subjective list. What makes a green popular? I combed through many resources and compiled this list on the most frequently mentioned microgreens. I also considered what growers sell to restaurants for profit. Again, I stuck to the more common and attainable greens.

What the commercial farmers are growing:

It seems that growing microgreens is still a small time deal with grassroots urban farmers and hobbyists cashing in on their crop. These farmers sell to restaurants, juice bars, health food stores, and farmer’s markets and some make a pretty good living just off their baby greens.

Urban Farmer Curtis Stone bases his commercial microgreen selection upon what is most common, grows the densest and fastest, and is able to sell the most of. He has found that sunflower and pea shoots are quite popular in health communities for juicing and adding fresh elements to meals and sandwiches. He also sells lots of radish microgreens to restaurants and farmers markets.

Food Farmer Earth focuses on radish, arugula, and mustard as they grow fast and are in demand. She sells mainly to restaurants that use her micros as garnishes to their plates.

Microgreens Farmer has four favorite greens that he uses for commercial sales. Those are pea shoots, radish, sunflower and a salad mix. The salad mix contains kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, arugula, red cabbage and a splash of amaranth for color.

Microgreens that are hardy and easy to grow are broccoli, red cabbage, mustards, chia, and sunflower.

Frequently mentioned microgreens across the internet: arugula, cress, radish, cilantro, red cabbage, mint, chives, chard, broccoli.

My official Best Microgreens to Grow list

After examining all the conditions that would qualify the greens as the “best microgreens to grow”, there is a trend that can be seen across the board for a certain select few:

  1. Red Cabbage – is one of the four that has an additional nutrient boost when tiny, is a fast grower, is easy to grow, and is sold commercially in salad mixes.
  1. Daikon Radish – In the top four for nutrition boost, grows quickly, is frequently mentioned, and is a popular commercial sales choice.
  1. Arugula – Is highly popular across the net, very nutritious, and easy to market commercially as a salad green, and looks attractive on a plate.
  1. Pea shoots – is a fast grower, and is extremely popular in the health community, making it an easy sale commercially.
  1. Pac Choi (Bok Choy) – is highly nutritious, is a fast grower, and the name is recognizable in the culinary world. Wouldn’t be a far step to market Pac Choi as a microgreen.

Growing Microgreens Indoors, Step by step

Although these tiny mighty greens can be grown outside and in soil, they are fragile plants and can be compromised easily with exposure to the elements. Growing microgreens indoors eliminates many problems, including inclement weather, the change of seasons, pest and disease control.

Choosing your Method

Growing Microgreens in Soil – Soil does make for a plentiful bounty of greens and does not need any additional nutrients. It is important to choose a sterile soil and to properly sterilize and amend soil before reuse. Soil can also be messy. Microgreens with larger seeds do well growing in soil. Some crops fare better in soil, such as the pea shoot and sunflower.

Growing microgreens outdoors in the garden

If you do choose to grow your microgreens in soil, you may be interested in my Guide to Building a Solar Powered Drip Irrigation System article.

Growing Microgreens without Soil – Choosing a soil-less method is tidier and can add a level of sterility to your plants. You will need to use a spray fertilizer to keep your greens healthy and growing quickly. Common mediums to use are peat, coconut coir, and vermiculite.

Growing Microgreens Hydroponically – The advantage of using the hydroponic method is there is no risk of having any soil or medium leftover within the delicate leaves of the greens. Since the greens are usually not washed after harvest, hydroponic growing is also a more sanitary method. Microgreens will grow on growing pads, burlap, and even on paper towels. Growing the greens on a pad will help retain moisture and hold the seed in place. Most greens fare well using the hydroponic method.

Materials you will need:

  • Trays, 10×20, with drain holes if using soil or medium, no drain holes if hydroponic
  • Covers or domes for trays, dark in color
  • Medium, such as soil, peat, coconut coir, vermiculite, burlap, growing pads
  • Spray bottle
  • High quality seeds
  • Tray lining such as paper towel or thin cloth
  • pH testing strips
  • grow lights
  • heating mats (optional, helps growth)

Step One: Preparation

Soaking seeds – larger seeds such as sunflower, pea shoots, and mung beans need to be soaked for a minimum of three hours to overnight. Use filtered, pH balanced water. Small seeds require no soaking.

Balance the pH of water – adjust your filtered water to a pH of 5.5 – 6.5. Too high of alkaline in the water can create rot. Add lemon or lime juice to lower the pH of the water. An oyster shell and coral mix will raise the pH balance.

Prepare the containers – line your trays with moist paper towels or thin cloth to prevent soil or medium falling through. Make sure your medium is moist but not soaking wet.

Add about 1.5 to 2 inches of soil or medium evenly to the bottom of the tray.

For hydroponic grows, moisten the burlap or growing pads until damp but not drenched by adding water into the tray and then damping the pad into the water. Spray the tops of the pads until there are no dry spots.

Step Two: Sowing the Seeds

Seed density is critical to growing microgreens. Seeds that are spread too thick will become too dense and could cause fungal problems, disease and rot. Air needs to be able to circulate around the greens.

The seeds should be sown in thickly and should have good coverage in the tray, but not too thick to inhibit the airflow. Sow small seeds at about 10 – 12 seeds per square inch and large seeds at about 6-8 per square inch. Tamp the seeds down gently into the pad or medium.

Once the seeds have been sowed, spray them down with the mister bottle until they are nice and wet.

The seeds then need to be covered; cover large seeds with about a ½ inch of soil or growing medium. Small seeds can be covered with a layer of damp paper towels or fine vermiculite. After you have gotten everything layered and moist, place a dark cover or dome over the tray, or use a secondary tray to cover. Mist the inside of the tray.

Step Three: Growing and Maintenance

The goal is to create a warm, dark and humid environment for the seeds to germinate. This is where an optional heating pad can be used. The ideal temperature is between 65 – 75 degrees, but make sure to not exceed this temperature!

Check the plants at least once a day and make sure the conditions are still moist and warm. If they are drying out, use the mister bottle to water; do not add water directly to the tray.

Once the cotyledons emerge, wait one more day, and remove the dome. This will take about 4 -5 days.

Step Four: Providing Light

Now is the time to feed the plants light. This can be done with natural light or a grow LED light. LEDs are great lighting option as they are very inexpensive to run and they stay cool, unlike traditional grow lights.

Every type of plant varies so it is hard to gauge the correct distance and amount of light they will require; this will take some experimentation to find the sweet spot for optimal growth.

Try spacing your lights about 12” away from the plants. Move your light closer if the plants start to reach for the light. If your plants are bending, rotate the tray or add another light. Also, check for faint discoloration, this could be a sign of poor lighting.

