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Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Some of my gardens powered by compost.

Compost is king in my garden.  It is the only thing I use: no other soil amendments and no fertilizers.  All the beautiful plants and lush growth are powered by compost.  I am frequently asked where I get my compost and how I use it.  This post will answer those questions and highlight an exciting compost-centered event taking place in my gardens this Sunday.

The soil at the top is from my back slope ruined by erosion caused by misguided lawn attempts and chemicals.  The soil at the bottom is from the undisturbed woods less than 10′ away.

The pre-existing soil at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is (was) terrible (see top photo above).  I am on the side of a hill where the previous owners had tried to grow grass for years.  The soil was hard and depleted by the use of lawn chemicals and by erosion.  Terraces were constructed down one side of the house and filled with rocky infertile soil.  Construction rubble from additions to the house in the 1950s and 1960s was dumped in what is now my woodland garden.  The soil in the beds on the back side of the house was compacted by their former use as a carriage path.  Finally, the whole property was used as a dump (pre-trash collection) by the estate of which it was formerly a part so the beds are full of glass, old slate from roof replacements, refuse from coal burning furnaces, and miscellaneous trash.  Digging can be quite an adventure!

This is a photo from 1995 showing the debris that came out of one relatively small planting hole at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.  Click on any photo to enlarge.

Given the deplorable condition of the existing soil, compost is essential.  It reaches my plants in four different ways.  First, whenever I create a new bed in my gardens, I spread 4 to 6 inches of compost on top of the soil and dig it into the bed, removing all the rocks and debris.  I use the rocks to line the paths in my woodland garden.  One visitor asked me where I got my rocks, and, finding out they came from the beds, told me how lucky I was.  I feel about as lucky as the early farmers in New England must have felt when they built all those rock walls around their fields.

The rocks lining the paths in the woodland garden.

Second, even though the beds are prepared with compost, I add compost to the hole every time I plant a plant.  I mix the existing soil half and half with compost.  Third, as explained in Fall Clean-up, I grind all the leaves in the fall and use them to mulch my beds.  This mulch breaks down over the course of the year to make a thick compost layer on top of the existing soil.  Leaves that fall on the lawn are ground up in place and left there to fertilize the grass as described in Leaves on the Lawn. Finally, I don’t clean the leaves out of most of my beds: they are left there to act as mulch and form more compost.

The current state of the depleted back slope.

I use a lot of compost because I also need it to pot all the plants that I grow to sell at my nursery.  Where does it all come from?  We produce a lot of it ourselves in a simple, easy, and nontechnical way.  I get frustrated with the articles written about composting because they make it sound like you need to follow complex procedures and buy expensive equipment to produce compost.  All those procedures and equipment merely speed the process up (and possibly make it neater), but all you need to produce compost is a pile.  It helps if you turn it occasionally, but even that is not necessary if you are willing to wait for it to break down naturally.

The path to our compost pit.

Our “garage” is really the carriage house and the stable for the estate that used to be here.   There is even a metal grain bin on the second floor with chutes and levers to bring the grain to the first floor.  The horses that pulled the carriages produced manure (no surprise there), which was deposited in a manure pit behind the stable.  Back then, they built everything to last so the manure pit is a 12 foot square enclosure surrounded on four sides by 7 foot tall stone walls.

The left side of the compost pit where we are currently throwing kitchen and garden refuse.

We throw all our garden and kitchen refuse into this pit, including leaves, sod, noninvasive weeds, ashes, small sticks, etc.  There is no organized layering process–whenever there’s something to go in, it’s thrown on top of the pile, hopefully, but not always, on the side of the pile currently being built up.  The other side contains the compost being used.  My husband turns the pile thoroughly about three times a year, and that’s it: no complicated procedures or equipment required!

Top view of the manure pit we use for producing compost.  It is “decorated” with self-sown fern-leafed and yellow corydalis and a large climbing hydrangea.

