Monday, March 30, 2009

A New Vegetable Garden

In my attempt to learn how to garden, I recently bought about 4 books to use as resources as I start out. One of them, "All New Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew was highly reviewed on Amazon and seemed to have the easiest system of the books I currently have. Mr. Bartholomew is annoyingly self-absorbed and condescending throughout the text (for example, do we really need a blow by blow recounting of every television program, newspaper, magazine, or radio program that ever asked him to come speak for them?), but his system seemed pretty straightforward and easy to get started so we decided to try it. 

For a "Square Foot Garden" you create 6 inch high planter boxes and fill them with "Mel's Mix" (a combination of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite). You then create a grid of 1x1 foot squares over the box and create a cover to protect your plants from predators. He claims that only 6 inches of soil is needed to grow most vegetables (you have to make a special, taller, box for carrots, parsnips, and potatoes). Since it's a fairly small space, you fill the boxes entirely with his special mix and don't use any of your existing soil which, theoretically, allows for a perfect mix of soil and no pre-existing seeds/weeds. 

Once you have created your boxes and divided them into 1x1 foot squares you can then start planting them - filling each box with a specific number of plants, depending on the space they need to grow. 

I spent some time flipping through the book and made a list of what we would need to build 3 four by four foot boxes, that would allow us 48 one foot squares in which to grow our veggies. Soon we were on our way to several gardening stores and eventually Home Depot to pick up supplies (that was Saturday afternoon).

We picked up some compost and seed packets at the nurseries and got the lumber and hardware we needed at Home Depot. The car was quite packed by the end of our trip!

When we got home, we laid out the lumber and Woodley started screwing the boards for the boxes together with his power drill.

Once he finished with the outer edges of the box, we used a staple gun to tack down a weed barrier cloth over the bottom of the box. That would protect us from new weeds growing up and contaminating our "perfect" mix of soil. 

Here's the finished box covered with the weed barrier. 

Next, we applied some chicken wire to the bottom of the box, also with the staple gun. Hopefully the chicken wire will protect our delicious veggies from the ravenous ground squirrels that live around here. (We believe one of our previous gardens fell prey to the ground squirrels - each day we would go out to find another plant completely gone! It was like they had a vaporizer gun and could just make the plants completely disappear! I would be very sad if that happened to our garden!)

After we finished stapling the chicken wire down, I cut off the extra with special metal cutting pliers. 

Our first finished box! 

They looked quite nice standing up against the fence. It took us a few hours to finish with all of the boxes and we were quite happy with them when they were done. 

Here is the area we decided to use for our garden. It gets a fair amount of sunshine and there is a good water source for the hose on each end of the field. Also, it's about a 60 second walk from the house and is on the way to the mailbox, so I should go by it every day. Oh! And it is protected from deer by a very tall fence. The trellises are remnants of a bygone era. 

This morning I decided to put together "Mel's Mix" using the ingredients we had picked up on Saturday. Altogether we used: 8 cubic feet of peat moss, 8 cubic feet of vermiculite, and 8 cubic feet of compost (and 1 cubic foot of worm castings). Mr. Bartholomew recommended using a variety of at least 5 different composts. Attempting to follow his directions as closely as possible, we used 3 cubic feet of "Organic Earth Compost," 1 cubic foot of chicken manure, 1 cubic foot of "Steer Manure Blend," 3 cubic feet of Gardner and Bloome's "Soil Building Compost" (made of: "forest humus, chicken manure, worm castings, bat guano, kelp meal, oyster shell lime, and dolmite limes, plus mycorrhizae" - where in the world do they get organic bat guano??), and 1 cubic foot of "Worm-Grow Earthworm Castings." Hopefully it will make a good mix.  

Apparently, some reviewers on Amazon had a hard time finding Vermiculite. At our local Orchard Supply Hardware Store (OSH) they had a small bag that wasn't even 1 cubic foot. Since we needed 8 cubic feet altogether, we kept looking. We found these big 3.7 cubic feet bags at Home Depot. I couldn't tell if it was coarse or medium grade (Mr. Bartholomew recommends coarse grade). Since it was the only Vermiculite to be had easily we went ahead and got it. I think it looks pretty much like the pictures in the book. 

I got a big tarp out and started pouring the different ingredients on. 

I tried to mix it a bit after each new addition using a handy spade I found in the garden. Here's a picture after I added the first bag of vermiculite. 

It took me about and hour to an hour and a half to finish mixing all of the compost, peat moss, and vermiculite together. Here's how it looked when I was finished. 

You can see all of the pieces of vermiculite mixed in with the soil.

While I had been busy mixing up the soil, Woodley had been busy cutting the grass and getting the boxes set up in their final resting places. 