Program your light to be on for 16 hours and to be off for 8 hours.

Step Five: Harvest Time!

Your microgreens are ready to harvest at first true leaf. This is the first leaves after the cotyledon has peeled away and the first foliage leaves are upright and have some nice color to it.

Phase E is the appropriate time to harvest the microgreen

Microgreens are typically ready within 16 to 25 days, although some come earlier and some later. They will be around one to three inches, depending on the variety.

To harvest, simply cut the stems with scissors right above the growing medium. Wait until the heat of the day is gone to avoid wilting.

How to Store Microgreens

Microgreens will keep in a refrigerated environment for up to one week. The greens must stay moist to stay fresh and crisp, if not they will dry out and wilt. Wrapping them lightly in a damp paper towel is ideal, and place in a container. Do not store in sealed plastic bags as the greens need air circulation. Placing them in a plastic food storage container with the lid popped open or completely off while being wrapped in paper towel should do the trick. Mist the paper towel as needed to avoid drying out.

Bring the microgreens back to life by giving them a quick ice bath.

Ideally, the greens should be consumed the same day that they are harvested for maximum flavor and nutrition.

If you like the idea of microgreens but are not ready to commit to the project, you can try growing the miniature version: sprouts. I have written a comprehensive guide to growing sprouts that provides you with all the information you need.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide to microgreens! If you have anything you would like to share or maybe a question, please leave a comment below. I put a lot of effort into my writing, so I love it when my articles get shared! Please feel free to share this article!

How I felt after writing this article!

– Regina C.

Composting Toilet Systems Explained [+ 8 Frequently Asked Questions Answered]

Did you think the only thing you could compost is your leftover vegetable scraps from last night’s dinner? Well you are in for a treat, because your human waste (yes, number two) can be composted as well!

This makes me very excited! I am a huge fan of digging a hole in the ground and doing my business to allow for the natural process of my waste returning to the earth where it belongs. However, if digging a hole isn’t your style, then a composting toilet may be right for you. Composting toilet systems are in!

When your waste is entirely composted, it makes for a great fertilizer for your garden or trees. The cycle of life is complete!

Seriously though, our sewer systems waste tons of water and makes us dependent on the system in which the man has built for us. Composting toilet systems are a great solution to become independent from this system and can be applied for RV, cabin, and marine usage.

Let’s get to the down and dirty about composting toilets!

Composting Toilet Systems

How Do Composting Toilet Systems Work?

A composting toilet works in the same way that your garden composter works, except that the toilet uses a special system that utilizes chambers to enhance the decomposition process.

The toilet is built to utilize nature’s thermophilic reaction to breakdown all of the bad bacteria and viruses in the solid wastes that we produce. This special process needs to have the right balance of moisture and oxygen to activate the microbes in order to breakdown the waste properly. If this balance is achieved, the microbes create the heat needed to breakdown the materials that it feeds upon. Once the microbes have finished digesting the waste, the leftover product is a rich, odor-free fertilizer that can be used to feed your plants.

Although each composting toilet system is built differently, there are three processes that must be completed for the toilet to finalize decomposition:

Eliminating moisture – Moisture control is a basic requirement of successful composting. Too much moisture and the pile will not have enough oxygen to activate the microbes. Not enough moisture and the microbes will not have a suitable environment to survive. A proper composting toilet will be able to drain excess moisture and keep the pile just right for the composting process to thrive.

Composting the solid waste – Maintaining heat within the pile is key for composting to take place. Although microbes will create their own heat naturally, given the right environment, some toilets have an electric heating component to help assist in the process and allows for quicker decomposition.

Finalized compost removal – Once the compost has been finalized, the rich organic soil will dump into a finishing drawer for removal. This finished product will be bad bacteria and virus free, is safe to handle, and does not smell bad. Having a finishing drawer allows for finished soil to be removed while the toilet is still composting added solids.

The most popular composting toilets have three chambers: a liquid capturing chamber, the solid waste tumbling chamber, and the finishing drawer.

The liquid capturing chamber will either be a removable cannister that you have to dump manually, as seen in the Nature’s Head design, or is an internal chamber that the toilet evaporates naturally, as seen in the Sun Mar design.

The composting chamber is a tumbling chamber that has a hand crank on the side. The chamber needs to be tumbled occasionally to keep the materials mixed and to oxygenate the microbes. Hand cranking the tumbling chamber every few days should do the trick.

The finishing drawer is a removable drawer that allows you to empty the compost without bothering the compost that is in production. As the tumbling chamber is rotated, the fine soil filters into the drawer. The compost within the finishing drawer dries out and is safe to remove and use.

How to use the Composting Toilet

The Sun Mar Composting toilet looks stylish in this bathroom

Placement and Installation – The main concern for placing your toilet is to make sure you have access to all chambers that need to be maintained or accessed. If your toilet comes with a vent and electric heater, make sure those components are not blocked in and have room for air circulation.

Most compostable toilets mount to the floor with brackets and screws. Installation is easy and can be done with the most basic of handyman skills.

Adding the base material – Before the first use, you need to add sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir into the base, per your manufacturer’s instructions. This is the “brown matter” that your toilet needs to activate the composting process, checkout my Guide to Composting to get an understanding of how the compost process works. Brown matter is the carbon base that your waste will have a biochemical reaction with to ignite the microbes’ thermophilic process.

Coconut coir – this is essentially the byproduct of coconut shells that is mulched into tiny pieces. It is then dried and compacted into wafers or bricks that you bring back to a full fluffiness with water. It is also used as a hydroponic growing medium.

Many prefer coconut coir as it is reusing a byproduct that was once considered to be waste. Think of all the products that use coconut, that makes for a lot of wasted husks! These once discarded husks now are finding a new life in gardens and composting toilets.

Coconut coir ready for processing!

Coconut coir is also easy and compact to store as it comes in convenient bricks. You do have to do a little work to amend the bricks with water, but it is an easy and quick process.

Sphagnum peat moss – This kind of moss contains no soils which has made it a popular choice for conditioning gardens and landscapes. The sphagnum variety of moss is highly valued by farmers and gardeners because it is practically 100% free of weeds, diseases, and insects. It also holds moisture well and provides lots of air space, which your composting microbes will love.

Sphagnum peat moss takes over 15 years to grow an inch!

Sphagnum peat moss is ready to go, out of the bag. No preparation is needed.

So why not choose sphagnum peat moss? There are some environmental concerns about the production and harvest of peat moss, which leaves many to opt for the coconut coir option.

