Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I have to admit that I love composting. It took me a little while to get into the habit, and I still haven't really built my official compost bin (coming soon), but I'm trying at least. It's kinda eye opening how much stuff I typically throw in the garbage that can go in the compost. We've always got a lot to dump in there.

Composting is great, not only because you're reducing waste, but it's an amazing (and free) way to improve your soil and consequently your garden. Last spring I put compost on my garden before planting and my raised garden produced four times more than the previous spring!

So here are the basics of how a compost pile is built (biologically speaking):

  1. Find a corner of your yard that's a little out of sight, but still easily accessible. There are lots of tutorials on how to build compost bins for little to nothing using pallets and the like. This is on my to do list, but for now I just dump everything in a pile in the corner.
  2. Put a base of brown materials (see above), then regularly add to your compost pile, keeping in mind the ratios in the chart above: 3 parts brown (carbon rich) to 1 part green (nitrogen rich). Examples of carbon rich materials are leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper, and straw. Examples of nitrogen rich materials are fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, and grass (make sure there are no weeds so you don't spread). My compost ratio isn't always perfect, but keeping them close will ensure that everything decomposes quickly and that the compost doesn't get smelly (too much green material will result in a smelly mess).
  3. Regularly grab a rake or pitchfork and turn the heap so that everything gets equal moisture and air. Except in the winter, the compost pile should be warm. That means it's working!
  4. If you want, you can add composting organisms like old compost, soil, or manure (as long as it's not from cats or dogs). These are by no means necessary, but just give your compost a little boost in it's journey to becoming a great soil additive, fertilizer, and plant food.
  5. Your compost is ready when all of the materials have broken down and are unrecognizable. It will smell nice and earthy (not like rotten food). Grab a shovel and use it as a soil amendment, fertilizer, potting soil, compost tea, or as a lawn top-dressing! There are tons of great uses for this "black gold".
This is something I merely dabble in, and these are only the basics. There are entire books and websites devoted to the art of composting and how to do it "right", so please don't let me be your final source! I'm learning as I go, so I'm sure I'll be posting more on the subject as time goes on. In the mean time, I leave you with a quote from Maureen Gilmer's The Small Budget Gardener...
In all my years of gardening I have never once created and maintained a functional compost pile. Perhaps it was due to the dry climate where I live or the fact that I just didn't have enough stuff to feed it... During those years of "failure" it was not a total loss because that heap consumed tons of leaves and rotten fruit and garden refuse. And maybe I'd get a few shovels of the good stuff now and then. It's value was that I had some place to put all that excess organic matter from garden and kitchen to avoid placing an added burden on the landfill. So if you aren't successful at composting, or if your yields, like mine, are too small to seemingly make much difference, just keep on gardening and composting. It all works out in the end.

How to Do a Free DIY Soil Test

As I've begun to journey into the world of gardening, I keep hearing a lot about soil pH and how important it is. But, as I've stated before, time and money have prevented me from taking my dirt to the garden center or shipping it off somewhere. I know I should, but I don't.

Another big part of the problem is that I never have really understood to science behind soil pH or how it really affects me. But I'm learning and growing. Here's the basic idea: soil pH influences the availability of essential nutrients in your soil. explains it like this:
The pH scale has 14 units and is centered on 7, which is neutral. Levels below 7 are considered in the acidic or sour range; readings above 7 are alkaline or sweet. Soil nutrients are at their optimum availability in the range between 6 and 7. Most plants grow best in this range, although some type of plant growth can take place anywhere between 3.5 and 10.
So in general, we want our soil to be as close to neutral as possible. Once you determine your soil's pH level, you can amend your soil with various additives (like compost, lime, pine needles, seaweed, etc.) depending on the acid or alkalinity of your soil. On a sidenote, in south-central Texas, the soils tend to be more alkaline since we have less rainfall.

How to test your soil for pH levelsOn to the soil test. This DIY test takes less than 15 minutes and requires materials that you most likely already have on hand, thereby making this test FREE (woo hoo!).

  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 2 containers (a jar or mug would work fine)
P.S. If you don't have vinegar and baking soda around your house, start doing it! They are useful for SO many things and incredibly cheap. That's another post.

Step 1: Scoop some dirt into each container.
Step 2: Pour 1/2 cup vinegar into the first container.

