Food & Drink

Veggie-growing guide, part 3: soil

Photo from Greenbudget
Photo from Greenbudget

Seasonal info: check. Seeds: check. Now on to the dirty stuff—you can’t grow anything without it. There’s a whole lot of earth beneath Brooklyn’s concrete, and it’s all just waiting to be dug up. At least that’s what the “this land is your land, this land is my land” side of me wants to tell you: get out there, scout out an abandoned lot (not a park!) and dig some up. Or, you could try one of several easier ways to get your free dirt. And then, of course, you’re going to compost.

Where to get dirt
Companies like New York Restoration Project and Green Apple Corps host planting events throughout the city. They displace mounds of soil to plug in the new trees, so just show up with a bag or two and scoop some up. But steer clear of heavily industrial areas, and if you’re uncertain about polluted soil here are some tips for repair.

If you’re wary of city dirt and decide to buy starter soil, the same issue of non-organic and organic applies. If you took the effort to get organic seeds, you should keep the entire process organic. Otherwise, most 99-cent stores sell cheap dirt. It’s what you add to the dirt that will turn seeds to bounty.

What is it? Composting is nature’s recycling. It’s the decomposition of plants, veggies, paper, bread and many other organic materials into a nutrient-rich earthy substance that can be added to soil to help your plants grow. Composting is easy, it works wonders and it isn’t just for people with outdoor spaces. Ideally, you’ll start a sun-baked heap of decaying food and plant materials, but even a close-quarters urbanite can turn scraps into ecology’s black gold.

Compost bin
Compost bin

The primary difference between indoor and outdoor composting bins is size. For indoor composters, Journey To Forever offers an excellent step-by-step guide to setting up a bin, while You Grow Girl has a similar guide for outdoor bins. If you don’t mind creepy crawlers, vermicompost is arguably the best indoor method.

What can go in the compost bin:
Brown ingredients
: dried leaves and grass clippings, wood or twigs, newspaper, paper towels, paper bags, hair, coffee grounds, tea leaves, straw, napkins, paper (shredded or whole).

Green ingredients: grass and plant material, fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, old bread.

Greens equals nitrogen and browns equal carbon, the goal is an equal balance.  When starting your bin try alternating three-inch to six-inch layers of green and brown. And be sure to moisten the heap.

What can’t go in the compost bin:
Meat and seafood, heavy oils, dairy, animal feces (though some people use the feces of animals that eat a vegetarian diet) Yum.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Department of Sanitation are leading the borough’s charge of “Composting for a Greener and Cleaner Brooklyn.” They offer composting classes (free aside from a $5 materials fee), including the upcoming class, Composting in the City, on April 8 with Luke Halligan and Jenny Blackwell. Along with many one day classes, BBG offers a 25-hour Master Composter Certificate Program (with a $40 materials fee). Registration for the spring session ended in February, so if mastery is your goal, keep an eye on the BBG Website for the start of the next eight-week term.

For more tips on composting, turn to’s New York City Compost Project. To truly delve into the art of compost, BioSystems Solutions and EarthEasy offer extensive guides covering everything from simple composting tricks to the ideal percentage of active bacterial biomass.


  1. hannah

    If you’re going to keep the plants outside, use gloves when you put the seeds in the pots. Last year I learned the hard way that squirrels smell your scent on the seedlings (later confirmed by other gardeners). My herb garden turned into a squirrel club med.

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