According to the University of Vermont Plant and Soil Science, Sphagnum peat moss takes an astonishing 15 to 25 years to grow only a single inch! In addition, only 2% of the world is covered in peat moss, so there is not a lot to go around.

Many countries are trying to quash the use of peat moss entirely, as peatlands store an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. By destroying these lands, carbon dioxide gets released into the environment. Essentially, sphagnum peat moss is not an environmentally viable option for the health of the planet, which is counter-intuitive to having a composting toilet in the first place, right?

If you do decide to purchase sphagnum peat moss, make sure it is of the sphagnum variety, and not just peat moss.

Using your Composting Toilet – Once you have the toilet installed and the base added, simply use as a regular toilet. The toilet can handle many uses, about 60 – 80 number two uses. This can be an entire season without having to dump out the main chamber. For full time use, this is about a month.

Emptying the Compost Toilet – Depending on usage, about once a month, the main chamber needs to be removed and emptied. This is made into an easy process as the design of the toilet allows for easy removal of the chamber. Do not clean this chamber out, as any leftover wastes will inoculate the new pile with microbes. Don’t forget to add in your base material.

If your toilet has a removable liquid cannister, this will need to be dumped every few days, depending on how often it is used.

Note that not all models have to follow this step. Some models have a finishing drawer which does not require the emptying of the main chamber, as long as it does not get over-full.

Cleaning and Maintenance – The beauty of composting toilet systems are that they require minimal maintenance and cleanup. Waste drops directly into the chamber and does not streak the bowl, unlike traditional toilets that swirl water and waste around leaving a streaky mess. The chambers do not require cleaning as you want to keep your colony of healthy microbes intact between dumping.

You will want to periodically clean your lid, toilet seat and bowl. The main takeaway here is to NOT clean your toilet with any chemicals! This includes chemical wipes. These chemicals will kill off the natural microbes in your tank and could ruin the composting process.

Natural deodorizing enzyme products work well for cleaning your toilet.

And that about sums up the basics of composting toilets.

Common Questions Answered:

Do composting toilets smell bad? The answer is no, unless the toilet is being significantly misused. Make sure your venting is installed correctly so your toilet gets enough oxygen, a vital component to breaking down wastes. Don’t forget to add your starter materials, either coconut coir or peat moss, for moisture control and biochemical reaction.

Can you use toilet paper with a composting toilet? Yes, as a matter of fact, the toilet paper acts as “brown matter” in your pile, therefore providing the microbes with carbon material. Some people use special toilet paper that is built for RVs and boats, but regular toilet paper will work fine.

Can you urinate into composting toilets? Yes, as the toilet is built with either a liquid evaporating tray or separate liquid capturing cannister. If your toilet has this additional cannister, you will need to empty it every few days.

Do composting toilets use water? No, water is not needed for the toilet. This allows for no connection to a septic system and creates zero water waste.

Do composting toilets need electricity? Although in general they do not need electricity, there are models that do use electricity to heat the main chamber. This is optional; you can find both types of models.

Can tampons be put into a composting toilet? Typically, if the tampon is not biodegradable it should not be disposed of in the composting toilet. Even biodegradable tampons take six months to decompose. As a rule of thumb, keep all period related items out of your composting toilet.

Are composting toilet systems legal? Yes, composting toilets are legal. However, some building jurisdiction codes require one toilet to be hooked up to the sewer system. This would only be a bother for new construction homes. It is highly doubtful that your composting toilet would be regulated by the man in aftermarket installations. Installing your toilet in your RV, cabin, or boat is completely legal. Check with your local jurisdiction to see if your new build requires a plumbed toilet. If so, put one in, and either replace with a composting toilet later or have it as an additional toilet.

How much does a composting toilet cost? The top brands of toilets in the consumer grade department are around $1000 to $2000. This is more expensive than a traditional porcelain toilet, but the savings on your water bill will have the composting toilet paid for in a few years. You also don’t have to worry about clogs, sewer problems, and you are making a reusable byproduct, compost soil.

In Conclusion

I hope you have found my composting toilet systems article useful and informative. I think composting toilets are awesome and are worth the extra expense for the longterm benefits. Sure, it will take a little bit of getting used to, but every step of becoming independent from the man is a step worth taking.

If you are interesting in more about composting, check out my composting techniques section for all sorts of composting knowledge and advice.

If you enjoyed my content, please share it with your friends! Also, leave a comment or question below if you fancy.

– Regina C.

What is Wrong with my Compost Pile? Troubleshooting Common Compost Problems

Composting is one of the easiest projects that you can start at any time. However, sometimes things go awry! I have comprised an extensive list of frequent mishaps and problems that your pile may be experiencing, and the best solutions to fix those problems fast!

If you are new to composting and need a step by step guide to get started, you can check out my Composting 101 Article for beginner advice.

C’mon, let’s get your compost pile healthy again!

Common compost problems

Fruit flies are a common compost problem

Q: Why is my compost pile smelly?

A: Compost may smell a tad ripe here and there, but a super stinky pile is not correct. In order to have a healthy compost heap, the pile has to achieve a balance of carbon and nitrogen to create heat. This heat comes from the microorganisms activating and digesting the compost. If this is off balance, your pile can become a stinky heap of mess!

Solutions to the stinky pile:

  1. Your pile has too much green matter (nitrogen) in ratio to brown matter. Green matter is all the food scraps you put into the pile. Typically, a pile with too much green matter smells of ammonia. This green matter needs brown matter (carbon) to ignite the decomposing process. If your pile is stinky and slimy, add some handfuls of leaves, shredded non-shiny paper, or straw.
  2. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. The microbiome that is heating up your pile needs to breathe; if it is too dense in the middle of your pile, oxygen is not penetrating enough, therefore the microorganisms will die. To remedy this, aerate your compost by mixing it with a pitchfork or hand trowel. Also, adding brown fluffy matter like dry leaves can bring air into the dense parts of your pile. Mix thoroughly and make sure to get any wet or dry pockets in the pile.
  3. Your pile is too big. A pile that amasses beyond 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet wide can get too dense in the middle and be hard to turn. This starves the pile of oxygen and the microbes will die. Split your pile into two heaps.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too; paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Q: Why is my compost bin stinky?

A: A stinky bin is an unpleasant experience! Unlike a pile that is exposed to the outdoors, a container shields the elements from your pile, but can also cause problems as well.

