Tuesday, March 15, 2011

making new veggie beds on the cheap

keyhole garden piling up with collected and raked up goods
spring is here
crisp sweetness fills the air
the ground is soft
and folks are digging in

gardeners are busy
planning and planting  and clearing out weeds and debris from last season's growth.

some of you are new to gardening.  some are entering your second, third and fourth season as gardener.

with each year comes a new confidence, memories of challenges won and lost and hope, a great deal of hope.  it's true - if you look into a gardener's eyes around spring time, you'll see stars. and you'll see scheming.  every gardener ponders ways in which to grow more - we think about the spacing of plants, we think about the size of the bed, we think about where each and every veggie should go - more sun, less sun, too hot, too dry, too moist, early sun, afternoon shade, the list goes on. 

and if you're anything like me, you're thinking about where to fit in the next bit of growing space.  i have plants growing around the entire perimeter of the yard.  fruit trees on the west side, veggies on the north, east and south side with flowers anywhere i can get them to grow.  i have learned over time that there are several areas where veggies and such don't do so well.  these areas are either too dry, raked over by the sun in high summer or lacking enough sunlight to really push the plants into producing mode. and then there are areas that i like to leave alone. walking spaces, spaces for raising livestock, in my case chickens and areas that have yet to be inspired.  

in the big picture, the hippychick space changes most every year.  if not by leaps for sure with baby steps.  baby steps are good - you can manage baby steps with limited time and still see great results.  and you'd be surprised how much you can accomplish with steady baby steps over the span of a few years.  

ok then - 
you're thinking i want a new garden bed but i'm broke and i need to find a way to do this on the cheap.

i have a few suggestions for you

#1 - start yourself a compost pile!
you can go out and purchase a fancypants composter but you don't have to.  all you need is a pile of earthy goods.  you could contain it using wire or a bin made from freely collected wood pallets like i do.  or you could just start a pile - there is no law that says the pile need containment.  what the pile needs is goods and your sweat and efforts in turning it every now and again.  

what should go in the pile
  • leaves 
  • grass clippings
  • spoiled hay or straw
    • watch out for seeds
    • if you get seeds - make sure the pile really heats up to knock them out
  • veggies bits from the kitchen
  • weedy bits from yard clean up
    • avoid seed heads or be sorry - you've been warned
  • horse poo, rabbit poo, goat poo, chicken poo if you can get it
  • trimmings from garden clean up
  • old beer
  • old kombucha mothers
  • eggshells
  • shredded paper
    • no color or glossies as they inks are usually problematic
  • dirt
what should NOT go in the pile
  • oil and grease
  • meat bits from the kitchen or otherwise
  • cat or doggy poo
  • old tomato plants
  • diseased plants of any kind
  • plants that are poisonous - oleander for example 
    • do your homework here - don't put it in your pile until you do a bit of research.  the web and a local nursery are great resources for such questions
note - if you do add poo in the pile you'll need to make sure it really composts down before adding the compost to your garden.  give it a good three months minimum to break down.  poo really helps to heat the pile up and kick start the process.  poo is not required for good compost - compost will happen with our without poo.

how do i make a pile?  
it's easy if you follow this rule of thumb.

- green brown green brown green brown green brown -  

always rotate green goods 
(grass clippings, veggies, etc)

with brown goods 
(leaves, paper, hay, dirt)

always finish with brown
if you are bringing out veggie bits from the days dinner, bury them beneath the brown otherwise they rot and are bait for creatures you might not want in your pile.

*alfalfa hay is considered green and is a great way to kick the heat up some.
you can also get pelleted alfalfa - a.k.a. rabbit food - if you wish
i suggest you try using natural bits before spending bucks

get out and collect bags of leaves and grass that the prim and proper discard on the side of the road come trash day.

for those of you with small bits of space - you could even start your pile in an old trash bin.  just make sure that the bin has a decent air flow.  you can do this by leaving the top off or drilling a few holes in the top and in the upper part of the bin itself.  you don't need a whole lot of space to start composting.
ok so now you've got your compost pile started. 
what you'll need to start a new bed
  • if you've got good soil then get digging
    • find your spot, get your tools and get to work
    • look into a technique called double digging - it works!
    • once you've got your bed dug you can fork in grass clippings and leaves to amend the soil naturally
    • avoid adding fresh hay and old weedy bits unless you wish to grow more weedy bits
  • if you've got hard, crusty, can't get a shovel in it even with arms of steel soil then you're starting in  the same way that i did.
    • find the place
    • mark it out
      • for this you can use steaks with string, a water hose, flour, whatever you've got
    • rough up the bottom soil as best you can
    • water the heck out of it
    • collect cardboard, newspapers, old feedbags, old paper that you might otherwise recycle
      • collect something to mark the outer perimeter of your garden
      • rocks, bricks, wood branches, wood stumps, 5 gallon buckets that will also serve as a planting container, be creative.
      • do not use treated railroad ties - the chemicals in the wood will filter into your soil and this is not good - do not do it!
    • collect leaves, grass clippings, spoiled hay, straw, old garden and yard clippings
once you've got your collected goods start the layering process
  • place down a thick layer of cardboard, paper and/or feed bags first
    • you should not see any soil peeking out
    • don't worry - this layer will break down over time
    • give the area a really good spray to soak the paper goods
  • then place a layer of leaves, hay or straw
    • a good 3-6 inches is best
    • give it a good spray - you want it moist not soaking wet
  • now layer in the green goods - grass clippings, veggie bits, alfalfa hay
    • a good 3-6 inches is best
    • give it a good spray - you want it moist not soaking wet 
  • layer three is a good 3" of composted manure, compost or dirt if you have it
    • if not continue layering brown and green 
    • give it a good spray - you want it moist not soaking wet 
  • continue to layer the goods up to a good 12-14 inches
    • you'll be surprised how quickly this all breaks down
  • at this point, if you have it or can afford it - layer in soil
    • if you are purchasing soil - make sure you purchase good soil
    • even better purchase compost or a compost/soil mix
    • if you can pile on 4" of soil, you could plant in
    • if you finish with leaves and grass clippings, you'll need to wait a bit for things to break down some before planting.
  • give it a good spray - you want it moist not soaking wet 
keep collecting goods - you'll want to continue building the soil base as the pile breaks down.  it may take a season to achieve but it will be well worth your efforts.

check in half way through the season - the beneficial goods you put down may soften the soil beneath enough for you to stick a fork in it enough to begin digging.  if that's the case you might, with some heavy sweat, get your garden planted sooner than later. and keep and eye out for earthyworms, if you see them then the soil is improving - keep up the good work!  regardless you are doing yourself and the soil a great favor.


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