It’s Hip to be Square

Charlotte@Living Well on the Cheap  —  February 7, 2012 — 9 Comments

I have been wanting to grow vegetables since, literally, the day we moved into this house. I made a feeble attempt that spring, but learned the hard way that tomatoes transplanted in May don’t stand much of a chance against Louisiana summers.

The next spring I had ambitions to do more, but ended up with nothing more than a few tomatoes crowded against the fence. They produced, though, and I was so thrilled with the results that I told myself that when fall planting rolled around I would build myself a raised bed and really make a go at it. But September came and went and the garden never materialized. Then I said I’d plant strawberries in November (I had a pretty pot and everything), but on Halloween weekend I found out I was pregnant and within a week the dark days of nausea and fatigue had set in. I forgot all about those strawberries until well into January.

But this year, this year, I was determined to make it happen. And, armed with a plan, I got started the very first weekend in February. I’ve had this book for over a year and have read it cover to cover several times. The basic concept makes sense to me and it all seems very accessible to a novice like myself. I decided to use it as my guidebook for this whole horticultural adventure.

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (available at Amazon)

I followed the steps for box construction exactly as outlined in the book. On our big trip to Lowe’s Saturday morning Nick and I picked up 2 1″x6″x8′ boards and asked the friendly guy in the lumber department to cut them in half for us. When we got home, Nick drilled three holes in the end of each, just like the book said.

I gave each one two coats of white exterior semi-gloss, and that’s about all we got done on Saturday (we had the pegboard installation going at the same time)

First thing Sunday morning we assembled the box. The book said to use big deck screws, but since we’d be putting each screw in by hand we decided to go with shorter 2″ screws and supplement with a little glue. We rotated the corners as the book suggested to keep things simple.

I didn’t want paint on the inside of my box to leach into the soil, so I laid out the configuration ahead of time and marked the inside of each board. Then I just painted what would be the outside, top, and bottom of each side. I forgot to paint the exposed ends, though. I’m kind of annoyed with myself about that. Also, the guy at Lowe’s must be about as good at math as I am because he cut two boards longer than the others. We just put them so they were parallel with each other and it didn’t really make a difference in the overall size/shape of the box.

We carried the lightweight box to the backyard and placed it in a sunny spot right next to the deck steps.

Our backyard is a hot mess right now, but Nick made a quick pass with the mower over the area where we’d be working. The rest of the yard will have to wait for another day. We were on a mission.

While Nick did some heavy lifting, I busied myself with lining the bottom of the bed with cardboard. The idea behind this is to block the grass from growing through and improve water retention. I could have used landscape cloth or newspaper instead, but I had cardboard lying around and it was free. Can’t beat that.

Next step: gather our ingredients. The book recommends a special growing mixture, dubbed Mel’s Mix, comprised of equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite. The vermiculite was by far the most expensive and difficult to obtain. The compost and peat moss cost less then $20 total at Lowe’s. The big bag of vermiculite was $30 at my favorite local nursery (Clegg’s on Donmoor for anyone local, where I would have gone from the get go if I wasn’t already at Lowe’s for the lumber). For my 4′x4′ box I guessed that I’d need three to four cubic feet of each ingredient, but I actually ended up using even less than that. Mel recommends using as many different types of compost as possible so your mix has a nice blend of nutrients. I used one bag of the expensive mushroom compost, two bags of the cheapo composted cow manure (safe for food crops because it’s composted and no longer looks, smells, or feels anything like manure), and as much of my own homemade compost as I could scrape up. The homemade and mushroom composts are both very diverse in their composition so it sort of makes up for the fact that I only had three types (Mel recommends five).

We used an old recycling bin as our mixing bowl. We recycle a lot of stuff so we requested a bigger bin from the city last year and no longer have any need for this little box, but it sure did come in handy here. Nick’s mixing method went a little something like this: a shovel of peat moss, a shovel of vermiculite, a shovel of compost…repeat with the second type of compost …repeat with the third type of compost …stir.

He wanted me to tell you that the most efficient stirring method is to stick your shovel in vertically and make a figure eight.

Once the bin got about halfway full (and more difficult to stir), he dumped it out into the box.

Then while he got to work on the next batch I raked it out to cover the bottom…

…then sprayed thoroughly with the hose.

Then he’d add another batch…

…and I’d rake and water some more.

In what seemed like no time to me (although I wasn’t the one doing the hard work) the box was filled! Nick wasn’t done, though. I had him fill up the recycling bin one more time with as much mix as he could muster so I’d have plenty left over for houseplants and flowerpots and to top this box off if it settles much.

I was supposed to wait a day or two in case the mix settled a lot and needed to be topped off, but I just couldn’t bear it. I used my staple gun and some kite string to mark out a grid. This is why I have a problem with storage in my office. I have stuff like kite string lying around. I’ve had it since college, no idea why, but I can tell you this isn’t the first time it’s come in handy.

And then, the moment I’d been waiting for. I ceremoniously planted my tomatoes. I grew Creoles last year and was really happy with them so I got them again. I wanted to add a little variety to my life, though, so I also picked up a pack of Early Girl which, as indicated by the name, will be ready to pick a few weeks earlier than other varieties. Tomatoes only come in four-packs and I only wanted to grow four tomatoes altogether so I gave two of each variety to my neighbor. I’m pretty sure all eight tomatoes were only like $5 total (again at Clegg’s for you local folk).

Aren’t they beautiful? Maybe it’s just the glow of possibility clouding my vision.

And here’s the view from the back door. See how conveniently it’s located? I can sneak a peak at my veggies every time I let the dog out. On the far left you can catch a glimpse of another project I had going on the same day. I told you we were productive! Any guesses as to what I was up to over there?

I’m contradicting my nature here and resisting the urge to plan out the entire garden right now. I’m just going to take it one month at a time, see what shows up in my local nursery, and try not to overwhelm myself with more plants than I can handle. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really, really excited though. Even Nick caught himself gazing proudly at it a time or two. Maybe he’ll be more inclined to eat vegetables if they came from a garden box that he personally constructed? Speaking of which, let me just tell you, this project is absolutely foolproof. We cannot hang a light fixture without it turning into a twelve-hour ordeal. We cannot screw a board to the wall without needing to take a break to compose ourselves. But we constructed and filled this box with nary a frown or foul word in sight. And if we can do it, you can do it. I guarantee it.

So, total, we spent about $65 on lumber and materials for the box, and we’ve got plenty of mix left over. The only thing we’ll have to add ever again is more compost, and I feel pretty confident that my backyard compost pile will be able to keep up with the demand from this point forward. If all goes as planned this thing will keep me supplied with fresh vegetables for years. A worthy investment, don’t you think?

Charlotte@Living Well on the Cheap

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9 responses to It’s Hip to be Square

  1. I love this! I’m hoping to do the same with my house. As soon as the interior is done, I’m going to make one of these myself :)

  2. It looks terrific! I am very jealous. There is frost on the ground right now and snow and freezing rain is predicted for tonight. It has been a mild winter so far, but I am still longing for spring.

    • Charlotte | livingwellonthecheap February 8, 2012 at 9:26 am

      I’m so sorry! It’s crazy how quickly “winter” comes and goes. My biggest battle, in fact, is beating the heat. I put down some lettuce and spinach seeds yesterday and I’m worried they won’t be able to get established before it gets too hot.

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