Q: I feel guilty if I don't compost garbage and garden leftovers, but there are so many complicated instructions for making a compost pile. Isn't there any easy way to make compost?
A: There certainly is. For those of us who want to recycle but don't want an advanced degree in composting, there is what garden expert Ken Thompson calls "compost for realists." Make or buy a bin; otherwise the pile will be so dry that it will take decades for everything to rot. Plastic bins with lids are excellent. To avoid spending big bucks make a bin of old pallets, or bend any kind of wire into a cylinder at least 18 inches in diameter. Line the wood or wire frame with black plastic. Drape another piece of black plastic or a carpet scrap over the top for a lid.
Dump in kitchen and garden waste as stuff comes along. Add pieces of cardboard and crumpled paper, paper towels, and paper napkins whenever they turn up. Don't worry about layers or percentages of particular ingredients. Compost everything from the kitchen except meat, cheese and fish. Tea bags and coffee filters are fine. So are eggshells. Plastic-coated cardboard will not break down for centuries. It is fine to add some leaves to the compost pile, but a large quantity needs a separate pile. Summer lawn clippings are fine, too, but need to be balanced with paper or cardboard every few inches.
Keep piling up stuff for a year. Don't bother turning the pile. Next fall, set up a second compost bin, and move everything from the first bin which is still recognizable into the second. There will be a little finished compost at the bottom of the pile, but most of the ingredients will move to the second bin, where they can rot in peace for another year. Start a new compost pile in Bin 1. Now you have a two year system established. Dump in stuff for a year; harvest a lot of compost from Bin 2; move everything that is not yet finished compost to Bin 2 for a second year; start again on Bin 1. Ignore the pile except for regular watering and harvest compost once a year. The pile will not smell bad.
One last word: I have tried compost tumblers and do not recommend them. They require more work than letting compost happen all by itself, and they do not produce compost faster.
Q: What kind of potting soil do you recommend for house plants?
A: Every gardener finds a favorite brand after some years of experience. However, there are a few principles which will help you find your favorite quickly.
1. This is not the place to look for bargains. Inexpensive potting soils have deficiencies.
2. Look at the fine print to see whether the potting soil contains fertilizer. Buy one that does not; add the fertilizer yourself to suit each plant because their needs differ.
3. It is rarely possible to see into an opaque plastic sack, but you can feel the soil texture through the plastic. If you feel hard lumps, buy a different brand. Hard pieces are usually wood or bark which has not yet broken down.
4. A general purpose potting soil will make most plants comfortable. You need not buy special mixes. For cacti and other desert natives, mix in about one fourth sand by volume.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.