Solutions to stinky bins:

  1. Your bin does not have enough oxygen flow. If it is a DIY bin, you might not have enough air holes drilled. Add some more holes. Turn your pile more frequently and add more brown matter to fluff up the pile for more aeration to occur.
  2. There are moisture pockets in the bin. Sogginess may be occurring in the corners of your bin without you even realizing it. Make sure when you turn the compost to get every nook and cranny of the bin.
  3. Your bin is not draining liquid properly. For bins with bottoms, drill more holes for moisture release. If possible, cut the bottom out entirely and place on soil that drains well.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. Your bin is too big. If your bin is too big, the center will not get enough oxygen. It will also be harder to mix the corners, causing slimy pockets. Your bin should not be over 140 liters. Try downsizing to a 75 liter bin or break up your bin into two bins.
  6. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too, paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Q: Why is my indoor compost bin smelly?

A: Unlike the great outdoors, indoor compost bins do not have access to all the bugs, worms, and microbiomes to assist in breaking down green matter. They require a little extra attention to get the ratios down correctly.

Solutions to stinky indoor bins:

  1. Do not add stinky components. Stinky stuff such as onions and garlic can stink up your pile fast.
  2. Do not add slimy watery components such as watermelon and melon rinds.
  3. Do not add any meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  4. Your pile is too moist. Since your pile does not drain directly into soil, it has the danger of getting too soggy which can cause odor. Add some brown matter to fluff up your pile and absorb some of the excess moisture. Make sure that you are adequately mixing your pile thoroughly; moisture pockets like to build up in container corners.
  5. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. Overly moist, dense piles will starve the microbes of oxygen. Also, your bin may not have enough airholes to get oxygen into the pile. Drill more holes if you have a DIY container. If not, add more fluffy brown matter to increase airflow to the pile.
  6. Your materials are too chunky. This especially applies for indoor bins as the longer it takes for the materials to break down, the more likely they are to stink. Chop up your scraps into 1” cubes or smaller. Make sure to breakdown your brown matter as well.

Check out my Apartment Composting Guide to get started with your indoor compost pile!

Q: How do I fix wet soggy compost?

A: Wet compost will quickly become smelly and stops the microbiome process. There are several things you can do to remedy a wet pile:

  1. Keep your pile protected from rain. This can easily be done with a tarp or a layer of brown material. You can also relocate your pile to a protected area like under trees or an awning. You can purchase a popup cover as well to get through the rainy season.
  2. Add more brown matter to your pile. Getting the ratio of brown to green keeps your pile happy and healthy. Add some shredded leaves or paper to your mix to soak up excess moisture. Make sure your brown matter is shredded or mulched thoroughly so it breaks down faster.
  3. Turn your pile frequently. Make sure to add enough brown matter and mix in any soggy pockets your pile has.
  4. Relocate your pile. If your pile is in an area where moisture builds up, then move it. Shovel it into a bin and plop it on an area that has better drainage. If it rains a lot, place it under an awning or place a tarp over the pile. If you need to you can always elevate your pile with a mound of soil.

Q: Why is my compost pile not heating up?

A: The heat is the biochemical reaction that causes your pile to transform into soil, rather than to rot. Without it, your pile is just a stinky rotting trash heap! This problem is easily solved.

Solutions to get heat into your pile:

  1. Your pile lacks nitrogen. Nitrogen comes in the form of green matter and feeds the microbes that create the heat. If you have too much carbon in the form of leaves, paper, or woody materials, your pile will become too dry and will never heat. Simply add more green matter or remove excess brown matter. Eventually you will get the feel for your pile as no two piles are alike!
  2. Your pile is too dry. If there is no moisture, there is nothing for the bacteria to live in. Make sure your pile stays moist like a sponge, but not soggy.
  3. Your pile is too small. If there is not enough materials, your pile won’t be able to retain the heat needed. You need at least 75 liters or 3 foot cubed.
  4. Your pile is too big. If air cannot reach the middle of the pile, the heating process cannot continue. The microbes need oxygen to survive and will die if oxygen cannot penetrate to the center of the pile. Break your pile into two if you have created a behemoth!
  5. You can add a compost inoculator for microbes. If you feel all the ingredients are right in your pile, simply add a scoop of dirt to add in some microbes. You can also try adding some hot nitrogen in the form of chicken or horse manure to really get things cooking.
  6. Your compost pile is too cold. This is especially pertinent in winter months. Insulate and shelter your pile with hay bales, a tarp, cinder blocks, old carpet, or anything that can hold in heat and allow oxygen to come through.

Q: How do I fix dry compost?

A: The answer may seem simple, but dry compost can be problematic especially in arid regions. Try these fixes:

  1. Add water. This is the most obvious of answers, simply spray your pile down with water until damp, but not soggy.
  2. You have too much brown matter. Carbon matter will quickly dry up a pile, especially paper and cardboard. Simply remove the excess brown matter or add in more green matter.
  3. Your pile is overexposed to the elements. Wind and heat beating down on an exposed pile will wick moisture away quickly. Move your pile into a more sheltered area, into the shade, and protect your pile with a layer of brown matter, tarp, or some sort of lid.
  4. Try trench composting. This is the exact same method, except you dig a hole in the ground in lieu of a bin. This will keep your pile sheltered from the elements and keep more moisture in. Just make sure to add a foundation of brown matter and cap the top with brown matter as well.

Q:How do I get rid of gnats in my compost bin?

A: Gnats are annoying little critters that love decomposing fruits and veggies, which makes a compost pile their dream come true! Even though you want to get rid of them, in outdoor compost situations, it is natural to have flies and other insects enjoying your pile.  If you don’t want them hanging around, then getting rid of them is not too hard:

  1. Cap your pile with brown matter. Make the fruit and veggie scraps inaccessible by adding a 2-4 inch layer of leaves, paper, and woody materials, shredded or mulched, of course.
  2. Make a fruit fly trap. You can buy one at most stores, but they can be expensive. You can easily make one with a mason jar, a bit of fruit, and a piece of paper. Place the fruit inside the mason jar, fashion the paper into a funnel, and place the funnel into the jar. The fruit flies go in but can’t get out. Easy!
  3. Remove the lid from your bin. It could be the case that the flies are living in your bin because the lid provides a sheltered dark place for them to thrive. Try removing the lid and monitor the results. If that doesn’t help, then place the lid back on.
  4. Dump boiling water on the pile. This can help kill off any flies or eggs that are growing in the pile. If in a bin, shut the lid and let the steam kill them.

Q: How do I get rid of maggots in my compost?