Step 3: If soil bubbles and fizzes (like mine did), your soil is alkaline. No need to proceed to the next step.

Step 4: If your soil did not react to the vinegar, add 1/2 cup of water to the other container of dirt. Then add 1/2 cup of baking soda. If the soil bubbles up and fizzes (mine didn't), your soil is acidic.

Now that you know the general pH of your soil, you are better equipped to make decisions and troubleshoot problems! Don't you feel smart?! I have to admit that I do.

From here, you most likely want to amend your soil to try and get it in that optimal "neutral" range. If your soil tests alkaline (again, most of you Texans probably will), you will want to add pine needles (road trip to Bastrop, anyone?), sulfur, organic matter like compost, or liquid seaweed. If your soil tests acidic, you can amend with lime (ground agricultural limestone) or wood ash.

Also, do your research. While most plants prefer that neutral pH, some prefer more alkaline or acidic soil. Blueberries, for example, prefer acidic soils to thrive, so depending on what you want to grow, you may not need to amend at all!

If you want to have a soil test done for more detailed results (always a good thing), here are some sources:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Get a Head Start on Your Vegetable Garden

One of the things that I love (and hate) about Texas is that it's not uncommon to have 70-80 degree days in February. While part of me mourns the fact that we NEVER get snow, I appreciate the fact that this weather is amazing. The kids spend their afternoons riding bikes, the breeze rustles the curtains as I work, and it always creates an itch in me to get my spring gardening and landscaping started. Apparently I'm too new at this to realize that it's February and planting season doesn't start until March. But I'm too impatient to wait for that.

So today I decided I'd at least get a head start on what I could, giving me something to do until the official season starts. The kids and I went and picked up some seeds last night for some of the vegetables we wanted to grow. Some of our veggie picks included tomatoes (Better Boy and Jelly Bean varieties), squash and zucchini, carrots, and beans. Tonight the kids and I gathered a few supplies and headed out to the back yard to plant our seeds. This was their first year to really help with the garden (I never thought they'd be that interested), and they were both so excited!

  • Egg cartons (FREE) 
  • Potting soil ($5) 
  • Seeds ($1.28/pack)

On a sidenote, this is my cat Snuggles (named by my five year old). She's a pretty cool cat. Just thought you should meet her.

The process was incredibly simple. We just put dirt into the cartons, put 1-2 seeds in each hole, and covered them with more dirt. When we were finished, we watered them with a spray bottle (so as to not displace the seeds) and put them in the kitchen window.

Overall, this was an incredibly easy project that took virtually no time to complete. Not only that, but I saved a significant amount of money by starting my plants from seed rather than paying the price for potted plants at the nursery. Now I'll just have to exercise patience as I wait for these to grow, and in the mean time, I can be planning and preparing my beds. (More on this soon!)

How do you try and get a head start on spring?

Monday, February 4, 2013

I Don't Know What I'm Doing, But I'm Here

Hello, world!

I am Breanna. I am a wife and mom. I live in the suburban San Antonio in a neighborhood where all the houses are merely feet apart and the yards are tiny boxes. I love the idea of gardening and landscaping (making our small space beautiful, creating an urban homestead, and all that...) but I haven't a clue how to do it (and I don't have the money to have someone else do it). I've spent a fair amount of time looking for a resource that will tell me what to plant and how and why (in a language that I can understand) in this unique south-central Texas climate. So my husband suggested that I start this blog and chronicle my gardening journey and maybe help others who are looking for the same kind of help.

A few disclaimers:

  1. I do not know what I'm doing. I'm flying by the seat of my pants here. I'm trying to learn as much as I can, but there's a ton I don't know. I'd love your feedback and insight as I begin this journey.
  2. I have a regular house with a regular small yards. You will not see (at least not in the near future) large rambling yards with no fences or boundaries.
  3. I am not rich. I will say it again that you will not see huge, expensive landscape projects here. I'm a girl who likes a good deal, and I love the word free. My husband makes fun of me for this, but I am okay with it. I'd rather spend my money on vacation.
  4. I do not have hours and hours upon end of free time to create elaborate gardens. I have two kids. I work. Time? What is that? I also embrace the words easy and low-maintenance.
I hope you'll continue to come around. Feel free to give and take ideas. If you have a question, let me know and I'll do my best to research it and create a post about it.

Thanks for stopping by!