However, despite the size of this operation, it does not produce nearly enough compost for Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.  We are very fortunate that our township produces excellent compost from the leaves that residents put by the side of the road in the fall to be removed.  Personally, I think removing the leaves from your property is crazy, but for selfish reasons I am glad people do it.  We get truckloads of the township’s beautiful compost to supplement our own.

One of the newest beds powered by compost.

As I explained in Supporting Sustainable Living, I am uniquely placed to encourage sustainable gardening practices as I promote and sell native plants at my nursery,  answer my customers’ requests for advice, and give tours of my gardens to horticultural groups.  Sustainable living is very important to me as I described in My Thanksgiving Oak Forest.  So when the Radnor Conservancy, dedicated to promoting open space in my township,  asked me to speak, I thought why not go farther and offer my gardens as a venue for a fund raising and educational event.

Rose and peony beds

The creative people at the Conservancy came up with the theme “Dirt … lots of it!”, an afternoon devoted to educating people about compost on Sunday, June 12, from 3 to 5 pm at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.  Here is the flyer:

If you come, and I hope you will, you will find various “stations” throughout my gardens staffed by knowledgeable Master Gardeners able to answer any question you have about composting.  They will demonstrate outdoor composting, indoor composting with worms, composting equipment and tools, grinding leaves for mulch, and how to transport township compost easily and cleanly to your home.  You will be able to order discount compost bins, and information on lyme disease and its prevention will be provided.

Main perennial border

As you find out everything you ever wanted to know about composting, you can stroll through my beautiful gardens and shop for plants in my nursery area.  And best of all, delicious refreshments will be provided.  As directed in the flyer above,  if possible, please register  in advance for the event with the Conservancy by calling them at 610-688-8202 or emailing them at radnor.conservancy@comcast.net.  You can also show up without registering.  The event is open to everyone, not just Radnor Township residents.  I hope to see you there.


Just a note to say thanks to John at Macgardens and his wife Beth who visited Carolyn’s Shade Gardens during my open house on Saturday.  Meeting fellow garden bloggers is so fun because they immediately feel like old friends.  If any other garden bloggers are in the area, please stop by.

Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: I will have my traditional closing weekend open hours this Saturday, June 11, from 9 am to 3 pm and Sunday, June 12, from 10 am to noon.  You don’t need to make an appointment, and you can park in the driveway.  You can also shop for plants during the Radnor Conservancy  event on Sunday, June 12, from 3 to 5 pm.  But remember you can make an appointment to shop 24/7 by sending me an email at carolynsshadegardens@verizon.net.  There is  still a great selection of hostas, ferns, astilbes, hardy geraniums, and summer and fall blooming shade plants available.

71 Responses to “Powered by Compost”

  1. Interesting post. You’ve put a lot of work into your garden and it really shows. Wish I lived closer, I’d love to visit your beautiful garden.

  2. GirlSprout Says:

    Thanks for simplifying the composting process. It inspires me to try composting again. In Santa Fe, I can get composted mulch at the transfer station (city dump) for free if I load it myself and that’s come in handy for mulch.

    • GS, Free municipal compost is great, but you don’t want your own leaves etc. to go to waste. A pile in a remote corner of your property is all you need. I realize that some gardens contain no remote corners and then a compost tumbler or similar product is a necessity, see the post on composting at The Gardening Blog. Carolyn

  3. It is so easy to make compost, but to pile it you need a set up the size of yours roughly and a place that does not detract. Many do not even want the premade composters sitting in the garden, let alone a pile of compost. I have three large tree growers pots as my compost bins. They are huge and they look terrible in my back yard, but are invaluable for all the compost I get from leaves and grass clippings, not to mention the kitchen waste. So far I have used three huge, 3 foot diameter bins full in the garden as mulch. My garden is also powered by compost and has been for years. Plus I get it from the nursery farm too which is fortified with manure. A really great black gold.

    It is good to have a post like this so those with properties that can maintain the piles actually reuse the waste and put it back in their gardens. They rest are left depending on the municipalities for the compost or the kind that is purchased. But a word on that. The industry making compost is not regulated, so you never know what you are getting when you purchase it. Always best to make your own, even on a small property such as mine. I suggest the black garbage bag method because it is easier to hide and the black bags helps compost the leaves faster. I too mulch the leaves with a mower to help condition the grass. A mulching mower is a great tool.

