Starting a Compost Pile

photo by Edward H Blake on flickr


Have you ever considered composting? It’s an easy and environmentally-friendly way to create nutrient-rich fertilizer from discarded waste; such as kitchen scraps, grass trimmings, wood ash, etc. It’s a technique that has been around for centuries, proving to be a literal lifesaver for those in extreme climates.

What is compost? Compost is decomposed (or decomposing) organic material. It’s a process that occurs in nature, whereas dead material is constantly recycled back into the earth, keeping soil rich and fertile. A compost pile is just a more concentrated sped-up version of this cycle.  Modern composters redirect up to 30% of household waste from trash bins, which saves space and money. All you need is a small 3’ x 3’ section to begin.


Choosing a Location

When choosing where to start a compost pile there are a few factors to consider. Choose a level location that allows for a couple hours of sunlight a day. Decomposition only occurs when the pile has the right amount of moisture, too much sunlight and the process will come to a halt. If your pile does dry out, a quick spray with the water hose and your back in business. Another factor to consider is distance. You don’t want your pile too far from the house if tossing scraps, or too far from your garden. Also, keep the pile away from nearby trees or other long rooted plants. The roots will soak up all the pile’s nutrients.


Prepping the Pile

Once you have chosen a location, you can begin preparations for the pile. To prevent animals from getting to your compost, such as raccoon or deer, its best practice to place wired or wooden fencing around the area. It’s also more aesthetically pleasing to have a decomposing pile of scraps hidden from view. Next, if your location has grass growing, turn the ground. This will kill the grass and create a nice base layer to host the decomposition. Add 2-3 feet of grass clippings and leaves to the turned soil and your prepping is complete.


Creating Compost

Now that we have a base layer it’s time to start adding to it. If collecting kitchen scraps, consider placing a container with a lid under the sink that you’ll empty once a week. This method makes collecting easy. If odor becomes a problem, keep another container of dried shredded leaves or newspaper to pour on top of the scraps. Paper and cardboard can be added to compost if it’s not glossy or exposed to harmful chemicals. It’s very important to have a balanced layered compost pile. Too much household waste will cause odor and attract animals and flies. When adding scraps, it’s best to add another layer of leaves, grass clippings, or hay on top. This ensures an odor-free and moist compost. You always want to have a nice balance of green and brown material. Consider keeping a trash bin of leaves and clippings close to the pile.


Waste to Avoid 

Although anything organic can decompose, some waste will slow the process or even contaminate the pile. Avoid pet waste as it will introduce unwanted parasites and microorganisms to the soil. Wood ash and sawdust from untreated wood are great, but don’t use charcoal ash or shavings from processed materials; these introduce sulfur and harmful chemicals. Avoid meats, fats, and diseased plants or weeds. It’s also important to note that size matters! Smaller waste is easier to decompose. Chop kitchen scraps into small pieces and introduce light even layers of trimmings to reduce clumping.


Reaping the Benefits

Congratulations! You’ve just started a compost pile that’s creating nutrient-rich soil at this very moment. For best results, turn your pile every couple of weeks to keep the contents moist and decomposing evenly. Use the enriched soil in flower beds, potted plants, or sprinkled throughout a tilled garden. Keep some of the dead material to kickstart the decomposition again once you’ve used the soil. Repeat the composting process to keep utilizing household waste and clippings to create top-notch fertilizer for all your needs.


Perfect Perennials to Plant in the South

Summer is almost here and it turns out we aren’t the only ones that like to soak up the sun. Add a touch of color to your garden or spice up your landscape with easy to maintain, sun-loving perennial flowers. “Perennials” are plants that will bloom for multiple years, dying out in the colder months and growing back again from their rootstock in spring. Some even retain their foliage year-round. Plant perennials to enjoy the scenes and scents of these beauties throughout the seasons, year after year. Here’s a few of our favorites:

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Rooftop Landscapes: Making Use of Roofs

In cities across The United States, urbanites have found a creative way to “green” their cramped spaces: building rooftop gardens and landscapes. Practically, there are several benefits to building a green space high above the ground. On rooftops, sun is ample, soil conditions are well controlled, and deer can’t eat into your flowers and produce! A garden can also beautifying an otherwise nondescript roof. As more and more people and businesses explore the possibilities of rooftop gardening, previously dull city skylines are becoming flush with verdant color.