The next step was to shovel in the soil. 

It was pretty fun to see the boxes filling up! 

Two finished boxes, complete with "Mel's Mix."

Later in the afternoon, I came back down to the garden and put together some strips of plastic over one of the boxes to outline the square feet in each box (16 per box). Apparently that is very important for "Square Foot Gardening." Unfortunately, I ran out of tape after one box. 

Next, I decided to make the protective cover for the box. Woodley had put together the bottom of the cover using small 2x1 inch pieces of wood and deck screws. Sadly, his squares of wood didn't stay together very well so I only ended up doing one of the 3 tops. Using the wooden 4 foot x 4 foot square as a guide, I cut pieces of chicken wire that extended roughly 32 inches beyond the edges of the box. I then folded the sides up and attached the edges using zip ties. Creating the cover (I'll do the other two later this week) was the hardest part of the entire process. The chicken wire was incredibly sharp and although I was wearing gloves to protect my hands, they didn't prevent it from flinging back and scratching my arm. I got several deep cuts :( 

However, once I had finished wrestling with the chicken wire and actually got it cut out, bent into shape, and zip tied together, it seemed to work better than I had expected.  

I connected the bottom of the chicken wire box to the wooden frame supports using the staple gun.

So I now have 1 fully completed box with cover and 2 completed boxes that still need their square foot markers and chicken wire tops. I hope to finish those and start planting by the end of the week! Updates are to come! 



  1. wow! thanks for the step by step! i did a search on a vegetable box and found your site. i'm having my hubs create one for me!

  2. Hi! I'm so glad you liked this post! The garden has been growing really well and it is absolutely amazing how much stuff can grow in such a small amount of space with so little dirt. If we were going to do it over again I would probably make the walls a little higher (maybe using 8 to 12 inch wide boards) so that the plants can have a bit more space for their roots, but I don't think they minded the depth too much.

    Once we got our beds all set up we added a sprinkler with a timer that went on for 15 minutes at 7am and 15 minutes at 7pm. Since that took care of the watering I didn't even have to check up on the garden more than a couple of times a week (or whenever I was curious about it)

    Sadly, we had to leave our little veggie garden back in the beginning of July when we came up to Washington for the summer, but our neighbors are looking after it and I hope our sprinkler is still watering it. Before we left I was able to harvest some beets, a bunch of sugar snap peas, a lot of lettuce, and some bush beans. They all tasted great and it was so fun to watch them grow!

    I hope your garden is a fun project that turns out well!

    Take Care,

  3. Hi Elizabeth
    Thanks for the post as well. My wife and I are city peps and are in the process of trying to put together our raised beds. I love your photo essay. We have a problem with gophers that have eaten entire plants out of our yard. We also live on a hillside so the raised beds give us the chance to plant on a level surface. I'm wondering if your ground squirrels have returned? Did they get through your barrier? And where does the water run to during rains. We get tropic storms during the winter that would make a non-draining raised bed a mud pit.

    Harry O

  4. Hi Harry!

    I hope your planting beds are coming along well! I found that these little gardens are so much fun.

    In the past I've had ground squirrel troubles. Actually, about a month after I planted my first garden in California I was mystified when my plants started disappearing one by one, day after day. It was terrible! Since I had never lived anywhere with ground squirrels before I thought maybe the local high schoolers were playing a trick on me (the high school was right across the street from our house). After puzzling over it a bit I finally realized that it was the ground squirrels! They are amazing plant devourers!

    The good news is that we didn't have any trouble with ground squirrels getting through these beds. The plastic weed barrier that we stapled to the bottom did a good job of keeping the weeds out (while still letting the rain drain through) and the chicken wire (the kind with the small holes) that we stapled to the bottom of the box proved to be too great a match for our ground squirrels (even though our neighbor reported how they had burrowed under 10 feet of concrete just to get to his compost pile. Thankfully, so far we haven't had any trouble with ground squirrels getting into the boxes.

    Since the only thing on the bottom of our boxes is weed barrier cloth and chicken wire (and since they're sitting on top of a grassy patch of lawn) the rain water just drains right through and down into the ground. The downside to this arrangement is that we can't move the boxes without risking loosing the contents (since I think the dirt would just pull through the chicken wire and fall out). However, I think the square foot gardening book mentioned that you could screw a sheet of plywood onto the bottom of your box to make it easier to move around. You just need to be sure to add drainage holes here and there. If I remember correctly I think it was 1 drainage hole per square foot (I think you could drill one out if you had a big enough drill bit). I'll hunt around for the book though and double check that in the next few days.

    I hope this helps a little. And have fun with your boxes!!