Thursday, May 26, 2011

Once you've grown a person, lettuce should be easy

Way back in March, I posted about my plans to grow my own veggies this year using our parking space and a container gardening set up. Although I haven't written much about it since, I'm proud to say that so far my garden scheme has been a plan I'm following through on (with only a few stalls along the way).

I've had a couple of questions about how it is going, and how other people might get started growing in a small space. There is a lot of great information about this already out there on the web, but here in my small corner, I'm going to let you know what I'm up to.

Enjoy the (lengthy) details...

Square Foot Gardening
I've mucked around in the past with planting veggies free in the backyard, mixed in with my flowers and trees, and I've had decent results with the most simple efforts (sticking rosemary in next to the peonies), but not much to show in the way of more substantial crop yield.
I started reading about container gardening on Simple Mom, and as I dug in a little further, the term "square foot gardening" kept coming up. When my Aunt Jan (the only urban farmer I've ever actually known in real life) recommended Mel Bartholemew's book and method All New Square Foot Gardening, I knew that was where I should start.

Mel's book outlines a very simple alternative to traditional "row and hoe" gardening that is perfect for urban yards with questionable soil quality and (much) less than full time farmers. Using a narrative style that is best described as "folksy", he breaks down every possible detail about starting your own garden providing tons of helpful advice, and some questionable observations:

Getting Started
After reading through my new gardening bible, I decided that I'd better get started on sprouting some seeds indoors, as my last frost date was quickly approaching, and soon I'd need to get seedlings in the ground. So before my boxes were built, I headed off to the garden centre and picked up an assortment of seeds, guided exclusively by my knowledge of what we like to eat around here. I got: cucumbers, butternut squash, eggplant, kale, leeks, corn, mesclun, romaine lettuce, green onions, rainbow chard, spinach, zucchini, tomato, peas, brussels sprouts, carrots, peppers and beet seeds. I spent about $20.

Because it is cheap and green, I planted these seeds in biodegradable egg cartons that I could plant directly in the soil when the time came. I gave them water and sunlight, and soon they looked like this:

Two weeks after sprouts came up, we took our little family on a weekend away and I forgot to ask our cat watchers to also fill in as seed water-ers. I might have been able to save these tiny babies once we got back, but frankly, I forgot. And then it was too late. They were dead.
Oops. But really, starting seeds indoors would just mean an earlier crop, and since I am always in the process of working on cultivating patience, planting seeds outdoors would be a good exercise!

In the space available to me, I figured it would be possible to handle two 4x4 boxes for growing, with the option to add a third next year. I sent Chris off to the lumber store with Ollie, and they picked up eight 1"x6" cedar boards, a bag of wood screws and 4 10 ft. PVC pipes. These supplies sat in our backyard for about a week of rainy weather, until one Tuesday afternoon when the sun was shining and Ollie was out playing at the park with his nanny, I decided to tackle the build.
Mel's right, this construction was so simple that even I, a woman, could do it. Unfortunately, even though I'm the primary fix it person in our home, I am not very handy with a drill. I was able to put three guide holes in each board no problem, but when it came to actually screwing the boards together with a power tool I was a little out of my depth. No problem! I did it the old fashioned way - manual screw driver and elbow grease.

I was very proud of my little boxes and couldn't wait to head back to the garden centre for the dirt I needed to complete them. Mel recommends a mix of equal parts peat, compost and vermiculite, and I know nothing of soil, so I followed his recommendations to the letter.

After filling the boxes, I bent the PVC pipes into a dome over each garden that will support a tarp for shade, or critter protection, as plants begin to grow, and held them in place with zip cords.

The total cost for these building materials and soil was around $180. There was also a human cost.

Manually screwing these babies together gave me a wicked repetitive stress injury for which I actually had to wear a brace for two weeks (to the evil delight of my brothers and husband, who are always looking for something to tease me about).

The Grid
As far as I can tell, the "genius" of this method of gardening is in the square foot grids that crisscross over these raised beds. Using a grid keeps all of your plants neat and orderly and packed in close enough together to keep weeds to a minimum and yields to a maximum.

It is recommended to use wooden slats to create this grid, but I was feeling cheap after shelling out for the materials to get this thing going, so I opted for a yarn grid. Maybe I'll upgrade next year.

The book, as well as countless websites provide details of how many of what type of plant can be grown in one square of the grid. I drew up a map of my plans (in what used to be my journal and is now my "gardening notebook"), and got to planting.

Waiting for the harvest
Although the weather has been less than desirable when it comes to outdoor playtime, it is perfect for a somewhat lazy gardener like me. Heavy rains followed by intense sunshine have taken my garden from the tiny sprouts you can see in the grid picture above, to bursting with greenery in just over a month.

I expect it will be only a week or two before we can begin to harvest lettuces, and peas and beans are coming up close behind. I did put some already started herbs in, because it is hard to wait for delicious fresh flavors, but for the most part this little patch has sprung up from seeds alone.
I'm already reading ahead to how to keep my garden producing all through summer, fall and maybe even winter, and have lots of ideas for crops I want to rotate in as the first plantings are harvested. I can't wait to start cooking with food I've produced all on my own, and I can't wait to start sharing the excitement of watching something grow from nothing with my first little bean.

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