2.20.2010

An Organic Square Foot Garden, Part 1

I live in Texas.  It's a part of the country where you can grow many fruits and vegetables year round (different ones at different times of the year).  Until we moved here I had never really considered growing my own food.  Now I see the logic of doing it wherever you live, even if you are restricted to just a few seasons: knowing what you're eating (i.e., what it was grown in), doing something good for the environment, saving money, and enjoying the incredibly fresh taste of food that was grown just steps from your back door.

I was attracted to the concept of Square Foot Gardening because it yields an organized, attractive, efficient and super productive vegetable patch.  I highly recommend you read the book.  Another benefit is that it allows you to "start from scratch" so you don't have to engage in the laborious process of correcting whatever is wrong with the existing soil.  And I liked the idea of a raised bed because it lessened the possibility that my vegetable patch would be contaminated by runoff from my neighbors' yard (who use all manner of chemicals to control their lawn.)

Cost/Benefit
Being the practical person I am, I needed to run the numbers to see if it would really work for us.  I determined how much space I would need to grow enough food to generate the lion's share of what we consume.
 
Then I considered what it would cost to build it...

one Suncast tumbling composter $99 (at Lowes)
two 4x4 Frame-It-All raised garden beds $200
six 2-cubic-foot bags of Lady Bug Square Foot Gardening Blend soil $90 (special blend based on Mel Bartholemew's "Mel's mix" recipe)
one 3 ft x 50 ft roll of Landmaster Durable Weed Control fabric $13
one bottle of Liquid Seaweed (root stimulator for transplanting seedlings) $10
one seed starter tray $10
eighteen (mainly organic, some heirloom) fruit and vegetable seed packets $36
one roll of mason string $5
one roll of packing tape $1
...and for the canopy (to protect it from heavy rain, wind, cold, insects before flowering, birds...):
four lengths of 1/2 inch PVC pipe $5
one package of heavy duty zip ties $5
two 12x10.5 foot frost blankets $26
eight 2" metal spring clamps $24

total: $524
Note: I'm quite sure I could have spent a lot less on the composter and frames, but I chose the tumbler composter because it makes it easy to turn the compost and the type of frame I used makes it very easy to reconfigure or expand the garden later.

And compared that to what I expected we'd save...

These two boxes should support a good deal of our fruit and vegetable needs over the next year, especially if we use frost cover, make full use of the composter and carefully select what to grow during which seasons.  It's easy to see how the savings can quickly surpass the initial expenditure.  Consider that my family's typical weekly consumption of the fruits and vegetables I plan to grow is probably about $30.  I tend to buy organic, which costs more.  That amounts to about $1550 of savings a year, which means I'm saving $1000 in the first year alone.  Plus, we have the added benefit of knowing exactly what we are eating and experiencing the enhanced flavor of truly fresh food.  Giddyup!

After determining that it was a fiscally sound idea, I set about planning, constructing and launching my garden.

1. I  determined where my square foot garden would go on my property in order for it to have at least 6-8 hours of daily direct sunlight without ruining the look of my yard.  This also involved deciding what sort of container I would use.  Would I put it on my patio so I could see it through my kitchen window?  This would require putting a bottom on it so it wouldn't stain my deck.  Would I put it out in my yard?  I didn't want to tear up sod in order to put it in the grass, so I finally determined I'd put it in an unoccupied mulched area.  This would have the added benefit of making it easy to dismantle it if we had to.

2. I mapped out what I would grow and where I would grow it within my square foot garden.  Square foot gardens are typically 4x4 foot boxes.  This means that each 4x4 box would have 16 square foot boxes for planting (hence the term Square Foot garden.)  I decided to zero in on the vegetables and fruits that we tend to eat a lot of and paid attention to seasonality and principles of companion planting.  Not every plant grows nicely next to every other plant.  Sometimes one plant can make its companion plant taste bitter.  Good companions deter pests or enhance flavors.  

In the end, my spring planting map looks like this (visualize square foot boxes):


tomatoes, marigold, peppers, peppers
basil, onions, carrots, carrots
spinach, spinach, broccoli, broccoli
radish, bok choy, bok choy, lavender


lettuce, lettuce, pole beans, cantaloupe
oregano, marigold, zucchini, zucchini
watermelon, watermelon (given the size, these will occupy two entire rows - eight 1 foot boxes)


3. After a some thought and investigation, I went to Lowes and bought a tumbler composter.  Good compost is essential to a healthy and prolific vegetable garden.  I then went to an organic garden center and bought the rest of my supplies.

It took me 30 minutes to assemble the 4x4 frames so each looked like this (note the stake at the bottom left - this anchors the frame on four sides to the ground).  I highly recommend using a mallet to start the screw holes.  The planks are VERY hard.
It took me another 45 minutes to complete them.  Here's what I did:

I lined each frame with the weed control fabric...
 ... filled each frame with three bags of the square foot gardening mixture and used a rake to smooth it out.
I watered the boxes heavily and turned the soil as I went to ensure I got it good and wet.  I then measured and marked the frame at 12 inch increments in order to attach my string grid...
 
... until they looked like this...
Since we're expecting a cold snap later this week, I went ahead and put up my canopy to keep the ground a little warmer so I can plant some seeds at the end of the week.

I attached my PVC pipes and lashed them together at the top (where they cross) with heavy duty zip ties...
... then covered them with the garden fabric and secured the fabric to the frame with the spring clamps.  I'm sure I could have been tidier, but you get the idea.

4.  Then I determined:
  • how many plants should go in each square foot (e.g., 16 carrots or one broccoli), 
  • what needed to be started by seedling (tomatoes, peppers, onions, broccoli, lavender, oregano, watermelon) versus putting a seed right in the ground,
  • what could be started in the ground now (carrots, spinach, bok choy, lettuce, cantaloupes, radish, cauliflower) versus after the last frost (marigold, basil, pole beans, zucchini), and finally,
  • I enlisted my little boys to help me start the required seedlings.  They loved getting their hands dirty! I am hopeful that they will be excited to eat the food they grow - another great way to get kids to eat their veggies!

I am really excited about this project and I'll update you as I proceed.

***

The Basics of Composting
An Organic Square Foot Garden (Part 2)

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is really incredible. Very informative and well written. Easy to follow. Good planting!

Jenny said...

Ooooo, I have been interested in this. We have 2 raised bed gardens. I'm thinking of doing the sq. foot thing this spring.

Michele said...

Okay, seriously... This is a freakin' amazing idea.
I LOVE THIS IDEA ! ! !
Holy crap on the money you save in the end! Not to mention how much healthier, and funner (not a word) it would be.
I'm totally going to try this... mind you, I live in Alberta, which means we get about 3 1/2 days of summer. So, it might not work so well LOL ;)

Good luck and happy planting and growing.
Make sure to keep us posted on your progress.

You are amazing ;)

Shelle said...

looking forward to watching your garden grow. i still have a backyard of dirt hills so i'm still waiting but i'll be paying more attention on how to do it all this year...i don't have a clue despite my mum having grown veggies all my years. the one time we tried it had been very cold and most of the plants never grew enough. i think i'll be looking more to minature fruit trees and the easier lettuces & tomatoes. my neigbours all give me lots of peppers & zucchini anyway.

how does the compost work Meg...how long does it take and how much garden will it cover? i really like the idea of a rotating bin, a bit easier to handle.

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