A: Maggots, or baby flies, do well in compost as they thrive in nitrogen rich environments that are in the process of decay. Although you might be considering exterminating them, maggots do assist in the composting process as all the rest of the insects and worms you may find. Indoor compost with maggots can be a problem as they will eventually turn into flies and infest your home. This is how you get rid of them:

  1. Make sure your pile isn’t too wet. Maggots love the wet and slimy stuff, so adding some brown material like sawdust can get rid of that moisture and eliminate them.
  2. Cap your pile with brown matter and make sure to bury your food scraps about 4 inches deep when adding them.
  3. Simply remove the maggot infestation and feed them to the birds!
  4. If using a bin, block the holes with a mesh screen. Make sure it is fine enough for flies not to penetrate but can still let air pass.

Q: How do I make my compost less clumpy?

A: The final material of compost should be a fine rich lush dark dirt, but sometimes this is not the case. This is due to the chunkiness of the material that has been placed into the pile. Some materials take longer to break down and if those chunks are large, they may end up as bulk in the final dirt. These can be made up of large seeds like an avocado or mango seed and chunks of wood. If you want finer compost, all you have to do is use a classifier or screen to screen out the larger chunks. Chicken wire works well for this job.

Q: Why does my compost still have large chunks of food and material in it?

A: One thing that is rarely mentioned across the net is that at some point you have to stop adding food scraps to your compost and let it sit (and mix occasionally) to finish the job. I like to call this the “incubation phase”. If you keep adding to the pile, the decomposition rate of the material will be at different levels and take different time periods to finalize. Once you have created a large enough pile, just let it be, and make another one. You can also try the 3 compost bin method. Some compost bins have a bottom drawer so you can access the final pay dirt which sifts to the bottom while the larger chunks keep composting.

Composting doesn’t just end in the yard. My Composting Toilets Explained article gives you the ins and outs of how you can compost your own personal waste!

So there you have it! My comprehensive troubleshooting guide to getting your compost back on track. I would love to hear your comments below or if you have any additional questions. I will be glad to answer them and might even add them to my article.

Thanks for reading!

– Regina C.

Tried-And-True Apartment Composting Techniques [That Don’t Stink, Trust Me!]

Apartment composting – sounds taboo, but its a real thing!

One of my goals is to offer solutions to becoming independent from the system, no matter how small those solutions may be.

I feel that doing small things add up to big benefits, not just for you and your family, but for our communities and the world! (superhero moment!)

Now that I got you feeling all warm and fuzzy, don’t let living in an apartment or small abode stop you from gaining your independence. There are plenty of things you can do to liberate your lifestyle from the man.

One of those liberating things is to compost your own waste. The thought of needing a huge backyard or having to live on a farm to run a successful compost pile is so passé.

There are quite a few options for apartment composting, even if you don’t have a balcony.

So c’mon, let’s check ‘em out!

First, the Basics of Composting

I highly recommend that you skip on over to my Foolproof Composting Guide to learn the basics. That will give you the general idea of how composting works and the components to create an excellent compost pile. It will be easier to wrap your mind around the concept of composting with the biological processes being understood.

It is a common misconception that composting stinks, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t! If the ratios of proper green matter to brown matter is attained, the process should be technically odor free.

When you compost, it is important to keep your compost free of meats, dairies, and bones. These organic materials do not break down quickly, therefore causing very stinky compost. They can also attract pests like racoons and rats. Breads, grains, and cereals are a grey area. Although these items are green matter, they can attract pests, namely mice.

Your compost pile will require some attention. You will need to mix the pile in order to aerate the middle. Air is an important piece to the composting equation as the microbes need to breathe in order to break down the materials.

If all goes well, you will have rich, dark, fluffy soil that your houseplants or tiny herb garden will love!

Composting on the Balcony

Apartment Composting on the Balcony

Balconies provide lots of fresh air for composting bins

Step 1: Choosing the right container.

You can either choose to purchase a compost tumbler, a premade compost bin, or make a bin yourself. The pre-made containers that you can buy are fairly cheap, but a little DIY spirit can save you the expense and its kind of fun too.

The DIY container you choose will have to be large enough to start the thermal process of composting, but small enough to fit on your balcony.

Typically, the smallest bin you want to use is 3 feet by 3 feet and 3 feet high to maintain the thermal process. However, not many prebuilt containers are to these dimensions, so look for a container that is more or less 85 liters. A 75-liter container should work just fine. You can use a storage bin, plastic garbage can, or even an old cooler. Choosing a dark container works well if your balcony gets sunlight as it will help with the thermal process.

Step 2: Prepping the container. One of the main ingredients of composting is oxygen! Your compost needs to breathe for the microbes to properly break down the organic material. Drill holes in your container about every couple of inches, and that includes the bottom. Liquids need to escape the container to avoid putrefying.

Step 3: You will need to build a base for your bin. The bin needs to be elevated with enough space for some sort of drip pan to catch the liquid. Place your bin atop some bricks or cinder blocks and allow for enough airflow to permeate underneath. You can also use wooden beams if your bin needs more support.

Step 4: Fill your compost bin. You will need to fill the bottom of your bin with fluffy brown matter. What is brown matter? Well, I am glad you asked. Brown matter is high in carbon, decomposes slowly, and is the energy source for the microbes that break down the green materials. Brown matter can be composed of leaves, hay, straw, sawdust,  non-glossy paper, paper towels, tissue, egg shells, woody material, and wood ashes (sparingly). Make sure to break down paper, leaf and woody elements by shredding or mulching them.

A good 6 to 8 inches of brown matter on the bottom of the bin will suffice. Then, fill with green matter (leftover vegetable scraps) as you create the waste. Make sure to add brown matter in the middle to keep airflow going. This is vitally important to keep the microbes happy.

Finally, once you reach the top, you can sprinkle a bit more brown matter to cap it off.

Remember to stop adding new green matter once its full! Your compost needs to incubate in order to break down the material. If you keep adding to it, you will never complete the process.

Step 5: Turn the pile. You will need a pitchfork or compost aerator tool to turn the pile. This is an important step that needs to be started about a week into the process. This will keep the thermal process going and the oxygenated microbes happy.

Notes: If you live in a colder climate, you will need to insulate your bin in the winter. You can do this easily with bubble wrap. The bubble wrap will allow for continual airflow into the container yet help retain its warmth to avoid the pile freezing up.

Check out my Composting in the Winter article for tips to keep your outdoor compost pile going all year long.

Composting Without a Balcony/Apartment Composting

Composting indoors is not as scary as one would think. It is pretty much the same as composting on the balcony, except you do not drill holes into the bottom of your bin. You do need to be more attentive to several factors that you wouldn’t have to worry about with the outdoor version.

Keep an eye on –

Moisture control – Since your bin does not have leakage holes, your compost can get too wet and slimy. This can be controlled by adding more brown matter into the mix. You want your mix to be fluffy and aerated at all times.