    I would love to visit but must wait until after July 30, Buffalo Garden Walk. Hope you have another event such as this later in the year.

    • Donna, You have expanded on my post to include so many great ideas. About space issues, see my answer to GirlSprout. But I like the idea of the large tree grower pots or the black plastic bags as compost bins. It just reinforces the idea that there is no magic to the process–it occurs naturally with no expensive equipment, complex formulas, or labor intensive activities. You make a really good point about purchasing bagged compost and the lack of regulation. I close my nursery on June 15 and reopen on September 15. I don’t think my gardens are as pretty in the fall, but they are still very nice. You are welcome anytime. Carolyn

  4. Oh, I wish I could come to see your gardens, but unfortunately I’m in Washington state. I used to live on the East Coast, though, and I very much miss all the wonderful maple leaves people used to put out on yard waste day. I made some sweet, fluffy compost with them!

    Here on the West Coast, maples and oaks are not so prevalent, so I don’t have access to those leaves. We have lots of evergreens, which are not quite so good for making compost. And all the compost I’ve bought here, either delivered by truckload or in bags, has been…well….gummy. Really sticky and just not what I’m used to.

    But I’m still making some of my own. I hardly ever turn mine either.

    • Alison, Gummy compost would make me nervous too. As you are aware, compost should be like soil, dark black and crumbly. A customer told me that you can buy organic compost in bags at Home Depot or Lowes (I forget which), but see Donna’s comment about the lack of regulation. I am glad you are a fellow infrequent turner. Carolyn

  5. How wonderful that you have good town compost…many places are not as clean and I find I cannot use the compost because of the chemicals and debris placed in the compost….my best compost came from a big pile at the old house…I need a spot I can begin anew….and I need the compost…thx for the encouragement to keep going with compost…I have a turnable bin that does not work that great….this year I left the leaves on too…wish we had a shredder as I would take all the neighbors leaves and shred them for compost and mulch…oh well I can dream

    • Donna, I read in Organic Gardening a long time ago that you don’t have to worry about chemicals in municipal compost because it all leaches out during the process. I hope that was based on scientific studies because I have been relying on it. We use an old lawnmower to shred our leaves. Just put them on a flat surface and run over them. You could do the neighbors’ leaves with your lawn mower. Carolyn

  6. What a beautiful compost pile! I hope you get a lot of participation. This year it dawned on me that I need a much bigger compost area. Great post.

  7. Carolyn, thank you so much for this article! I have a compost pile hidden in the bushes behind the house. I turn it very rarely. I also have a composter but I forget to rotate it, so the process is very slow. I also used my raised beds for composting this year. I am lucky to have a friend who supplies me with horse manure. I still use fertilizer for annuals and containers. My problem is not having a two-compartment compost pile (the space is small). To get to good compost, I need to dig down there, since ‘fresh’ compost material is on the top. Any way, I wish I could visit your beautiful place, but we are on the west coast. I know you will have a great time with your visitors!

  8. My husband has been making compost bins this weekend and our town council are giving away small composters to anyone who asks, sadly there haven’t been many takers I’m afraid. A group of friends and I went and collected some, I’ll use mine for kitchen and veg garden waste and keep it in the veg garden. You are an inspiration, thanks for sharing your secrets. Christina

    • Christina, It is sad that people aren’t interested in free compost bins. What do they do with their garden waste? Here, sadly, people put it by the side of the road to be collected with their trash–such a waste of material. Carolyn

  9. I wish I lived in the same country or even in the same continent! I would have loved to visit, your plants look so healthy and happy.

  10. I currently have 5 of the plastic bins the city sells for composting, but they are never enough. While we were in canada in the spring, Ian built me some larger bins out of cement blocks. And I do have two wire leaf bins for leaf mould, love that stuff.

