Sunday, April 28, 2013

Square foot gardening - Soil mix and what really makes a garden a square foot garden

Weight Loss

I've lost sixty pounds! I got on the scale this morning and my weight has fallen below 200 pounds  (And, for the record my blood pressure this weekend was 103 over 75.) While most people my age—let's just call it over sixty—are gaining a few pounds each year and have resigned themselves to weight creep as a natural part of growing old. I have countered that.

I have my body back. I feel great, more independent, and healthier. Although I still have forty pounds to go, I know how to lose weight and I can do it. Now I want to learn how to grow the foods that help me lose weight. That's why I'm so excited about square foot gardening.

Vegetables In Our Garden

On March 30th we planted radishes, carrots, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, peas, and green onions in our first square foot garden box. I've never planted this early before. My garden is too wet to till on March 30th, but with Mel's mix I don't have to till the ground. Mel's Mix is always light and fluffy and ready for planting. Today is April 26th, we should have radishes in about two weeks and two varieties of lettuce within two more weeks. Radishes aren't my favorite vegetable, but my wife likes them. I'm going to eat a few when they are small; I'm sure they will be good in a salad. The other vegetables have all sprouted. I'll be harvesting by the time I'd usually just be planting.

Mel's Mix - from the All New Square Foot Gardening Book

There are only three ingredients in Mel's Mix:  compost (with at least five different ingredients in it), peat moss, and course vermiculite. The mix is equal parts of each: 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite. Sounds easy doesn't it? But this part was a little tricky. Compost and peat moss are carried at garden centers or home improvement centers. Vermiculite, especially the course type, may be harder to find. I found some at a large nursery. Later when I was wandering around a big-box home improvement store I saw a couple of dusty bags on a top shelf in the back corner of the garden department. Don't confuse vermiculite with perlite; you need course vermiculite.  Here is what I bought.

The ingredients are forrest humus, chicken manure, worm castings,  bat quano, gypsum,  kelp meal, oyster shell, etc.  Delightful stuff! and plants love it.
You can make your own compost, but that takes a while. I didn't want to wait to start my garden so I bough compost. The close up above shows the list of ingredients.

Each package tells how many cubic feet are in the bag. Unfortunately each bag has a different volume so you can't take one bag of each and mix them together and be done with it. You have to do some figuring to get the proportions right. And the peat moss is compressed so when you open it up and fluff it out it doubles in size; you used the fluffed stuff when measuring.

The compost was the smallest bag so I used it as a measuring container. I dumped the compost out on a big tarp then filled the compost bag with vermiculite and dumped it on the tarp. I did the same for the peat moss making sure to break up the compacted chunks before they went in the measuring bag. With all three ingredients on the tarp I pulled one side of the tarp over the top like I was going to tip the whole thing over, but I stopped before the mixture spilled onto the grass. Then I took the opposite side of the tarp and did the same thing. So the ingredients rolled around on the tarp. It didn't take long to have them thoroughly mixed together. The I slid the tarp up to the garden box and actually did pull the tarp until the mixture rolled into the box.

I built a four foot by four foot garden box and per Mel Bartholomew's instructions—more at my post— it is six inches deep. If the garden box were one foot deep it would take sixteen cubic feet to fill it (4 ft x 4 ft x 1 ft), but since the box is only six inches deep you need half that, eight cubic feet, to fill the box.

Mel's Mix is great. It's full of nutrients that plants love and it really holds a lot of water. The soil stays moist and creates a perfect environment where vegetables can sprout and grow.

A Square Foot Garden

Using this system, you really do garden in square feet. This is important because it keeps you from over planting. With traditional gardening you make rows and plant your seeds. I always had great plans for planting part of a row with something like carrots and staggering the planting so the carrots didn't all mature at the same time. But with row planting techniques—sprinkling the seeds along the row—the seeds are so tiny, I'd end up planting a whole package before I got very far down the row. That's a lot of carrots! I might use another seed pack and plant more a few weeks later, but by then my interest was already waning because I knew I was going to be out there on my hands and knees thinning the crop a few weeks later. And by then I'd be combatting weeds too.

With the square foot garden it's completely different. Here is what my square foot garden looks like before I put in the soil. I used one inch lath strips connected with zip ties to make the grid.