The contents you put in it – Smelly green matter can stink up your home, such as onion peels and garlic. Its probably wise to just chuck those. Watery materials like melon rinds or squash could add too much sogginess to your container. Definitely do not add any meat, bone or dairy products to your indoor bin!

The size of the material – you want your contents to break down even faster indoors, so chop or shred your green and brown matter before adding to the pile.

Aeration – turn your pile often to avoid dry spots and especially soggy spots. You need to be turning frequently with a hand shovel or trowel.

Let’s talk about worms! Are worms necessary for balcony and indoor composting? The answer is no, but they speed up the composting process and can break down even more materials.

Worms do take a little more care than just tossing them into the bin – they require paper shavings to be added in regularly, you need to watch how much green matter you place into the bin, and worms also freeze in colder climates for those who are balcony composting in the winter.

If you are having trouble with your balcony or indoor compost pile, you can head over to my Compost Troubleshooting article. 

In conclusion, apartment composting techniques are not just limited to sprawling properties and large backyards. With a little care and proper technique, you can recycle and reuse your green materials no matter how small your abode is.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide and found it useful! If you think it will help out someone you know, please share it with your friends over social media! Feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Have a great day!

– Regina C.

18 Tips for Composting in the Winter [and Thru Every Season!]

Unless you live in a Mediterranean climate (which comprises of only 3% of the Earth), your compost pile can be drastically affected by all sorts of weather and seasonal conditions.

Although your pile may need a little extra attention during temperature extremes, you can continue to compost in the winter and in the most unlikely of conditions.

Whether it be heat or cold, torrential downpours or drought, there is a solution to keeping your compost pile happy and productive.

Let’s dive right into it! (Not the compost pile, but the article!)

Composting in the Winter

composting in the winter with horses

Horses make great hot manure for keeping winter compost piles warm!

The most common concern is composting in the winter. Why? Because the biochemistry of the compost relies on heat to activate the microbial process of breaking down the waste. A frozen compost pile will become inert and will not activate until springtime.

Many composters are at peace that their piles will hibernate during the winter. But you do not have to wait out all those cold months for your pile to keep on making dirt!

Here are the top tips for keeping your compost toasty and active during the winter.

Leaves – Store extra leaves in the fall to amend your pile through the winter. Leaves are an easy source of brown matter and are an essential ingredient to keep the heat going in the pile.

Unlike the summer months, a moist pile will freeze in the winter. The leaves will work to wick away moisture from the pile which is vital to maintaining the winter composting process.

Just a couple of contractor bags full of leaves should be more than enough to get your pile through the winter months.

Insulation – Your compost pile naturally makes its own heat in the decomposition process, but in the winter the heat can slow, and in extremely cold temperatures it can become altogether dormant. Insulating the pile can help keep the warmth in and your compost plugging along.

Insulation can be done easily. A dark colored tarp thrown over the top and wrapped around the sides will attract the warmth of the sun. You can also place a thick layer of hay on top to keep in warmth in.

Some more insulation ideas:

  • Hay bales
  • Cinderblocks
  • Cardboard
  • Pre-built outdoors composting container
  • Emergency blanket
  • Old blankets
  • Old carpet

Composting in the Winter

Placement  – If your pile is in a barren area that is exposed to the elements, chances are it will freeze solid during the winter. Relocating your pile to a more protected area can help remedy the situation. Place your pile near a structure or around thick brush to help deter exposure. Some more placement ideas:

  • Build a protective wall for wind protection
  • Place by a hill or mound
  • Barn, garage, or other sort of outbuilding
  • A grove of trees or stumps
  • In a small gully (as long as moisture is not a concern)
  • Surround with mounds of dirt

Add in bulk – adding in a scrap here or there will do your pile a disservice in the winter. When you collect scraps and add in bulk, it will retain more heat. When adding to your pile, collect in an old coffee can or tabletop composter and only add to the pile once full. This also goes for green yard waste; collect your grass clippings and dead foliage for a bulky nitrogen boost in the dead of winter.

Proper Layering – Maintaining the golden ratio of composting is key to creating the heat necessary for your pile to keep breaking down. Although this ratio can be calculated, it can be cumbersome to measure and weigh your rubbish, especially since material densities and chemistries vary greatly.  The typical ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. However, no two piles are alike, and taking the time to try and calculate ratios is a cumbersome event. The best rule of thumb is to add 6 inches of brown to start your pile, add some handfuls of brown in the middle of the pile, and add a brown layer to the top as a cap. Over time you will get a feel for the ratios for your pile, and it becomes more of an art form than a science.

Shred – Large chunky materials will take longer to break down and require more heat to process them. Give your winter pile a jumpstart with shredding, cutting, and breaking down both green and brown matter before adding.

Less or no turning – Mixing the pile once or twice a week is standard in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, when you mix your pile, the heat dissipates and causes your pile to cool. Turn only as needed, or not at all.

Moisture – Moisture is good for the pile, but too much of it can cause your pile to freeze throughout, ceasing the microbial breakdown. Although some moisture is needed, air on the side of a little dryer pile, and add some more brown material to keep it that way.

Inoculation – adding microbes to your pile can help accelerate the process. This can easily be done by adding a handful of potting soil to your mix.

Adding some hot nitrogen materials can keep the heat going as well. This can be coffee grounds, horse or poultry manure. You can also try super-hot nitrogen such as lobster, crab, shrimp, or crawfish, but keep in mind this will attract some unwanted critters.

Note: When it gets too cold out, your pile will freeze no matter what you do. Let mother nature take its course and tend to your pile when a warming trend occurs.

Composting during Hot Summers / Dry and Arid Climate

Who says you can’t homestead in the desert?

Summertime is great for composting as warmth from the air and sun works with your pile to keep the heat going. There are a few things to watch out for to make sure your pile stays happy and healthy during the summer months.

Moisture control – Your pile will be prone to losing too much moisture, especially if you live in an area with a dry heat. Make sure to place your pile in an area where the sun isn’t beating down on it all day long. If that is not an option, cover your pile with a dark colored tarp or have a dark colored bin with a lid to help keep moisture and heat in.  Make sure to water your pile frequently so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. This might have to be done almost everyday in very dry and hot areas.

Turn frequently – Now is the time to turn that pile and take advantage of the outdoor heat! Once or twice a week is sufficient.

Bury food scraps – Make sure to get your fresh food scraps deeper into the pile and cover the pile with brown matter. Hot weather causes green matter to decompose faster so getting it closer to the middle of the pile helps create heat and will also minimize the stench of decomposing food scraps in the summer heat.

