Building a Square Foot Garden on land that holds water, Part 2

Somewhere in between then and now, we all managed to catch the flu.  My mom and my uncle ended up with pneumonia, and ILoveBunnies got strep throat.  I suspected Bunny-Wan Kenobi might be harboring a secondary infection as well, due to the congested cough he had developed, but it turned out to be allergies.  I hadn’t considered that, since he never had much allergy trouble before.  Shay and I managed to skirt the secondary infections, but it was a close call… either one or both of us could easily have ended up on antibiotics.

Meanwhile, as much as we could, we continued to work on the garden, since we are into planting season here!  A good bit of the country is still dealing with frozen ground and snow, but it’s been in the 70s and even around 80 since the middle of February.  Now, that is quite unusual here, but, especially with 80s predicted for the next week, it increasingly appears that the cold weather is over for us.

(To tell you the truth, I’d like the cold weather back.  Every day of chill is one less day of searing heat and suffocating humidity, the way I look at it.)

At any rate, once we had removed the rabbits from the garden, it was time to continue with preparing the garden for use.

The next thing to do was to lay down newspaper to help make sure all the vegetation under the garden would die. I laid down 15-20 layers of newspaper over the whole bottom of the garden, keeping it wet to stop it from blowing around, and weighting it with boards.

Meanwhile, Shay worked on the supports for the benches. Waiting to work on this until the rest was done saved time, since I could work inside while he worked outside.

He added supports for the benches beside the main posts, as well.

It is so nice to have these benches to sit on!

Inside, I started lining the bottom with chicken wire over the newspaper. We did this to keep pests like moles out, which are a problem here. I forgot to take a picture of the chicken wire. Shay finished up the wire, and we then lined the whole interior with landscape cloth -- not only to keep weeds out (yes, I know, the 15-20 layers of paper, but they will biodegrade eventually, and we have some mean vines around here), but also to keep the contents of the garden in. No matter how straight your lumber is, it will have gaps. We don't want to lose sand and growing mix through those gaps. Immediately after finishing the cloth, we began shoveling sand in. A little while later, 3 cubic yards of sand were spread in a layer 6-9 inches thick. We used the sand to roughly even out the bottom of the planting area, so it would all be the same depth.

Next, it was time to finish buying all the ingredients for the planting mix that would fill the garden.  In Square Foot Gardening, a particular mix is used, called “Mel’s Mix”, after Mel Bartholomew, the inventor of the Square Foot Gardening method.  Mel’s Mix is a 1:1:1 ratio of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite.  You’re supposed to use coarse vermiculite, since it holds more water and breaks down more slowly than fine vermiculite.  I got mine at a roofing and insulation company.  I thought I was getting coarse, until I got it home and realized it was fine.  Oh, well.  I’ll just try to stir some coarse vermiculite into the garden in a couple of years.

If you make your own compost, you can just use that.  I’m starting to compost, but I’m far from there!  If you need to buy compost, like I did, Mel strongly recommends buying and mixing at least five different kinds.  The reason is that most bagged compost has only one or two ingredients.  This will not satisfy the nutrient needs of your plants, just like eating only broccoli will not satisfy your nutritional needs.  The peat moss and vermiculite are there to keep the mix loose and to hold water, while allowing excess water to drain.  It is the compost that will provide the nutrients the plants need, and that is why you need at least 5 different ingredients.  This is what I ended up with:

Peat moss. I was able to find 3 cubic foot bales. These are compressed bales, and the peat moss expands to twice the volume once you unpack it. So a 3 cubic foot bale gives me 6 cubic feet of peat moss. Which is nice, because I got to cut my peat moss costs in half!

Vermiculite. These were 4 cubic foot bags. You can even read on it that it is concrete aggregate for "Siplast Roof Insulation Systems". Doesn't matter, as long as it is vermiculite.

Compost #1: Composted forest material and composted barnyard waste.

Compost #2: Mushroom compost. I don't remember what was in here, but it's supposed to be good. It has no cubic foot measurement, only pounds, so I had to estimate. It looked (when compared with other bags) like around 2 cubic feet.

