I was excited to move into a home that had great landscaping started. There are so many day lilies and hostas on our property, our backyard resembles a jungle in July. However, I wanted an edible garden, and luckily we had room – a major selling point for this property. I was originally inspired by Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method. I probably first found the technique on Pinterest, but I bought his book as well. The method makes sense for organic urban gardening – small footprint, biodiversity through intercropping, less waste due to limited harvest of any one crop. I don’t think he actually invented the idea, but I used his book as a guide to outline this journey into garden building.
The compost bin features prominently in this picture from last fall, but my vision placed a raised garden bed working its way from the far corner of the property along the wooden fence. Can you see the pile of dirt and rocks in that corner?
That mound was covered with large rocks and topped with a rhododendron. So early this spring I set to moving. First, the rocks, which now dwell in impermanence along the chain link fence and elsewhere, to possibly one day become the foundation of an herb spiral. Then, the rhododendron, which I probably killed with my imperfect understanding of the science of soil acidity. (Long story, but I moved a hosta from near the pool, dug a hole, and plopped in the rhody in. At the time, I thought just adding organic rhody food would help? It is not bouncing back. After further research into blueberry cultivation, I now know better. More on that later.) Last, the earth, which I could never have done by myself. The dirt was permeated with stones and various trash items: glass, pottery sherds, various plastic and ceramic pieces, even a short length of rusty chain and a corroded AA battery. Being resourceful, my Honey and I built a sifter using a 2’x1′ panel of hardware cloth and 2 pieces of lumber leftover from the compost bin. We sifted shovelful after shovelful of dirt to get the stones and trash separated out from the earth. A back breaking, and definitely a two-person, job, made more jolly by the presence of a certain seven year old kid who jumped with joy every time I asked him to run on up to the front yard and turn on the hose.
I found raised bed kits at Meijer for 40 bucks. They’re made of cedar, and all online reviews said they work great. I was sold on the fact that there was really little construction involved in the frame, and cedar is a long lasting organic material. Purchasing two 4’x4′ kits allowed me to make a 4’x12′ frame. Taking cues from Mel Bartholomew, and armed with the foreknowledge of the presence of moles/voles/whatever rodents digging in our lawn already, we laid down hardware cloth after the first three sides of the frame were placed. We ended up buying a 2’x25′ roll of the stuff and cutting it roughly in half, then lying the panels side by side. There is a niche to be filled in hardware cloth: it does not come in 1/2″ grid 4′ widths (at least, not at our neighborhood Lowe’s).
Mel wants my raised garden bed to be filled with “Mel’s Mix”: 1/3 parts each of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Vermiculite and peat moss improve both drainage and water retention, as well as air flow at the roots of plants. Compost provides nutrition. I was on the fence about how “done” my compost was, but I sent an email complete with picture to the Michigan State University Extension and they replied within 48 hours that it was probably finished. I knew I didn’t have really enough for the Mel’s Mix equation, but we had this seemingly interminable pile of dirt. I figured, it’s not useless, for heavens sake there were a TON of weeds growing in it – that we mostly got rid of with the sifter. There were probably a ton of weed seeds, but there are all kinds of seeds in my compost too. Anyway, we started by sifting the dirt directly into the garden bed, then added peat moss and vermiculite to that. Then we added in compost too, which also had to be sifted due to the size of the pieces. When we got closer to the source of the dirt, we had to create a different system: we sifted into a bin, then dumped the bin onto a tarp, until the ground was level and we could add the sifted dirt back to the garden bed. To which we then added vermiculite, peat moss, and freshly sifted compost.
The project probably took 2 full weekends to break down and put back together. After the freakish snowfall we had over the winter, we were thankful to work in sunny, warm weather. Retelling the story, I remember it was a lot of hard work. Now it’s just a part of our home.