Consider trench composting – If you live in a super-hot and arid climate like the desert, your pile may need extra protection from the elements. Digging a hole for your compost pile and then covering it up with brown matter will help keep your pile cool and moist. Just remember to keep it watered and add 6 to 8 inch layer of brown material on the bottom of the hole.

Composting in a Moist and Damp Climate

Make sure to place your compost pile where moisture doesn’t accumulate

Folks that live in areas where the humidity and precipitation is high also need to take some extra measures to protect their pile from the elements.

Moisture control – keeping your pile protected from oversaturation of rain is crucial. Use a tarp, a bin with a lid, place the pile under an awning or popup cover.

Placement – Keep your pile from being exposed to rainfall to avoid over-sogginess. Don’t place your pile in any natural drainage areas where water can permeate from underneath. If possible, place your pile on an elevated hill or mound which will help with drainage. An area with trees could work if there are enough branches and foliage to keep rainfall at bay. This can also help naturally cap the pile with brown material as the leaves fall in the fall.

Brown matter – add brown matter more liberally to help soak up with any excess waste. Straw, hay, paper, and dead leaves work well for this matter.

Bury scraps – make sure to get fresh scraps deep into the pile (about 10 inches or more) so they don’t get over slimy from the rain and humidity. Keep a nice layer of brown matter on top for added moisture control.

Turn often – diffusing extra liquid and aerating the pile will help keep your compost healthy and happy.

Note: If you live in an area that rains all the time, consider using a bin with a lid and elevating the bin to reduce moisture permeation from saturated ground.

Alternative: Composting Indoors

If you are concerned about battling the elements of the seasons, you can also consider composting indoors, which you can learn about in my Apartment Composting Guide. Granted, this has its own set of challenges, but can also be more convenient than outside composting, especially if you live in a highly volatile climate.

I hope you have enjoyed my guide to composting in the winter and in any climate. If you are still having trouble with your pile, check out my Troubleshooting Compost Pile article for more advice.

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below, I will be reading and answering them!

– Regina C.

Your 7-Step Guide to Starting a Foolproof Compost Pile [2020 Edition]

Here at Maximum Off Grid, I am all about bringing you solutions to create systems of independence. One massive problem we have today is the monumental amount of food waste that we create. A staggering one pound of food per person per day is thrown away in America.

One great way to combat all this waste is to start a compost pile.

Composting your organic leftovers has immense benefits and can create its own complete independent microbiome system, which is pretty much a fun science experiment for adults (and the kids too).

Let’s take a look at the basics of composting and why it’s a good idea for anyone!

start a compost pile

Why Compost?

Essentially, you are making dirt, and dirt is good!

The main reason to start a compost pile is to create rich and nutritious soil for your garden. Note, this doesn’t have to be for a robust vegetable garden. This can be for your house plants, decorative plants used in landscaping, even tiny kitchen herb gardens.

Compost provides nutrition to seedlings and crops

You can also use compost in areas where you are experiencing soil erosion. It can help break up dirt rich in clays or amend sandy soils for a more solid consistency.

Composting saves you money when feeding your plants. No longer will you need to buy expensive potting soils to amend your plants.

You are helping out the environment by naturally decomposing your own waste versus clogging up a landfill.

It is a great way to decompose your grass and leaf waste. Instead of buying expensive bags and filling up your trashcan, you can naturally eliminate your yard waste in an environmentally friendly way.

It really doesn’t take much effort to begin a composting project. Heck, the whole family can get involved and you can teach the kids a little bit of microbiology!

Compost replenishes and revitalizes old and exhausted soils and reduces soil erosion; it also prevents runoff from storm water.

In the scope of the bigger picture, replacing fertilizers with compost drastically reduces greenhouse emissions. Synthetic fertilizers are created with a huge amount of fossil fuels and impacts environmental and human health. Compost is organic and inert, plain and simple lush dirt, that replaces the need for toxic fertilizers and pesticides!

Organic compost matter improves the growth of plants by improving the structure of preexisting dirt. This is done so by breaking up clays and adding the capacity to hold more water and nutrients in the soil.

At this point, you are pretty convinced to start a compost pile. You may even be excited by the sheer thought of composting! Come on, let’s take this into action!

How to Start a Compost Pile

Composting is one of the easiest projects to get started, is pretty much fool proof, and is quick to deliver with rewarding, lush, dark, rich soil.

The first step to composting is choosing a location.

First off, composting bins, when balanced correctly, do not stink. They should smell like dirt. Placement of your compost pile does not need to be based on smell.

However, a compost bin is not exactly pleasing to the eye, so placing it in a discreet location in your backyard is a better choice than placing it right by the front door.

You do want to consider a convenient location with easy access. Placing your compost pile in the very far back corner behind the hedges isn’t really manageable. Just think of how annoying it is to take out the trash, any unneeded steps feel like drudgery! Same goes for composting. Place it in an easy access location that doesn’t require a lot of steps to get to.

You will need some workspace around the pile for basic maintenance and to retrieve the dirt once the composting is final.

You may have different compost piles for different types of matter. A leaf, grass, and woody compost pile may work better by the trees. If you have a vegetable garden, you may want to place your compost pile directly in the garden for passive soil amendment, or near the garden for easy compost access.

An obvious but important tip for placement is to place directly over soil or grass instead of on your patio or concrete. This will give your pile the benefits of healthy microbes, worms, and other natural decomposers.

Also, make sure to choose a location that is protected from the sun as the sun will evaporate moisture from the pile too quickly. You also don’t want your compost pile in a naturally wet area or an area where rainwater collects.

The second step is to determine the size of your composting location. The basic size for beginner piles is 3 feet by 3 feet and 3 feet tall. Any smaller of a size and your pile will not create the warmth needed for matter breakdown. The maximum size recommended is 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet high. Any larger and your pile may hold too much water which constricts airflow to the center. Remember that the pile must be turned so going too big may be too cumbersome to work with.

Third step is to decide on an open heap pile, purchasing a composting bin or building one yourself.

An open heap pile is the cheapest method, as you basically dig a hole in the ground and cover it up with topsoil. This option can be good for yards with lots of space, if you have a lot of organic matter to compost, and if your ground is easy to dig. There are downsides to trench composting; piles can start to sprawl, critters can freely access your pile, or your ground is not viable to dig up easily.

There are a bunch of fancy compost containers to choose from if you want a tidier pile. Stationary composting bins have a large capacity that you can fill, whereas a pile becomes a rounded sprawling heap. Having a lid on your bin is a nice feature as well; lids keep in moisture and curious critters out. A dark colored bin helps with heating up the pile. Most compost bins are bottomless so the good microorganisms and worms can infiltrate the pile. Some of them also have doors for removing finished compost, leaving the unfinished matter on top.

