Jun 28, 2011

Sq Ft Gardening - Dirt, Dirt, and More Dirt

Welcome back to Day 2 of our Adventures in Square Foot Gardening!  If you don't know what it is by now make sure to pop back over to THIS post to read all about it.  Yesterday we learned how to plan your layout as well as how to build your boxes (HERE).  Today we are going to get dirty (and a little broke) mixing up our custom blend of soil.

The soil is by far the most expensive, not to mention laborous, part of the project.  By no means do you HAVE to make new soil mix.  If you have an abundance laying around feel free to fill up your boxes with any old thing or you can even have square yards of top soil delivered to your house from a nursery...trust me - it is much easier than grabbing a ton of bags on your own.

 We decided starting with our own fresh soil mix was the best thing for us based on the following:
  • Our existing soil is clay like and doesn't drain too well. 
  • With a new soil mix I get to control what is (better yet, what is not) put in our soil including the absence of animal by products that commonly find their way into certain fertilizers, pre-bagged soil mixes, and traditional top soil like horse and chicken manure.  Not exactly prime growing material for a vegetarian...no thanks!!  
  • We currently have TONS of weeds amongst other things like gravel and even a knee bone which I hope was from a cow or some non human being...
  • I was in the mood for some heavy lifting and back breaking work.
**WARNING** - The next part of this post is super boring talking about mixing your custom soil including calculations and math and all sorts of other snooze worthy crap so if you don't plan to mix your own soil then feel free to skip down to the muscle flexing mixing part of the post...

In the book, the author makes up his own mix called "Mel's Mix" aptly named after himself.  It is a 3 part mix of 3 ingredients: Peat Moss, Course Vermiculite, and compost made up of 5 different sources.  Since Vermiculite is EXTREMELY expensive and often not readily available, we decided to double down on a pre mixed soil in its place - enter Dr. Earth's Veggie Planting Mix.  We also forgo-ed the 5 mixes of compost and went with only two - Cotton Bur and Organic Worm Castings (from our neighbors, of course!).  For some reason worm poop seemed "cleaner" to me since they naturally are already in soil and you don't often find a chicken, cow, or horse when diggin' in the garden.  So here is a look at B's Mix...aptly named after me:
  • 3 parts peat moss
  • 3 parts compost made up of 2 different types compost
  • 3 parts Dr. Earth's Vegetable planting mix (which includes additional fertilizer (though no animal by-products except sea life which, again, I am OK with!)
In addition - 
  • One 2 cu ft bag of vermiculite (I couldn't find coarse ANYWHERE) just for good measure

Calculating How Much Soil You Will Need

The best way to calculate how many cubic feet you would need to fill your boxes it is to multiply the width times then length of the box and then DIVIDE by 2.  We are using 6 in deep boxes not 1 ft so you must divide by 2.  Here is an example of how I calculated our needs:

Each 2x8 box = 16 cu ft /2 = 8 cu ft per box  →2 boxes = 16 cubic feet
Each 3x8 box = 24 cu ft/2 = 12 cu ft per box →2 boxes = 24 cubic feet

The total = 40 cubic feet divided by 3 = 13.3 cubic feet of each of the 3 parts.  I messed with this a bit more and did 18 cubic feet of Dr Earths and split the last 20 cubic feet between the peat moss and compost...don't forget I had 2 cubic feet of vermiculite...

On day one E and I mixed up the 2 2x8 beds together.  On the second day I went it alone...

Materials Needed:
  • Giant Tarp
  • Shovels, rakes, or whatever else you can find to mix with
  • Your soil components
  • A garden hose to lightly spray peat moss and vermiculite as you add them to prevent some of the dust
  • Proper Attire including: work gloves, face mask & goggles (it gets super dusty), stilettos ~ just making sure you're paying attention, Long pants and long sleeves.  You should look a little something like this except with goggle on...


This is a 2 man job but when you are impatient like me you can always find a way to make it work.  Here is how I did it all by my lonesome...

Start by dumping your different composts in the center of the tarp and mix mix mix

Add in the vermiculite and peat moss and a little spray of water...not too much because it is HEAVY...hopefully you found a friend or loved one to help you but if not then go slow and be thorough...

Once you are done mixing it should all be uniform in color.  Here is where I had to improvise.  Instead of adding the Dr. Earths on top of everything else, I decided to split the bags I needed for the 2 beds I was doing and pour Dr Earths directly into the bed.  Then I split the soil I had mixed and started adding that to the beds.  Then I got funky and mixed the beds by hand - with gloves on, of course!  Yes, not exactly glamorous but it was better than the thought of trying to mix it all with a little shovel then having to shovel each and every scoop into the wheel barrel then into the boxes.

E Helping Fill the Boxes on Day 1
By the time I was finished mixing on the tarp I was completely pooped and forgot to take pictures!  Here is a look at the beds a few days later all filled up with a little hint to tomorrows project - adding your Sq Ft Grids...without them it is not square foot gardening!  :)

Here is the cost break down on the soil ingredients.

Cost Breakdown for 40 Cu ft (which is equal to 80 square feet of gardening space):
  • Dr Earth Veggie Mix (1.5 Cu ft each) 12 bags x 12.99 = $155.88
  • 2 cu ft Vermiculite = $29.99 (now you can see why we didn't make it 1/3 of the mix as suggested!)
  • Cotton Burr Compost - 2 bags of 2 cu ft at 7.99 = $15.98
  • 6 bags Antaeus Worm Castings = $0 due to a nicely timed trade of baby sitting services and wine to our neighbors!  :)
  • 3 bags of 3 cu ft compressed peat moss at $9.26 = 27.78
Grand Total though I am thoroughly afraid to look:  $229.63 + 9.5% tax = $251.44

Add that to yesterdays box building costs and this little project is weighing in at $426.66 thus far.  We originally budgeted around $600 so we are just about on budget though perhaps a little under!  

** Don't FREAK OUT just yet.  The most expensive parts are already done.  We have an abnormally large garden for suburbanites.  If you live in the burbs or the city I am guessing you wont be doing quite as large of a plot but in the event that you are there are a few ways to keep the costs down with delivered top soil as mentioned above.**

We are almost done now so make sure to stay tuned for tomorrows post on getting the square foot part of your garden up and running.  This will require wood laths (ask in your lumber department) and some 1 1/4 inch screws and nuts.

Anyone else taking on this project??  Have any tips or tricks to share?  Feel free to leave a comment or email me with info!!  :) squ

**Update**  See what started it all HERE, See how to choose a layout and build your beds HERE, See how to make Mel's soil mix HERE, and See how to grid your garden HERE!are foot gardening, mel's mix, square foot gardening tips, 
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