The garden beds have been constructed (see Part I) Whew. After long winter months of dreaming where I would put them and what they would look like – they are done.
Now I have to fill them with dirt.
I should mention that I decided to follow the Square Foot Gardening method, developed by Mel Bartholomew. I read several books over the winter on backyard gardening, and this one really stood out. This type of garden takes up less space, is totally organic, doesn’t need much weeding, and produces a relatively large amount of food in a small space.
The idea is that you build a wooden raised bed, 4 feet long and wide, giving you 16 square feet of growing area ( I did a 3 x 5 and a 3 x 7 to fit my spaces). You mark off these square feet using thin strips of wood or string, creating a grid. Within each square you grow a different vegetable. So for example, in one square you can grow 16 carrots or 16 beets or 9 onions or 8 peas or 9 bush beans. So if I designate 3 squares to carrots, I could potentially get 48 carrots out of it. For the larger plants, like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and potatoes, you grow one plant per square. It saves space because there are no rows between plants. You also never walk on it, so the soil stays light and fluffy. The bed is raised, making them easier to reach.
I like how this system works. I can grow whatever I want in whatever square I want. For some reason, my brain likes the combination of spontaneity, combined with the systematic organization of a grid.
The other thing about Square Foot Gardening is that you use a different type of soil medium. You don’t use dirt from your garden. You make your own dirt. The soil medium is made up of 1/3 peat moss (or its more sustainable counterpart – coir), 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost. The peat moss keeps the soil light, the vermiculite holds a tremendous amount of water and also aids with breaking up the density of the soil, and the compost gives your plants all the food they need – organically of course.
I totally bought into this idea. I want my garden to be organic. I want my soil to hold the perfect balance of water and air. I want my plants to have enough water to sustain them. In addition, I won’t have to worry if my soil is too acidic or too alkaline. I won’t have to worry if I have too much clay, sand or silt. I won’t have to worry about all the weed seeds in garden soil.
So, I went on a mission to find my ingredients. Mel says to use at least 3 different types of compost, to ensure that you get a balanced mix. In the end I used about 4 types. The peat was relatively easy to find, but if I could have done it again I would have looked harder to find coir (peat bogs are not very renewable and hold 10% of the world’s fresh water and coir is simply the left over husks from coconuts).
Vermiculite was another story. I phoned around to almost every greenhouse, garden centre, hardware store in my area. Most did not carry it. If they did carry it was only in small 20 litre bags. I needed 550 litres! I found one supplier that carried it in 110 litre bags, so I bought up 5 huge bags. It turned out it was the wrong type – fine grain instead of medium or coarse grain, which according to Mel is a very important distinction. So I returned those and purchased 25 of the 20 litre bags. I purchased 18 bags of compost and 4 bales of peat moss. Here is what a few bags of it looked like before I got started:
With the ingredients finally in hand I set out to make dirt. The idea is that you dump equal amounts of peat moss, compost and vermiculite onto a tarp, and then roll it around.
It helps to have a helper, preferably an adult. However, my 5 year-old boy was ready and willing to get the job done, so help he did! He dumped the vermiculite (it is really light), watered the pile to get it moist, and held up two ends of the tarp while I held the other two ends and tugged and pulled and kicked it until it was mixed.
I did this 12 times, and made 12 batches of dirt. I hauled each one over to my garden beds and pushed and heaved the tarp until the dirt was deposited within.
For the container garden we filled each of the six bins with a pail, scoop by scoop. We got our hands really, really dirty.
The neighbours came by and asked what we were up to. “We are making homemade dirt!” my son told them. “It has compost, vermiculite and feet moss!”
At last it was done. My driveway was a complete disaster, dirt remnants everywhere. Every muscle ached. But it was a good thing. I felt good. My body felt good. I set out to accomplish something that weekend, to create garden beds in my tiny yard, and I made it happen.
Stay tuned for Part III – planting!