  11. Chric Ciarrocchi Says:

    Hi Carolyn. As always, thanks for the tips! I am leery to put any weeds into my compost….. How do you figure out what the non-invasive weeds are? thanks!

    • Chris, The only weeds that I always exclude from my pile are garlic mustard, lesser celandine, goutweed, Japanese knotweed, and quack grass. These are weeds that I remove directly to a plastic bag and dispose of in the trash. However, my husband dumped a whole giant bag of lesser celandine plants in there by mistake and none of them sprouted. Our pile cooks and is allowed to turn to compost over a long period of time. Carolyn

  12. What a wonderful post! I also shred my leaves and mulch the beds – we have very hard rocky clay here, which is hard to dig but is actually pretty rich in nutrients (except nitrogen), so no other amendments are needed. Your compost pile is very impressive, and you are lucky to get free compost from the city – no such luck for me…

    • Masha, I think shredding the leaves (or leaving them undisturbed) and mulching the beds with them is the most important gardening practice. It is only following what nature intended to happen, which we have short circuited in our misguided fascination with garden neatness. I do have a scenic compost pile. I realize that most gardeners are not blessed with a huge stone pit. Carolyn

  13. Carolyn, I too grow on compost. I just finished commenting on a commercial/municipal compost review on a blog post. You might want to read a few articles written about commercial compost. Please read:http://greenplace-chapelhill.blogspot.com/2011/06/part-2-whats-in-commercial-compost.html

    I believe the best way to use municipal compost is to use compost primarily derived from leaf mold (fall and winter). I believe the summer produced compost can allow more lawn chemicals such as confront(chloropyalid),triclopyr, and picloram to be present in lawn clippings. I started a new bed last summer comprised mainly of municipal compost. Initially after planting the plants were fine. After 5-6 weeks the dicots were showing symptoms of herbicide damage, such as mutated and deformed new leaves. The tomatoes and beans, which are highly susceptible to herbicides succumbed to deformity and death. The monocots were fine which lead me to the speculation of dicot weed killers. My other thought was a contamination from black walnut leaves, as these trees put out a chemical which affects plant growth and I have found black walnuts in the compost. These compost sites just can’t afford to test or monitor. I guess we may have to start testing with germination tests.

    This year the same symptoms have shown up in my dicots, but only in that late summer added bed. So in conclusion I will try to keep you all posted on how things turn out. I am coming to the conclusion I may have to use only compost produced on sight.

    • Greggo, Thanks for your extensive comment. My township’s compost is made almost exclusively from leaves collected from the side of the road in the fall. I have used it extensively for 20 years with every kind of plant you can imagine from vegetables, especially tomatoes, to trees and never had any problem. The post you linked described compost that smelled bad from the beginning–a sure sign that there’s a problem. Compost should look and smell and feel like really good soil. If not, I wouldn’t use it.

      I have two huge black walnut trees (over 100 years old) in the middle of my woodland gardens. We grind the leaves up for compost without a problem. My experience is backed up by the Ohio State Extension Service, which states: “Walnut leaves can be composted because the toxin breaks down when exposed to air, water and bacteria. The toxic effect can be degraded in two to four weeks.” While your experience would make me leery of your municipality’s compost, I think the townships around here produce a superior product with no toxicity problems. Carolyn

  14. Carolyn – That manure pit is quite a structure, it’s almost like destiny that you should go to live in that house and make compost. I notice in the flyer that it says mulching means “no summer watering”. Your perennial border looks so lush. I guess that’s the advantage of having a shade garden.

    • Bag, The house that I live in was the estate gardener’s cottage so destiny was at work. I do not water any of my beds except to establish newly planted plants. You are right though, most of my gardens are shady. Also I don’t plant any plants that require any extra help to survive and no annuals in the ground. People always treat shade as a disadvantage (can you imagine?), but I feel sorry for sun gardeners with their pervasive weeds and water requirements. The only areas of my garden that need regular weeding even with mulch are sunny. Carolyn

  15. Mulching means no summer watering? Not here!! I love your “compost bin”! I also use tons of compost called Leaf Gro. I maintain worm bins in my basement and plan on buying a composter. I have to watch my space since I only have 1/4 acre in a densely packed suburb. Your gardens looks amazing!! I wish I could come to your event.

