How To: Stealing, Hoarding and Making Soil

The phrase “working mother” is redundant.”  ~ Jane Sellman

Being a mother of four brings any self-respect I have down a few notches. There’s practically nothing I won’t do when it comes to caring for my kids (think all things excrement or hygiene), and I surprise even myself at just what passes muster with my eyes, ears, and nose.

When it comes to caring for my garden, I may have lowered the bar even more.

Our Dinky Curb Waste for the Month
Our Dinky Curb Waste for the Month

My favorite day of the week isn’t Saturday anymore, or even Friday or Sunday like most others. It’s Trash Day, though not for what you might think. I am hyper-conscious creating trash for the landfill (they call me Trash Nazi). Our bag of curbside waste is now so small, it doesn’t even warrant being walked to the curb. I drop it instead at the gas station bin when it’s time to fill up the van. Much more convenient for me.

Stealing Trash

The reason Trash Day is so important for me is that I pick through others’ curbs to bring their trash home for my garden. One man’s trash is another man’s chick’s pleasure, It’s my nasty little secret that ain’t so secret anymore.

Purchasing soil and compost is expensive.  And even then, you never really know exactly what you’re getting for $20/cubic yard. Our nation’s limited peat bogs are being depleted to be sold in gardening stores.  Trees are being taken down to make way for more human development — some returned to the earth as carbon dioxide (burned), occasionally chipped on an industrial scale to be sold back to consumers.  Compost is made from various organic sources, but energy goes into bagging it to be sold at gardening stores for about $3.  That’s not to mention the energy input in the form of fossil fuels to make this all happen for us — magically, it seems.

Soil — like air and water — is and should remain free of charge by nature’s design and thanks to our earth’s complex (though still delicate) systems.  We must each take responsibility in our own way to keep it that way.

Thinking ‘Sustainability’

Though making free soil is relatively easy to do, some aspects of my method may require a certain confidence — and a healthy dose of going against the grain.  Collecting other people’s waste is not a generally accepted practice where I live (yet).  To maximize my time and yield, I pick the trash day immediately following weekly yard service crews.  And to minimize neighborly exposure to my habit, I do it in the morning right after the kids get on the bus (and after adults have already left work).

There is a limit to how much I can do to recycle waste.  It pains me to drive by bags that I have no room for, but it happens more often than not.  Don’t even get me started on how few recycle anything in my suburban neighborhood.

This as my contribution to reducing landfill waste. It costs me nothing really, save a bit of gasoline and a regular drive through the neighborhood. Even better, my neighbors have already fronted the bill to have others cut and collect all that waste, just so I can then transfer organics from their yards into mine. So very generous of them.

I do it for my kids. The things I do today affects how it is they will be living in the resulting environment with their families in the future, long after I’m gone. Or at least that’s what I tell them. (They don’t need to know the real truth, do they?)

Lasagna In The Garden

Compost gardening is not about more work — it’s less. It’s about getting out of the way or and helping to let the trillions of underworld beings do the work for me.  It’s my preferred method now having won over all the others that I’ve tried; lasagna gardening is in tune with my organic ways. There is no longer need for gas-powered equipment, pesticides, herbicides, or manures, and produce is always safe to just pick and eat right where I stand. Just knock the dirt off and pop it in your mouth.

Gardening the lasagna way is more than taking advantage of nature’s processes.  It’s about being a steward of the soil, rather than simply tending or gardening it. It’s recognizing opportunities and seizing them, like re-purposing neighbors’ waste.

The last time I took you through a lasagna gardening escapade, summer was coming to a close, and fall leaf-drop was already well under way due to a few weeks of triple-digit temps and no rain.  By the end of the year, the grass stops growing, the garden is done, and I find myself spending less time outdoors in nature and more time indoors with school and holiday activities.  That’s the time that green is rare and brown is down — down on the ground in the form of leaves.

I don’t particularly enjoy raking 1.5 acres in the fall, but I do like to tractor-mow.  Leaf-drop from 125  trees gets put right back into the ground beneath them, where they are free to feed on their own leaf litter — their preference.  You might have guessed from last week’s post I really love my trees.  Leaf litter it wants, leaf litter it gets.  And I can hang up the rake.

I turn then to house gutters, french drains, and storm sewers for debris.  Maintained hedges usually have a bit of debris as well. These regular maintenance chores contain more opportunities to organic waste.  The kids help me load these into the wheel barrow for storage near the leaf bags for later use.

