landscape features

Composting Methods 2: Outdoor

For those with outdoor space, there are many composting options available to suit every level of commitment. One of the first considerations for backyard composters is usually the issue of space. While a rural property might have plenty of room for a sprawling passive compost pile, it would likely be a nuisance on an urban lot. Pests are typically an equally important consideration—a yard plagued by raccoons might be unsuitable for any type of open piles or bins. And finally, the amount of work you are willing or able to put into your compost will dictate what methods are best. A compost system that doesn’t work for your lifestyle will be abandoned

Passive Composters

Passive composting is an easy and low-maintenance way to put your organic waste to good use, simply relying on natural decomposition processes to produce compost. It can be as low-tech as a heap in the back yard, a homemade bin system, or a durable plastic bins designed for this style of composting. Not only do most purpose-made passive composter contain odors, keep out pests, and have a smaller footprint than a sprawling compost pile, they simplify  the task of harvesting finished compost with a hatch at the bottom. While the effort needed for passive composting is very low, the time it takes to make compost is quite long, typically between 6 months to a year.

Compost tumblers will keep pests out, but have trouble letting decomposers in.

Compost tumblers will keep pests out, but have trouble letting decomposers in.

Compost Tumblers

Compost tumblers offer the benefits of an enclosed compost system, but they also have the ability to turn and aerate the contents for faster decomposition. There are many styles of compost tumblers on the market, but most can produce finished compost in a few months with the right mix of materials. There are a few downsides to tumblers, though. Because of their enclosed design, there is no connection to the native organisms in the soil. A compost pile or bin located on the ground has an easy path for earthworms, beetles, microbes, and other decomposers to move in and do their work, but a compost tumbler is closed off from many of these organisms. It also tends to dry out faster than other types of bins in warm weather, as all sides are exposed to the air and conduct heat to the compost inside. Most compost tumblers available are also too small to retain the heat generated naturally from decomposition which kills seeds, root fragments, and pathogens.

Three-Bin Systems

A three-bin system is great for those who are able to devote more time to managing their compost pile and also have room for a larger setup. It is one of the best setups for a hot compost pile, which is an extremely fast way to compost and also kills seeds, root fragments, and pathogens because of the high temperature it works at. The tradeoff is the necessity to frequently turn the compost—literally flipping the whole pile over weekly or more often. You add material to one bin until it is full and then move it into the adjacent bin to turn it, moving it back and forth every week. The third bin is used to once again collect material for the next pile.

This plastic mesh bin can be unclipped and repositioned to make it easy to turn the compost pile.

This plastic mesh bin can be unclipped and repositioned to make it easy to turn the compost pile.

Portable Bin Systems

Another great option for building a hot compost pile is a removable bin. This can be a commercially available plastic product, a set of DIY hinged wood and wire panels, a simple cylinder of metal mesh, or many other creative designs. The key feature is that the bin can be unwrapped from the compost pile—which should hold itself up if all is well inside—and repositioned next to the existing pile. Then, like with the three-bin system, the compost is turned into the new location. Portable bins can be very cost-effective and can be great for those who don’t have space for a three-bin system, or who want a less permanent option.

Worm Bins

Finally, worm bins are another option outdoors! Areas with mild winters can take advantage of worm bins year round, but in northern climates like in Spokane and Coeur D’Alene, worms must retreat below the frost line to survive. That means that it is important to give your worms an escape route, whether by using a bin that gives your worms contact with the soil or by repatriating your colony every fall. Outdoor worm bins can do double duty as furniture or be attractive landscape features in their own right. They can also be integrated into existing garden areas, maximizing the impact of the worm castings and minimizing your own effort.

Seven Styles of Stone Steps in the Landscape

Stone steps take a functional necessity and turn it into a landscape feature in and of itself. The character of the stone adds interest and depth to what can be a mundane element. Below are seven different uses of stone steps in the landscape, each with its own character.

Rock Garden

These stone stairs traverse a boulder retaining wall, but the abundant vegetation softens all the rock to create a lush landscape. Creeping thyme spills across the quartzite steps, with mounding perennials and bunch grasses tucked into planting pockets.

Into the Woods

The verdant woodland setting for this project calls for unobtrusive materials and restrained design. The quartzite stone slabs that make up the staircase are from a nearby quarry in Montana, while the plant palette is primarily native species. The vegetation infringes on the staircase, blending the man-made with its natural surroundings.