    • CM, I actually had nothing to do with writing the flyer or planning the event. I am just donating the venue. But as I said in a previous reply, I do not water my gardens. My “compost bin” is pretty special. I guess I have been taking it for granted. Carolyn

  16. Wish we were close enough to attend! We make our own compost and mulch too, but we’re always looking for ways to make it better!

  17. Wonderful!

    In my town, they spend numerous days collective leaves. I on the older hand, put up a sign the other year that said “please leave the leaves!” on the ones fallen to our curb. They were a little confused, but I made their job easier.

    It is tough to find room for them, especially at first when they are fluffy. Soon, however, they really compact down to a more manageable size. The are behind our garage works for us, though it is sometimes full to overflowing.

    Thanks for the post, Carolyn!

  18. I had imagined a post about compost to be ‘not appealing’ but your attractive photos show the effectiveness and beauty of compost.

  19. I produce my compost much like you do, except I don’t have a free source from the city. That would be a dream, as I never have enough. Your lush and beautiful gardens demonstrate the benefits of compost. Your lucky customers can learn a lot from you!

  20. Carolyn, this post is very helpful for others, but we are also doing it the natural way in our farm. It is just that you are utilizing it actively and well in your garden. In our case we compost so that they return to the soil and let nature take its course. Nothing is added and hopefully the trees are happy in the property.

    • Andrea, Letting the leaves, etc. return to the soil and nature take its course is my main objective. I am reading The Wild Garden written by famous English garden pioneer William Robinson in 1870. He advocates suiting the plants to the soil rather than drastically amending the soil. I agree with this where the soil is natural and undisturbed, but in my case every part of the property has been altered in some way. The only soil amendment I need to compost though. Carolyn

  21. Carolyn, I am so happy for you that you have municipal leaf compost that you can trust. After the experience I recently blogged about, I am wary. I also commend you for pointing out that composting is not complex and does not require a lot of equipment, specific “recipes,” constant turning, etc.! I, too, let leaves stay where they fall in the beds. I began doing this after noticing how many birds love turning over leaves to look for food …

  22. I sure wish I lived close by so I could attend. Good luck on the fundraiser I know it will be a smash event. Wow on the composting. I do the same but I never produce enough for my beds. The leaves help. I wish our county composted the old leaves. As it is they don’t even sell mulch anymore. More profitable to sell to a company in Alabama. Go figure. Thanks for your kind words about my BJ.

  23. Carolyn, lots of lovely tips here. Good luck with the event on Sunday – only wish I could be there. We used to have a worm bin in our little UK garden, which produced the most wonderful, rich, fragrant compost. You just put kitchen waste, prunings, etc in the top and the worms gobble it all up (and pee out the most fabulous liquid fertiliser as an added bonus). Now we have to throw all our kitchen waste away and feel guilty every time for not being able to recycle and reuse it. Jill

  24. You are a jewel, Carolyn. Thank you. I so appreciate the time to create this great post.

  25. What a super huge compost pit, I’m very envious! We compost everything we can, but it is never enough, always have to buy in eventually. Using compost as a mulch as well as at planting time has changed the soil here considerably. from very heavy clay to something more like the wonderful loam that we all long for.

  26. Great post!..I believe soil is the secret to the best gardens. I compost just like you. My husband built a retaining bin for the back corner of our property that we throw everything in. People are always surprised that it doesn’t smell and I tell them if you have the proper amount of browns and greens and keep it moist it breaks down and doesn’t smell. Do you ever have a problem with animals visiting to get the vegetable scraps? Like you I still don’t produce enough for my garden. Thankfully our city also has free compost from what they pick up from homeowner gardens. We go get truck loads full and bring them to our garden to use. It makes for the best soil! I hope you have a great turnout for your event. I would definitely be there if I lived closer.