Rooftop Garden

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Investing in Outdoor Living

When young professionals or families get ready to buy their first house, landscaping is typically an afterthought. More immediately pressing is the interior design of the property, and how well it accommodates both need and comfort. Though some prospective homeowners might think at length about the amount of acres a plot has, or the levels of sunlight/shade a yard gets, most are more preoccupied with the square footage of the house itself—how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, the size of the kitchen and hallways, etc.

No doubt, interior design is incredibly important to homeowners; after all, most of us spend the majority of our time inside. But overlooked landscaping can make a home feel unfulfilled. A thoughtfully curated landscape encourages homeowners to spend more time outside—gardening, grilling, swimming, playing sports, and indulging in relaxing moments with family and friends. Considering the increasing amount of Americans working sedentary jobs and then coming home to a generally sedentary lifestyle, making use of outdoor space and finding good reason to spend time outdoors is now a key component to creating work/life balance. Investing in good landscaping is one way to encourage you and your family and friends to find that balance. Plus, the money you put into your lawn and landscape will likely return to you in the long run; properties with polished outdoor living spaces are more valuable than properties without them.

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Attracting Pollinators in the Garden

You may have noticed how much pollen is in the air now that temperatures are warming and spring is in full bloom. If you suffer from spring allergies like I do, you’ve probably been dealing with a runny nose and eyes, fits of sneezes, and other unpleasant side effects of the burgeoning season. Indeed, pollen gets on a lot of people’s nerves. It can seem like an obstacle preventing us from enjoying spring to the fullest, but, ironically, spring needs pollen to thrive. More specifically, spring needs pollinators—animals such as bees and butterflies that carry pollen from one plant to another and aid in plant reproduction—to sustain all of its famous colorful blooms. Pollinators support the building blocks of all ecosystems, and they are essential to environmental health. Humans and animals alike need them to survive—the least us human gardeners can do is create pollinator-friendly gardens. So take an allergy pill, power through your sniffles, and consider these tips for attracting pollinators to your yard:

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Don’t “DIY” Your Hardscape

Now that endless tutorials and how-to guides are available online for free, DIY home improvement is more popular than it’s ever been. There are plenty of good reasons to go for a do-it-yourself kind of project, and the most pressing of those reasons is money. Many homeowners find their properties in dire need of hardscape upgrades, but they understandably don’t want to invest thousands of dollars into hiring a team of professionals. However, hardscapes are a lot more complicated than a garden bed or a lawn. When a professional undertakes a hardscape project, they consider a long list of factors before they even begin drafting a design. Building a successful hardscape feature requires a lot of skill, time, and labor. If you want your hardscape to last, it may ultimately be worth it to invest in a professional hardscaping team. Besides, a well-constructed hardscape can add significant value to your property, making it worth the initial splurge. Here are some more reasons to forego a DIY hardscape:


Maintain a Timeline and a Budget

Life happens. Homeowners are often busy with work, school, childcare, and other preoccupations that make it difficult to invest a lot of time into a big hardscaping project. DIY hardscapes often take much longer than homeowners anticipate after all of the planning and troubleshooting they require, and plenty of amateur hardscapers end up going way over the budget they originally intended. Professional crews, on the other hand, maintain a strict to-do list and can typically guarantee a reasonable timeline to a finished project. All the while, the homeowner is free to continue working, taking care of family issues, and attending to anything else that comes up. Further, professionals stick close to their estimates and are already aware of how much labor/materials cost. When you agree to pay $10,000 on a hardscaping project, that’s what you’re going to pay—full stop.