Compost #3: Composted cow manure. Like the mushroom compost, I had to guesstimate this to be about 2 cubic feet.

Compost #4: Composted chicken manure. Unfortunately, unlike the cow manure, the smell did not compost out of it. I rememeber when we lived in Delaware, which is chicken farm heaven. You got the smell of the manure not only when you passed chicken houses, but also when the farmers spread the manure all over the fields! It could knock you senseless. This wasn't that bad, but it still wasn't pleasant.

Compost #5: Composted cotton burrs. Those would be the hard, sharp pods that split open to reveal the cotton. Surprisingly, this stank almost as much as the chicken manure compost. I figured cotton burrs should be pretty innocuous. Boy, was I wrong. This came in 2 cubic foot bags.

RESPIRATORS!!! Anyone involved in mixing the peat moss and vermiculite should wear one of these. It's not that they are toxic (the asbestos danger with new vermiculite was over decades ago when they closed a contaminated mine), it's just that dry vermiculite and dry peat moss have loads of particles that become airborne very easily. Mixing on a calm day will help, but you will probably have significant amounts flying into the air anyway. Large amounts of any kind of dust are bad to breathe, so we bought these. A simple mask might do if it fits well, but this kind is much more comfortable. It provides more coverage, and has a valve to let the air you breathe out escape -- saving you from a mask that gets more and more soggy and unpleasant from your breath. Wearing a mask is already unpleasant, and we were going to be wearing these things for a long time! So we sprang for the almost $5 apiece these cost to minimize our discomfort as much as possible. You can see some of the dust that this one captured.

The first of 9 loads of mix is in. We needed to keep the mix separate from the sand, so we laid a large tarp inside the garden box on top of the sand and mixed in it. I poured the ingredients in -- one cubic foot apiece (or my best estimation) of the composts, for a total of 5 cubic feet of compost, and 5 cubic feet of loosened peat moss, and 5 cubic feet (a bag and a quarter) of vermiculite. Mom misted the peat moss and vermiculite as I poured them out, and all during mixing, to keep as much dust down as possible. Shay mixed all while I poured, and I helped mix when I was finished. When the mix was ready, we used the hoes to pull most of it out of the tarp, and then lifted the end of the tarp to dump the rest of it out. At this point, Mom switched to a stronger stream of water to really thoroughly wet the mix. Here you can see Mom spraying the mix down, while Shay continues to mix a little.

Three loads of mix in, Shay sprays it down a little more as we break for the day. You can see a little of the 9' x 12' tarp we used in the corner.

Nine loads of mix, and the garden is filled! I had gotten enough for ten loads, just in case. The remainder is already being tapped for other applications. What an exhausting day!

The following day, the menfolk were back at work, but we were still busy on the garden. We measured and marked the bed at 1-foot intervals, then stapled nylon cord at the marks, and tied the cord to the staples. We were able to stretch the cord pretty tight. We started with the shorter lengths across the bed, since they would help support the longer ones.

Then we ran the lines down the length of the bed. We debated whether to lay the lines on top of the others, or whether to weave them over and under. We finally settled on the latter. We did manage to run out of nylon cord, so we tied in a length of heavy, white cotton twine to finish. You can see that the row of squares at left is actually narrower rectangles; we have this also at the one end that you cannot see. We'll be able to use these sections for crops that can have more than one plant per square foot, like onions, garlic, lettuce, carrots, radishes, etc.

Another thing you can see in the above picture is a whole lot of mud and water to the sides of the garden.  As we were mixing and filling, walking around the garden, the rainwater on the ground turned the clay almost into a liquid.  Eventually, we are going to have to put a walk around the garden.  We’ve already laid old boards from the grape arbor over some of this muck.

The reason we can't build a regular, much less expensive, 6-inch-deep square foot garden. This was the yard about a week ago. It doesn't look this bad now, but if you walk through the yard, it is still holding standing water. It just doesn't go anywhere. It has to evaporate.


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