The grid is removable. I took it off before I filled the box with Mel's Mix. Then I put the grid back; it stays in place through the entire growing season. Each square foot is like its own little garden. You plant a different vegetable or flower in each square. Depending on the vegetable, you may have from one to sixteen plants in a square. For large plants like cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes (vine type only), cauliflower, peppers, or kale you have one plant per square. For small vegetables like radishes, carrots, or green onions you have sixteen plants per square. For medium vegetables like spinach, beets, or onions you can put nine to a square. And for some what larger plants like leaf lettuce, Swiss Chard, or arugula you put four plants per square.

The great advantage of a four foot square box is you can reach into it from the edges; every square is accessible without stepping into the box. Once you have the Mel's Mix in the garden box you should never step on the mix. Next up planting vegetables and protecting them from the cold.

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Square Foot Gardening - Building the Garden Boxes

Before I get into square foot gardening, I just have to say something about my diet. When I was addicted to unhealthy foods I think my taste buds became desensitized. I was always putting salt or sweetener on the foods I ate, as well as other spices. Then I read Dr. Joel Fuhrman's book Eat to Live and of course he discourages the use of extra salt and sugar or sweeteners. He would talk about salad and vegetables as being delicious. I have to admit I had my doubts. But I wanted to loose weight and was willing to give it a try.

This is a lifestyle change for me, not a temporary diet. So I made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of salt, sugar, and other sweeteners in the foods I eat. And surprise! As my taste buds become more sensitive, the natural foods I eat taste so much better. Now I get excited about the flavors in my salad and that's important because salad is the foundation of what I eat. I'm not talking about just leafy greens—though I've discovered many different kinds and most of them are good, it's carrots, artichokes, cucumbers, peas, edamame, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, and beans—all types of beans; they all tastes so good. Even cauliflower and broccoli taste good. I don't smother my salad with a heavy dressing either. I use a small amount of olive oil and vinegar or an O and V-based commercial dressing. That's it.

As good as salad is, the real flavor sensation is fruit. When I bite into an apple or an orange or a banana or a piece of pineapple my taste buds are overwhelmed by the flavor. Frequently I find myself thinking, Wow! This is so good. The flavor is so distinct, so sweet. And it isn't just the first bite. I might eat two apples and it's like an absolute flavor festival right up to the last bite. Dr. Fuhrman is right, the food is delicious. I never would have guessed my taste buds were so desensitized.

This is why I get excited about my square foot garden. Everything tastes better when it's fresh, and it's hard to get fresher than from your own garden. In The All New Square Foot Garden, Mel Bartholomew explains all about how to build the garden squares and what to fill them with. He's very clear about what to do. Get his book or borrow it from the library. What I want to share is my experience building the garden squares and using Mel's system.

Building the garden boxes was fun and easy. That I was excited about doing it probably helped, but really building the boxes wasn't hard. You use two inch by six inch by eight foot long boards. For one box you need only two boards. I had the lumber yard cut the eight foot long boards into four foot lengths. My boxes are four feet square. You can make the boxes in rectangles if that meets your needs. You also need wood screws that are at least two and a half inches long.

As you can see from the picture the garden box is just a box you can place on the ground. You don't have to dig into the ground. Because the boards are long and awkward, I had my wife help me build the boxes. I put three screws through the width of the first board (the board at the bottom of the picture) and into the end of the second board. To keep the first board from splitting, because I'd be going across the wood grain with the screws, I drilled holes in the board before I put in the screws. You don't have to drill holes in the second board because the screws go in to that board with the grain. Once I drilled the holes in the first board I just put the two boards together and screwed in the screws. I also put black garden mesh underneath my box (not black plastic). It isn't necessary, but I had some available so I attached it to the bottom with a staple gun. Hopefully it will help keep weeds from growing up through the soil I'm going to put in the box.

The next step will be to make the soil, called Mel's Mix, to go in the box. You don't use any of the dirt from your garden. And then divide the box into sixteen square feet.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

I'm Shedding Pounds and Feeling Great

A New Direction

In the last nine months I have lost fifty pounds; needless to say, I'm thrilled. I'm following Dr. Joel Fuhrman's diet plan from his book Eat to Live. This is a lifestyle change for me, not a diet.