More Flexibility in Hardscape Design

Amateurs are perpetually limited by their skill level. Simply put, it takes many hours of intense training for professional hardscapers to get to the skill level that they’re at. Amateurs might have big plans for a hardscape design, like adding in water features or lights, but they’ll ultimately be limited by the kind of special expertise that electric/water features require. And any mistake made during a hardscape install can be debilitating to the overarching design. A property with a botched patio or fire pit is unappealing to most. So, unless you are confident in your own expertise, it’s safest to leave it up to the professionals.

Access to Industry Standard Materials

Professionals have ample access to the most durable and quality materials on the market, and most have deals with manufacturers that allow them to buy these materials at a discounted price. Amateurs are not often afforded the same discount, and, most of the time, they don’t have access to the same standard of materials, or adequate knowledge about which materials are best considering the possibility of erosion, wear and tear, and climate related damage. And materials are key—the right materials help distinguish a thorough job from a rushed one.

Safety First!

This one is too often overlooked. Professionals are trained in hardscaping safety standards: how best to lift heavy blocks; what kind of precautions should be taken before wiring a light; how to avoid utility lines; and how to minimize environmental impact. Amateurs can easily underestimate how dangerous building a hardscape can be. In turn, they might hurt themselves or cause expensive damage to their property. Remember, when you’re paying a team of professionals, you’re paying for their labor *and* their expertise—and expertise is priceless.

Throwback Gardening: Timeless Practices

In this day and age, new technologies are changing the way that people garden and digitizing plant science. There are cellphone apps that can instantly identify plants, help you plot, figure out your soil pH, and keep track of watering schedules for you. There are also highly sophisticated irrigation systems, mowers, and even planting pots on the market—but all of these newfangled gadgets are derivatives of what came before them. For many thousands of years, gardeners have been expanding on basic practices that are both timeless and amazingly effective. Here are some tried and true ancient gardening practices that still hold up today, smart phones be damned!

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Coffee in the Garden

Happy National Joe Day! For many of us, having a cup (or five) of joe is an essential part of our morning routines. Coffee helps allay drowsiness, grumpiness, and laziness; it calls us to action and fuels the fires of productivity. But, beyond its usefulness as a caffeinated beverage, coffee is also a valuable gardening resource. Gardeners have long been using coffee grounds as a component in compost, fertilizer, and mulch. Some even suggest that coffee grounds can deter pests like ants from damaging crops and flowers. If you have a lot of leftover coffee grounds and want to try putting them to use in the garden, here are some tips of where to start:

Coffee in the Garden

Photo by Sami Keinanen.

Coffee and Compost

In general, coffee grounds contain a healthy amount of nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium, plus small amounts of other nutrients than can benefit plant growth. Quality and nutrient density varies depending on the type of coffee, and so gardeners often chose to use high-quality, organic coffee for their plants rather than generic brands.

Incorporating coffee grounds into a fertilizer or compost pile is easy and normally requires little preparation. You can sprinkle clean grounds right on top of existing soil (and mix well) or on top of a compost pile. For composting purposes, coffee is considered a “green” component, meaning it must be balanced out with sufficient “brown” components, like dried leaves and wood scraps. Using coffee this way is widely regarded as safe and effective, and it is much more useful than throwing pounds of coffee grounds into the trash every week! For more on composting, see our how-to guide.

Coffee and Mulch

Inundating plants with large quantities of coffee grounds can do more harm than good. Coffee grounds are typically highly acidic and can cause mold outbreaks if used in excess. However, a light smattering of grounds mixed with other organic material can make a great base for mulch. Start by mixing a handful of coffee grounds into a bucket of compost or leaf mold, and then spread the mixture liberally over plant beds. The nutrient-rich coffee grounds should mix well with the other material, and provide a healthful covering for plants. If your plants are highly sensitive to acid, and you’re worried adding acidic coffee grounds to your soil might hurt them, consider mixing a cup of agricultural lime or hardwood ashes into your grinds before adding them to compost/leaf mold.