  27. You can never have too muc compost or leaf mould. But I never would have thought of grinding it down. My leaf mould takes about 2 years to rot down. Wonderful photos. the proof of the pudding is in the compost!

  28. Was refreshing and reassuring to read calm reasonable down to earth instructions for making compost. Now undaunted, we’ll carry on ;~)

  29. Hi Carolyn. Your compost pile is very impressive, and I sincerely admire your way of life. But, most of all, I do love your wonderful, shady, fairy gardens.

  30. I’m a little late catching up but wanted to thank you for this excellent post and these great photos. What a great compost set-up you have!

    Just as there can “never be enough compost,” (agreed!), I think there can also never be enough reminders / information available regarding how simple it really is, and how unnecessary it is to buy products or spend a lot of money to help you compost.

    While I can see the benefit of tumblers and bins for aesthetic reasons, for difficult neighbors, or for problems with animals, etc. I think the commercial gardening industry is all too quick to try and convince new gardeners that they “need” these things.

    The proof is in the pudding (or your compost, rather) that you do not!

    I started composting for the first time last fall and was daunted by all the options for containment and the prices involved with even something as simple as a wooden bin.

    I took a page out of my friend Bev’s book and for $20 I got enough gardening metal gardening fencing /hardware cloth to make 1 mulch bin and 2 compost bins, all 3′ in diameter x 4′ tall. Plus I have plenty left for tomato cages and other projects. Cheap, contained, done!

    Thanks for your refreshing reminder that compost really does take care of itself!

    • Aimee, I learned all this from my father who composted in the 1950s before compost was cool and required instructions and equipment. He just made big piles of leaves and let them break down. You hit on three good reasons why a tumbler might be good (looks, neighbors, animals), and I would add speeding up the process. Your $20 system sounds more than adequate. I am glad you made it through the barrage of info without giving up. Carolyn

  31. It’s so inspiring to see what you owe to simple composting in your garden! I’m glad you’ve decided to share this secret with other local gardeners.

    I’ve known others who used leaf mulch from the city and were disappointed by the amount of weed seeds that sprouted from it. This must vary from city to city though. Usually, it’s a steal of a deal.

    I’m drooling over the “current state of the depleted back slope” picture- what material do you use for that gorgeous pathway?

    • Kate, The compost that I get from my township has less viable seeds in it than the compost I make myself, which is always sprouting vegetables. I think I should do a post on my municipal compost. I wish I had taken photos of the slope before I “fixed” it. You saw the soil photo in the post. I just hacked (literally) out holes in the trash-filled, baked earth and planted hostas (excellent colonizers for difficult spots), mixing in plenty of compost. The hostas held down the soil and kept the mulch in place to break down and make more good soil. Eventually I could add other plants, mainly epimediums, and now it’s beautiful loam. The path covering is white pine needles. Carolyn

  32. Carolyn, it was wonderful to stop in last weekend and see how this all works in practice. Both Beth and I enjoyed meeting you and touring your garden. I think Beth has already read through your back pages and sent your link out to friends as a result of visiting. I too would have enjoyed sitting down with a cup of coffee and discussing the world of gardening in general. We’ll try to make the next visit on a non-“open house” day. 🙂

  33. Hi Carolyn, I had a go at making some leaf mould a few years ago, it took a couple of years before I got the result I wanted. Definitely going to get a shredder. Like so many others, I would love to visit your gardens. Thanks for the info on the Wisteria.

  34. Fantastic – Thank you for posting this. I keep saying this, but only because its true – I learn so much from you! I think I need to find somewhere to start my own compost pit! Until I do, a couple bags of compost always make trheir way home with me on a nursery visit. I love the stuff – almost as much as my garden does.

  35. Dear Carolyn, Another wonderfully informative posting. I love that ‘black gold’ too, and it is all I use for mulch any more. I am sure your seminar yesterday was well attended and well received. I really will make it down to your place one of these days. P. x

  36. Hablando de normas: las especificaciones
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