Green material is there too, even late in the winter when turf grass is dormant.  Annual weed seeds begin to sprout and out-of-place plants pop up everywhere.  Clover I leave for the bunnies to munch (and my kids to search), dandelions are for my kitchen salads, but our HOA adamantly demands that the tall thistle-types have to go. I have a process for removal of these too and they help amend lasagna beds.  It does require that others overlook their ‘ugliness’ long enough so they reach sufficient height for harvesting.

By the time spring rolls around and the turf grass is growing again with reckless abandon, I pull out the push mower and bagging attachment and catch some green.  I use this to amend grassy areas that suffered last year as well as for the gardens.  It’s easy to catch, manages hard-to-tractor-mow areas, and I get a bit of added exercise and Vitamin D to boot (a bikini top certainly helps).

If additional green material finds you, give your turf grass an added boost rather than buying and distributing petroleum-based fertilizers.  Grasses feed on the bacteria that break down the green matter (their “leaf litter”), and no extra watering is required to start the process.  This is why it’s best to just leave your clippings on the lawn (a/k/a/ grass-cycling) and ditch fertilizing altogether; the lawn then can do what it does best — choke out everything else out and make for a nice barefoot playing field — and no supplemental watering is necessary during drought conditions.  Really.

The area where our above-ground swimming pool was last year became a highly compacted, lifeless circle, made that way by two years of weighted water and no sunshine.  It was the perfect haven for weeds and competing grasses (here, that’s Bermuda).   Combine a few plugs of  grass — cut from the edges of /the espalier orchard — and harvested grass clippings and leaf litter, you can hardly tell now that there was ever a pool there before.

Organic matter really does work.

Gardening In The Compost

A lasagna garden is basically an in-place compost pile that is planted in. Ever notice how many seeds sprout in and around a compost heap? There’s good reason for that. The plant has everything it needs right there, so…why not just bring the plant to the compost, and not the compost to the plant?

Here’s what you need to build a compost pile, same as for a lasagna garden:

  • brown — dry organic, like leaves, cardboard, twigs, etc.
  • green — wet organic, like fresh grass and plants, kitchen veggie waste
  • compost — the “activator” or soil food web that begins the breakdown process (bagged or not)
  • layering and wheelbarrow skills — a/k/a your own free labor
  • water and sun

Layering of those first three ingredients is more critical than actually what the ingredients are.  Think lasagna — your garden will look a lot like a slice when it’s done.  The soil microbes — my “people” — do all the mixing, aerating, fertilizing, and water retention required to make it into soil. Practically zero work for me.

Brown is easily stored in the off-season.  Green is a whole ‘nother story; bacteria breakdown is a seriously smelly business.  Once the spring madness begins, grass clippings abound (curb and otherwise), and my dirty party begins.  This year, splitting time between an apartment and a house garden, I’ll be amending rather than building beds from scratch; the process is the same for both.

  • Gather materials (see above) and locate near the garden area.
  • Layer the ingredients:  green, brown, compost, repeat.   Continue until materials are used up.
  • Recycle any plastic bag remains.
  • Pull the bedding material aside and place any plants along with their starter soil into the ground.
  • Gently push the bedding around them.
  • Drop seeds and sprinkle a layer of compost on top of them, if you like.
  • Water well.
  • Do a spot water soak for 15-20 minutes every couple of days to establish the plants.

By the end of the second week, I quit regular watering and rely on Mother Nature instead.  Water only as needed — lasagna beds are incredible sponges and the ground beneath it is rich and invites deep root growth.

Companion planting herbs and other plants, coupled with a crop rotation habit (tubers where feeders were last season, vice versa) aids moisture and nutrient retention, and helps minimize insect problems.  Maybe a bit of mulch or other brown that’s hanging around.

And that is all, folks.

Less Work = More Time To Enjoy

My work is done for the season, save picking and eating the yield of my veggies.  Now then.  I have extra time to go take some photos of what is growing, in spite of me.

Thank you, little microbes.

Thank you, little plants and your fruits

Thank you, Mr. Rain and Mr. Sunshine.

Forgive me, Neighbors, for my wacky, hoarding, lazy gardening ways.

How does your garden grow?

Do you have a particular garden method that works for your lifestyle?

38 thoughts on “How To: Stealing, Hoarding and Making Soil

  1. Wonderful post! I’ve been known to throw a few of the neighbors bags o’ leaves in the ol’ minivan on numerous occasions…that stuff is gold! I keep clear of the lawn clippings from people we don’ know, though, as its hard to tell if their lawn’s been treated with the nasty chemicals. Great primer on lasagna gardening!Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  2. Hi Shannon! There is a saying …how the other half live. I love your blog! I love how you steal trash. Our life styles are thousands of miles apart, yet we have our reasoning in common. I am in the UK, I am a retired teacher, I lived on a narrowboat for 10 years and for the past 6 years I have lived with my new husband as self sufficiently as possible, producing our own happy meat and organic veg. About twenty five years ago I came over to Texas to stay with a friend in Victoria, near Houston. I know exactly the lifestyle you live. You are an extraordinary young lady and I applaud your ethics and I hope your children learn to shout about their mum’s trashy ideas. Bravo, Shannon!!