For gardeners whose soils are highly alkaline (low in acid), adding coffee grounds directly to the soil could help neutralize it without creating any adverse effects.


On this National Joe Day, give thanks to America’s favorite caffeinated beverage and the various ways it is used for our betterment—including in America’s gardens!

High Altitude Gardening and Landscaping

Though the Appalachian Mountains are not quite as formidable as the Rockies, their ancient ridges still boast impressive altitudes. The highest mountain in The Blue Ridge is the 6,683 feet tall Mount Mitchell, only some three hours south of Roanoke in North Carolina. Locally, the highest peak in Roanoke County is Poor Mountain, which towers over the valley at 3,928 feet. Nearby, there are even higher peaks—the tallest mountain in Virginia, Mount Rogers (5,729’), is about two hours south, near the state line.

In Roanoke and across The Blue Ridge, most people settle in the valley, but some chose to make their homes higher up—where changes in altitude drastically affect the climate. At high altitudes, average temperatures are colder, the air is thinner, the even the composition of the soil is markedly different. Thus, mountain gardening and landscaping require a special set of skills and know-how. For local landscapers, knowledge of mountain climates is essential to serving a customer base comprised of mountain-dwellers and valley folk alike.

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Early Spring Gardening Tips

It’s officially the first day of spring! Here in Roanoke, Virginia, the new season is already showing off some of its color. Tulips and winter jasmine are blooming in garden beds, and a few trees are producing bright green buds and curled flowers—sure signs that the landscape is coming back to life. Still, winter has no intention of letting go just yet. A formidable snowfall is in the forecast, and more winter weather is possible this weekend, despite the seasonably warm days we’ve been having the last few weeks. As the weather continues to inspire surprise and frustration, many of us are wondering when we’ll have the chance to work on our spring gardens. After the snow clears and the temperature rises, there will be plenty of prep to do for the long and fruitful season ahead. Here are some tips on where to start:

Early spring gardening tips

Photo by Florian Lehmuth.

Shaping Your Spring Garden

Before you start planting and reworking your garden, you should do a thorough clean-up. Winter weather likely knocked debris into your yard. Left alone, that debris could harbor unwelcome pests and plant diseases. Be sure to pick up rotted leaves, tree branches, and other kinds of clutter.

You can now start planting fruit trees and shrubs, potatoes, and shade trees and vines. Cold-hardy plants like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, as well as plants started inside can now be transplanted outside into vegetable beds.

Early spring is a great time for pruning. You can prune flowering trees and shrubs like crepe myrtle and butterfly bush and cut back ornamental grasses. If you have a compost pile, now is a good time to turn the compost and prepare it for distribution.

There is a lot of garden planning that needs to be done in the early spring. On cold days, consider taking inventory of your garden tools and replacing any that need replaced. You can also start ordering summer fruit and vegetable seeds to be planted later in the season. And if you haven’t yet, order garden soil, mulch, and compost.

Broadleaf weeds like clover, dandelions, and chick weed run rampant in yards and gardens this time of year. Nip the problem in the bud and start controlling for these pesky infiltrators now, before they choke out your spring harvest. If pulling weeds, pull them at the root so they don’t regrow. If using a chemical solution, read environmental warning labels and be aware of the potential contamination risks that come with using herbicides.

The weather is likely to change considerably over the next couple of months, with gradually warmer days intermingling with cold, winter-like spells. To protect vulnerable young plants, consider keeping roots safe by putting a soil covering (ie. mulch) over your beds. Mulching beds can help keep root temperatures steady, even as ground temperatures fluctuate.

Unfortunately, March typically means it’s time to start mowing again. Ample moisture and warmer temperatures will bring the grass back to life in no time and, to keep it looking green and healthy, you have to trim it regularly. If you haven’t used your mower in months, it’s probably worth taking it for a test run to ensure it doesn’t need any pre-season maintenance.