Color Coordinated

With a long steep slope to cover, the series of retaining walls and staircases could have been overwhelming. The light tan stone steps, however, play off the tan accents on the residence and garage, unifying the landscape and architecture. With the retaining walls utilizing the same natural basalt as the garage foundation and the concrete patio tinted to match the dark gray house paint, this project embraces a color-coordinated vision.

On the Waterfront

This patio is the perfect place to enjoy the lake, and a great pit stop in and out of the water. There’s no sandy beach to enjoy, but the tan stone steps bring in a beachy vibe while providing easy access directly into the water. The rough texture of the stone gives the surface good traction when wet, unlike wood or metal steps.

Turning Back Time

For the transition from a manicured upper tier of the backyard to a wooded slope below, boulders harvested from the site anchor the staircase in the landscape’s history. The imperfect, irregular surfaces would be unsuitable for stairs with heavier use, but as an occasional staircase they function well.

Bridging the Gap

Stone steps don’t have to go up and down—here they go across. Two stone slabs cantilever from each side of a small stream to form a bridge across. The stone forms a stable footing while blending into the woodland setting.

Stone Landing

Here a single stone slab is used at the back door of the house. Not only does it physically transition between the interior floor height and the patio, but it also provides a thematic transition from the modern house design to the more relaxed, natural landscape. The stone step serves as a teaser for the materials used throughout the backyard.

Fire Pits: Choosing the Right Fuel Type

Fire pits are a fantastic, multi-use landscape feature. They create a natural gathering spot for evening entertaining as people flock to enjoy the light and warmth of the flames. When well-situated, they also provide a stunning focal point from other areas of the yard and even indoors. While there are endless variations in style and design for an outdoor fire pit, there are generally only four fuel choices, each with its own benefits and drawbacks: wood, natural gas, propane, and ethanol.

Wood fires are the classic, and for good reason. They can put out a lot of heat, which can make the difference between enjoying your landscape or staying indoors on chilly evenings. Wood fire pits can be located virtually anywhere, with no need to run supply pipes or electricity to the unit. Wood is easy to source, and nothing can match the crackling pops and smoky scent of a real wood fire.

Those same classic features, however, are also the biggest downsides of a wood fire. Anyone who has spent an evening outside around a fire has probably also spent that evening constantly moving to avoid a face full of smoke. Meanwhile, the sparks and embers from the fire can be extremely dangerous in the right conditions. Not only is it irresponsible to have a wood fire during the hot, dry summers we often get in Spokane and Coeur D’Alene, but it is also illegal if a county-wide burn ban is in place. These often last from the summer into the early fall, which also happens to be some of the best time to actually enjoy your fire pit.

A natural gas fire pit can be a focal point even when you're not enjoying its warmth.

A natural gas fire pit can be a focal point even when you're not enjoying its warmth.

Natural gas and propane fire pits provide a much safer alternative to wood fires while maintaining much of the positive qualities. Both fuels burn cleanly and the fire is easy to start, utilizing either a match-throw system (turn on the flow of gas and ignite with a lit match) or fully -automatic electronic ignition. With the right hardware, you can even sit inside and turn on the fire pit with a remote control. Gas fire pits can’t quite match wood fire for heat, but a sufficiently high Btu burner can come pretty close.

The biggest challenge with gas fire pits is the infrastructure involved. Although it’s possible to integrate a portable propane tank into the design of the fire pit, generally gas itself has to be piped to the unit, and many electronic ignition systems must be hard-wired as well. The costs can add up quickly to make a gas fire pit a surprisingly costly project. And unlike wood, which is a quickly renewable fuel source, both natural gas and propane are non-renewable fossil fuels, for which the price is always trending up.

Ethanol fire pits offer a compromise between wood and gas. Like a wood-burning fire pit, ethanol fire pits are self-contained units which can be located anywhere without running utilities. Like a gas-burning fire pit, ethanol burns cleanly without smoke. It burns cleaner than gas, in fact, producing only water vapor and carbon dioxide, which can allow for their use indoors as well as out. Ethanol is also a plant-based, renewable fuel. So what’s the downfall? Ethanol simply can’t compete with other fuel sources on heat output. And since the fuel isn’t pressurized like gas, the flames can’t stand up to a stiff breeze. Ethanol fires can be beautiful and provide great ambiance, but they won’t do much to keep you warm on a chilly night.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for fire pits, but at Pacific Garden Design, we have designed and installed a wide variety over the years. If you’re considering a fire pit for your backyard landscape, get in touch with us to discuss the possibilities.