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    1. Hey Roz. So nice of you to stop by! And what a delightful comment. Ah Victoria 25 years ago was a MUCH different place. So many more people here now you’d hardly recognize it.

      I also hope that my children may one day appreciate what it is I do, even if they think me to be a bit ‘weird’ today. As I’ve said before, I’m a Dirt-girl first. (But I tell them I do it for them…for their future.) Thanks for the hoorah. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahaha the title of this post cracks me up. Where I’m at, greenwaste goes in a separate green waste can so there is no way to steal it from the neighbors. But I’m no stranger to ‘stealing’ furniture or anything else that might be of use that gets set to the curb!

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    1. If I remember correctly you are in California — which is like the environmental nemesis to Texas. We are sooo behind the curve here when it comes to environmental management. It’s really more MISmanagement. Because I had to drive 25 miles to the nearest recycle center for 6 years, my garage became a sorting station and storage for trash. Getting curbside pickup last year was so welcomed!

      Now I just help out on the “trash” days, rescuing bags where I can. Just makes me feel good — and look weird. Texas will come around, hopefully sooner rather than later.

      So I’m late to reply. Glad to have you here. I think you know how much I enjoy your blog!

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  4. OMG, I love you. I read this post to my husband and we laughed and laughed. He said, “Sounds like you could be sisters.”
    We’re doing the same thing with our trash, but I gotta hand it to you—you have a family of six. That’s impressive.
    I’ve gotta get on board with this lasagna gardening! Now that we’ve moved in, I can! Did you get your kitchen finished? Are you guys back home yet?
    So informative, this post. Wonderful write up. I’m sharing it out.
    Your biggest fan, Jennifer

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    1. Sisters indeed! Separated by a chasm called the eastern half of the US. Wish you were here ton be my running buddy. We’d get in a lot of dirty trouble together, I’m quite sure.

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    2. Hey Lady. I’m giving away a movie! This is right up your alley…I really hoped that you would be one of my bloggers to ‘win’… still one of my favorites and miss you around here. Cheers, Jennifer!

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      1. Oh, I never saw this. 😦
        I haven’t been on the computer in months but I still think about you almost every single day. And I tell people about how amazing you are. I still take pictures and mentally take notes of blog posts, but my hands are so full, I can barely keep my head above water. Have seen better days but am still chipping away at zero waste. I will not give up! 🙂
        Thanks for the thoughts!

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      2. No worries, Jen! Believe me, I KNOW you’re busy. I really miss my ZeroWaste blog pals. Can’t wait for you to come back, Lady. Keep your head above water and know I’m thinking of you. Cheers!

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      3. I can’t tell you how much I miss you at my — and your — blog, Jennifer. Thinking of you today and sending well wishes to you and your baby (babies??). Cheers!

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  5. Most of my clients are not interested in composting their own tree leaf litter. I try to collect it for them and put it in my own compost bin but it’s too much for me. Is it better to leave the fallen leaves in the garden where they will slowly decompose, or should I remove the leaves and add fresh compost mulch? Obviously the first option is free to the client, whereas the second option is not. I appreciate your thoughts.

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    1. Always best to leave the leaves where they lie! It doesn’t particularly matter whether they break down slowly (if not mowed) or more quickly (mowed), but it makes more sense than putting even MORE energy into the system by removing them, composting them, and then replacing that loss with more organic matter. Why not just leave it there to rot as nature designed?

      If my clients wanted it removed and replaced, then I suppose I would do that — and charge a premium for that service. Everyone’s got his own “thing.” But I would be sure to keep all his beautiful organic waste for my own personal and selfish use!

      Thanks for commenting.

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    1. Thanks, Karen! Now that we live full time at an apartment, I appreciate it all that much more. I did manage to bring a tomato,some flowers and some squash with me for the balcony. You can take the girl out of the dirt…

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  6. I might add, this is a tremendous post, Shannon. Very educational, informative, and well written. I know for certain that you put in a huge amount of work to create it. Also, really nice photos. I am proud to be your friend. 🙂

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    1. It took longer than usual to put together probably because I forgot how all the WP widgets worked in my bloggy absence! I eventually figured it out. Thanks for the super-nice comment. 🙂

      I just watched an incredible 20-minute TED Talk on the incredible mycelium (fungus). Timing of it was stunning.

      Like

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