For comparative purposes here are pictures of me in 2005 and in April 2013. I'm not the most handsome guy in either picture, but at least now I'm not so fat.

Sheesh, even my eyelids were fat.

You are what you eat. We've all heard the saying. I was overweight; something was out of balance. I finally had to admit that what I was eating was the problem. Dr. Fuhrman's plan has worked for me. I can live eating this way. I don't have to count calories, or portions. I eat as much as I want of good foods and my hunger is satisfied. I am eating much larger amounts of leafy greens, vegetables, and fruit than I ever have before. I have not changed my exercise regimen, which is low-moderate activity. Now that I've lost weight I do feel like doing more things. I will increase my activity level, but I didn't have to do so to loose weight; the lose was strictly from a dietary change.

With my new eating habits, my backyard garden has moved up on the priority scale. I've always had a vegetable garden, but over the years my luck at growing different vegetables hasn't been the best. Partly because as summer heats up I get tired of all the work and the weeds get the best of me. But also, I've struggled just to get different vegetables to sprout and grow.

Two weeks ago my wife and I attended a class at our local library on square foot gardening. The things we learned are so counter to traditional row gardening it's astounding; square foot gardening gives us hope for a garden like we have never had before and with considerably less work—I hope. Square foot gardening is the brain child of Mel Bartholomew. His book All New Square Foot Gardening is a great guide.

So, I'm taking this blog in a new direction. My goal is to lose another fifty pounds. I intend to use my garden as a major source of the leafy greens and vegetables I eat. That's a big order and one that I have yet to achieve. I will chronicle my weight loss and my garden success on this blog.

Dr. Fuhrman's plan is based on eating mostly leafy greens, vegetables, beans, and fruit, and on getting back to eating foods in their natural state as opposed to the highly processed foods that we are constantly bombarded with in the media and that get the most prominent position on shelves at the grocery store. Everybody has an opinion about what healthy eating means.  Even the experts differ wildly about what makes up a healthy diet. Just look at the number of diet plans and healthy cooking books on the market. There may be other ways to loose weight; I'm doing this. In addition to my weight loss, I will also keep a log of my blood pressure level, cholesterol levels (total, good, and bad cholesterol), and triglyceride level. Few will dispute results.

On December 8, 2012, my blood pressure was systolic 141 over diastolic 75; high blood pressure is defined as systolic above 139 and diastolic above 89. On March 30, 2013, my blood pressure was 98 over 74. I can't remember my blood pressure ever being this low, not even as a young man in the military and in fairly good condition. I have taken blood pressure medications most of my adult life; both of these readings are influenced by that. I hope to be off medications after my next medical exam.

My last blood test was on August 17, 2012, about two weeks after I started my new-eating lifestyle. My cholesterol readings were: total 137, bad 72, and good 29; acceptable levels are total of less than 200, bad between 70 and 100, and good above 40 ( that's for males, for females it's above 50). My triglycerides were 178; acceptable is less than 150. I still need my good cholesterol up and my triglycerides down, but for me, this is a really good report. Previous blood tests have always come back with all my numbers on the wrong side of acceptable benchmarks, and some of them way over the mark. After a mere two weeks on this diet my numbers showed significant improvement, even though I still have a ways to go.

As I considered this lifestyle change I wondered if I could be happy eating a diet of almost entirely leafy greens, vegetables, and fruit. Dr. Fuhrman suggests giving his diet a six-week test. At the end of the test period I had lost about twenty-five pounds, I felt much better, and I learned that, with a lot of variety, I liked the diet and could follow it. After nine months I quite enjoy this way of eating and I've gained an appreciation for many leafy greens I had never eaten before. I still haven't tried dandelion greens, but I will.

During the six-week test period I went through a withdrawal stage. I didn't realize how addicted I was to bad foods A food addiction is every bit as real as other addictive substances. I've kicked my addiction, but I have to admit I still get a craving for certain foods. It isn't very often though and with a lot less intensity. When I get a craving I eat a piece of fruit and that satisfies my craving; in fact, I enjoy it more than whatever I'm craving. I know because early on I'd give in occasionally and eat the bad food (not during the six-week test though). That really made me feel worse, physically and psychologically.

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