Tag Archives: urban environmentalism

July Garden


July can surely make or break a small garden. Because it’s July I have mustard greens, Swiss chard, rue, apple mint, begonias, a kiwi vine/tree, and black-eyed Susan all bursting out of a 2-foot by 2-foot section of garden. It’s a potential tangle that somehow works with something akin to forestry practiced on a tiny scale. The edibles can all be gradually harvested, and the big leaves of the Swiss chard and mustard greens keep the soil cool and shade the begonias. The pink and fuchsia begonia blooms peek out ever so sweetly among the reddish and purplish veins of the mustard and chard leaves. The mustard greens are starting to flower, and I let some of them go to attract pollinators. Not a typical sprawling garden mint, this apple mint grows fairly upright on thick stems and responds to being cut back by continuing to produce attractively woolly, rounded leaves that taste subtly fruity deep into the season. More slow-growing rue spreads its blue-green, delicate-looking foliage throughout. (I say “delicate-looking” because rue, Ruta graveolens, is one tough plant, tolerant of hot and dry conditions and harsh winters. Quite toxic when consumed in large doses, it has been used medicinally in a variety of ways. I first planted it to make a tincture for treating my cat’s ear mites. It can also cause skin blisters when touched. I’ve never experienced that in the many years I’ve grown it, but I try to touch it as lightly as possible.)



Springtime alliums and columbines have given way to summer coneflowers.

On the other side of the plot, wild asters and purple coneflowers have lured painted lady butterflies and bees of all kinds into the garden. I leave the dried allium flower heads up as long as their stalks can stand. I like how their spiky globes contrast with the spiky disks and petals of the echinacea. The brilliant color of their spring is gone, inherited by the coneflowers.

Cleaning up July’s overgrowth has its drawbacks, as I was reminded this morning. Last week, I cut back aggressive plants, took some out, and tied others back, all in the name of offering more space, light, and air to half-hidden plants. But with more ground exposed, the garden was suddenly much drier. In its jungly state, the garden had resisted our streak of 90° days handily. I came back to wilting herbs in my opened-up garden. Luckily, I caught them in time to give them a good soaking, and we got a good two inches of rain over the last two days.

July is also having its way with the balcony garden, where things can get hot, dry, windy, and sometimes irresistible to pigeons. So, of course, I try to plant what likes these conditions—or doesn’t mind them. They all need extra water on 90° days, but as with the garden plot, placement helps retain moisture. The tropicals are good at shading the more delicate plants and the soil they’re in. The tough leaves of many of my current plants seem to have discouraged the pigeons for now.

Succulents, cacti, coleus, begonias, caladium, elephant’s ear, scented geranium, Dracaena marginata, and a saucer of mosses all do fairly well here, and I even have some seedlings going, an attempt at succession planting. I have no idea why the pigeons are leaving the seedlings alone. Maybe they taste better in the spring? With any luck, the bean plants will be producing in a couple of weeks, and some tender nasturtium leaves will add a bite of pepper to our salads.

The July garden is about eating for many gardeners, and for me though it’s not a standard vegetable garden, my plot and balcony do provide edibles that are usually ridiculously expensive or plain not available in the supermarket. These are things you don’t need in great quantities and taste best when picked fresh: greens, herbs, and ripe raspberries. Not a bad trade off.



The July garden on a plate: A tender mustard green leaf cradles rice and beans with fresh-picked oak-leaf lettuce (above, right).


Taking advantage of the range of shade to bright sun offered by a balcony corner. The wall offers protection to bean seedlings. Elephant’s ear and caladium below.





Bin Composting Step by Step

I refer to composting a lot in this blog, but only until recently, prompted by a reader, did I realize that I haven’t yet given any practical information about composting. Now that we’re heading into summer, a composting step-by-step is in order.

Plant food.

Plant food.

First, a little background: Growing up, I knew about composting as the semi-secretive operation that my father carried out on an overgrown strip of land to the side of our driveway. It was possibly an eyesore to the neighbors, but fortunately these were pre-Martha Stewart Living days and they didn’t complain. From time to time, I also leafed through a very ’70s-style book called Mulch that my father thoughtfully kept on a shelf in the bathroom (along with a variety of other garden literature). That was the extent of my knowledge and participation in composting.

About a year ago, I felt it was necessary to confront the old pile. By then, my father the gardener was no longer around to ask, but I’d become a composter in my own right and was curious about what my father’s work had produced. The first part of the journey into the depths of the pile was nightmarish. He had secured a seemingly indestructible plastic enclosure with metal stakes, now rusted. After a trip to the emergency room, so my husband, who was helping me, could receive a tetanus shot, we proceeded to detach a network of vines and tree roots that grew over and around and through the pile. In the end, I did get a little of what I was looking for: rich, crumbly humus that I put to use right away around newly planted shrubs. And the importance of pile placement was brought home to me. Trees and vines are opportunistic. They had been feeding on that pile for several decades. Some vine control earlier on would have left us more of the good stuff.