Building a DIY compost container is pretty easy as well. It can be as simple as assembling pallets into a cube and throwing a tarp on top. A stackable milk crate composter is neat because the finished materials work their way to the bottom. A wire fence bin works really well for leaves, woody materials, and grass clippings. You can get creative with any materials you have. Cinder blocks, old plastic bins, even straw bales can be organized into holding organic matter.

The 3 Bin System. I would like to note the success of the 3 bin system. Essentially, you line up 3 bins. The first bin is the starting phase of your compost, all of your organic materials start here. Once that bin has been filled up, you transfer it to the second bin for the medium stage. This matter stays put and is not added to while bin number one slowly fills up again.

start a compost pile with a three bin system

The three bin system is a successful way to run a larger compost operation

Once the first bin is full again, the contents of the second bin go into the third bin for the final composting stage and the first bin gets dumped into the second, so on and so forth.

The chain of composting command is fool proof and provides an ongoing system of fresh compost dirt.

Time for step 3, lets get to filling our bin!

The goal for a successful pile is to heat up fast, decompose quickly and uniformly, not smell, and is easy to maintain and turn. Layering your pile correctly is key to a well oiled compost pile.

There are two identifiers of material for your bin: green and brown matter.

Brown matter is high in carbon, decomposes slowly, and is the energy source for the microbes that break down the green materials. Brown matter can be composed of leaves, hay, straw, sawdust,  non-glossy paper, paper towels, tissue, egg shells, woody material, and wood ashes (sparingly). Make sure to break down paper, leaf and woody elements by shredding or mulching them.

Green matter is high in nitrogen, quickly decomposes, and provides the microbes with proteins to reproduce. Green matter consists of all the vegetative materials, manure, kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings and fresh yard waste.

Start a compost pile with a layer of brown matter, about six to eight inches deep. Make sure your brown layer is mulched or shredded for a nice fluffy texture. The brown layer will absorb moisture and encourage aeration.

Then simply add green matter on top of the brown.

The biochemical interaction between the brown layer and the green layer is where the magic happens. Getting the right ratio between the two causes the thermal effect that breaks down the pile quickly.

Hitting the golden ratio is more of an art over a science. Sure, you can spend time calculating and adjusting the contents of your pile accordingly if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, then adjusting the composition of your pile will typically do the trick. If your pile is too slimy, add more brown matter. If your pile is too dry, add more green matter.

If you like, seal the pile with a layer of brown matter. It acts as a protective covering and can improve aesthetic but is not necessary. A protective brown layer can also help prevent oversaturation of rainwater and can also insulate the pile from losing too much water.

Step 4 is all about watering. Your compost pile has to stay moist for the biochemical breakdown to occur. Now, overwatering can become problematic. You do not want a soggy stinky slimy pile. Rather, aim for the wetness of a sponge, moist but not soaking.

The amount of watering your pile will need will greatly vary with the climate you live in. Check out my Guide to Composting in All Seasons article for tips and advice.

Step 5 time to aerate the pile. Typically, aeration ought to be done about every 3 to 7 days for the first couple of weeks then once a week thereafter. If your pile looks matted and needs some fluff, go ahead and give it a turn. If you add to the pile, mix it every few times. A simple pitchfork will do the job or you can purchase a compost aerator tool.

Step 6 Keep filling your bins. Remember to add your brown layer occasionally to keep air flow to the pile and keep on mixing. Once your bin is full, transfer it into the medium bin for the incubation period if you are using the 3-bin system or simply stop filling your bin. Just remember to turn the pile!

Step 7 enjoy your rich dark compost soil! Your soil is ready once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a dark, luscious rich crumbly soil.

Key takeaways to start a compost pile:

  • Choose a good location that is not too sunny or hot but is protected from rain and wetness and is easily accessible yet concealed from neighbors.
  • Make sure your pile is no less than 3 x 3 x 3 and no greater than 5 x 5 x 5.
  • Choose a bin that is right for you, either store bought, do it yourself, or no bin at all.
  • Fill your bin with a good brown / green ratio. 6 – 8 inches of brown at the bottom, green piles on top, with occasional brown added here and there. An optional brown cap can help.
  • Aerate your pile once a week or a little more.
  • Once the bin is full, transfer over to the medium bin for incubation, or simply stop filling it. Remember to aerate your pile.
  • Once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a rich dark crumbly soil, the composting process is complete.

If you are planning to start a compost pile indoors, I take this topic further in my Balcony and Indoor Composting Guide.

Common Composting Questions Answered:

Can I use meat in my compost pile?

Only use vegetative waste in your pile. Meat, dairy, and bones can stink up your pile, take longer to break down, and will attract pests such as racoons, rats, and mice. Note that eggshells are ok in piles, just not the egg yolk or whites.

How long does it take for my pile to be ready?

This all depends on how long it takes for your pile to get to incubation period, how often you add scraps to your pile, the time of year it is, how often you turn it, and the biochemical composition of your pile. It could be anywhere in the range of 4 weeks to one year. This is where the 3-bin composting method comes in handy. Your piles are always in a different state of ripening, from collecting green matter, to the middle incubation period, to the final stages. Turning your pile will have a huge impact and reaching the appropriate heat will greatly hasten the process. Over time you will get the feel for the right ratios and how often to mix the pile. Not all piles are created equally!

Do I need to cover my compost?

Many composters like to cover their pile to keep vermin out and help with heat induction. Covers also keep moisture in and help the pile not dry out too quickly. A cover can be made out of the brown carbon base as well. Just add a few inches of mulched dried leaves or woody materials.

How can I accelerate my compost pile?

Having the proper ratio of brown to green will drastically increase the heat reaction within the pile. Brown matter is needed throughout the pile to increase aeration in dense areas. Just remember not to add too much. Mixing the pile on a regular basis will also add to breakdown speed.

You can also look into composting activators. These activators are comprised of nitrogen that provide nutrients to the microbes that break down the pile.

If you are having trouble with your compost pile, head over to my comprehensive Compost Troubleshooting article. 

In Conclusion

Fresh compost is the best!

Composting is one of the easiest independent systems you can create for many benefits. Being able to amend your garden with this nutritious soil is vital in growing robust fruits and vegetables for you and your family. It is also a great way to reduce waste production and keep our landfills cleaner, even if it just a little bit at a time.

And that is what its all about. Making small changes that add up to a healthier and brighter future.

If you are ready to take your composting a step further, then explore my Composting Toilet Systems Explained article.

I hope you have enjoyed my thorough guide to start a compost pile. Please leave me any questions or comments below. Have a wonderful day!

– Regina C.