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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