I bring up this story partly to illustrate that there are many ways to compost and what works best has much to do with the kind of gardening you do, what kind of space—and how much of
it—you have, and what materials you are planning to compost.

The guide that follows is based on the three-bin composting system for food waste that I set up at the Clinton Community Garden. It’s easily adaptable to a backyard garden.

Bin Composting 

Finding a space for your bin or bins: Well-managed compost does not stink, but it’s still better to place it in a low-traffic area, away from patios, windows, and curious kids and pets. Extreme shade, sun, and moisture are not ideal, but there are ways to work around those conditions if necessary. Bare earth, as opposed to pavement, is nice to have, but many urban gardeners, whose backyards are courtyards or balconies or rooftops, don’t have access to the ground. No matter, compost will still happen in the right kind of container (I will report on this soon in another post).

Fresh compost.

Harvesting from a Garden Gourmet.

Preparing the space: Clear away plants from the spot you’ve chosen and smooth out the ground. If you have trouble with rats or mice, you can rodent proof your composting area with hardware cloth, a heavy wire mesh. Use hardware cloth with quarter-inch holes. Lay the cloth on the ground and stake it in place. The bins will sit on top and should also be staked in (I’ll explain further on).

What bins to use and how many: I’ve had good luck with Garden Gourmet composting bins. If you have a little extra space to accommodate a round shape, Earth Machines are lower to the ground and broader at the base, which is helpful both for aeration and turning the compost. At the garden, I placed three bins side by side against a shed wall. A single bin might be enough for one household. The advantage to having two or more is that composting can continue after one bin is closed off for “cooking.”

Securing the bins: Garden Gourmets come with plastic anchor stakes, but I found these didn’t last long. To keep the bins in place, I used long coated metal planting stakes (slightly less than a quarter inch in diameter), which I cut to fit and ran down through each corner of the bins. These stakes also help retain the shape of the bins, which are made of recycled plastic and benefit from some extra structural support over time. To further discourage rodents and weigh down the hardware cloth, I filled in the spaces surrounding the bins with gravel and broken bricks.

worms n bin

Decomposition in progress thanks to billions of visible and invisible creatures.

Now the bins are ready to receive food scraps and garden waste. At my garden, we compost food waste and garden debris in separate bins. We have so much garden waste that it would quickly overwhelm the Garden Gourmets, so vegetation is corralled in a large open bin where it breaks down over the course of a summer. In the enclosed bins, food waste decomposes rapidly and compost can often be harvested a few times over the summer.


What to compost:

Kitchen scraps.

  • fruit & veggie scraps (peels, skins, cobs, pits)*
  • egg shells
  • loose tea and tea bags
  • coffee grounds and paper filters
  • nut shells
  • food-soiled paper napkins

*For best results, chop up food scraps in your kitchen with a sharp knife before adding them to the compost bin.

What not to compost:

  • dairy products
  • meat and bones
  • animal litter
  • bread, cooked and uncooked grains, baked goods
  • liquified, slimy organic matter
  • compostable or biodegradable bags—they turn into a goopy substance
full bin

A full bin soon to be closed off for “cooking.”

Layering is the preferred method for adding material to the compost bin. By alternating layers of “greens” and “browns,” you can balance nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material. Food waste and fresh green garden waste, like cut grass, is high in nitrogen and water. Dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, and saw dust from untreated wood are all good sources of carbon. The recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1, which may sound off-puttingly specific. Composters learn to eyeball it. For instance, for every new deposit of kitchen scraps, I add a layer of browns that’s about twice as thick. It also helps to dig into the pile before adding fresh material. I know when my calculations are a little off and the bin is too wet (the most common situation) because it will give off a slightly sour ammonia smell. The fix is to aerate the pile by digging and turning the material and adding more dry ingredients (shredded newspaper and dry leaves are the best for this). You will want to keep a container of browns nearby. Turning the bin once a week will speed along the process and keep all the bin inhabitants (the decomposers, the chewers, the tunnelers, and the diggers) active and happy.


Browns at the ready.

Tools and materials:
Pitchfork, shovel, gloves, sifter, wheelbarrow, compost crank, hardware cloth, and bins

good compost

The results: Nice dark compost. Time to sift it.

Garden Gourmet compost bins:
If you live in NYC, visit the Lower Eastside Ecology Center for discounted bins (http://www.lesecologycenter.org). You can order them and then pick them up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market.