Garden Reset: Part One
First in a series. Our original kitchen garden was nice, but fixing growing problems meant a complete overhaul.
Part One: What we got right, what we got wrong.
Seven years ago, my husband and I planned out an elaborate kitchen garden for our semi-rural home in mid-South Carolina. Since the soil was a few inches of sand with a hard-packed clay layer underneath, and we had tree roots (with a mole problem, I was told), we decided on a series of raised beds – Square Foot Gardening (SFG). So we built the raised boxes out of pine, and stapled half-inch hardware cloth underneath to discourage moles.
Over the years we realized those were both mistakes. While SFG was the way to go, the pine became riddled with termites faster than we could believe possible, and the termites drew in fire ants. The raised beds started to rot and collapse and fire ants are one of the few things that will make me break my resolve to garden organically. The rotted wood also became a haven for stinkhorn mushrooms. We replaced some of the rotted wood with cedar log trim (the part you cut off with the bark to make lumber) but as we had 14 beds and very little cedar, it got overwhelming.
The hardware cloth was limiting, too. Transporting compost–which I eventually got through the local municipality– was hard, and we ended up only being able to afford lumber and compost for 6″ deep boxes. That was not impossible, just limiting. We could grow Danvers half-long carrots, for example, not full-sized carrots. It was just fine for green & wax beans, lima beans, peas, cukes (with hills), cabbage, kale, peppers, tomatoes, onions, herbs, and lettuce. We had one deep box with no hardware cloth bottom where we grew things like potatoes and daikon radishes. The hardware cloth became even more of a problem as we tried to transition to perennials whenever possible, like sylvetta arugula instead of leaf lettuces, as these had deeper roots.
That was the situation last March, normally our main planting time, when two things happened. We were getting our kitchen floor replaced because it had particle board subflooring that had gotten wet and rotted. As long as we were fixing the kitchen floor we had the water-damaged ceiling fixed, removed the water-damaged wallpaper, painted the walls, and refaced the cabinets. We did much of the work ourselves. This took all of March, and before I could start limited, late planting in April, I tore my knee.
So we made a conscious decision to take a year off of gardening, to plan a new setup. We decided to go with creosote landscape ties to avoid the insect problems so prevalent in our semi-tropical climate, but with a barrier between it and the soil to keep the creosote out of our food. We also decided to have four large, deep SFG boxes instead of 14 small ones. We planned it out, and while we were at it, we looked at putting berms and retaining walls in various places to increase the water retention around perennial plantings like our apple trees and asparagus bed. We will be increasing our edible landscaping by adding a decorative garden bed to the front of the house. We also decided on a drip irrigation system for the beds and edible landscape features like the blueberry hedge and fig tree.
So far we’ve installed most of the landscape tie beds, and the 10 CY of topsoil has been delivered. I’ll report as each feature goes in.
ARGH! Creosote is evil!
It is absolutely not allowed in organic agriculture, and is not considered safe in even chemical agriculture, where various CCAs (copper-chromium arsenic) are preferred for things like fence posts. If you got old, re-used ties, they may have most of the leachable stuff leached out already, but likewise, they have most of their lifetime leached out, too!
Even with a "barrier… to keep the creosote out of our food," you're still putting it in the soil outside your beds, and it can have topical effects on those who lean on it to access the bed for weeding, harvest, etc.
I realize it was cheap, but you really should have gone with cedar. If you char cedar (with an open-pit fire, or with a propane torch), it has nearly the lifetime of treated lumber. Un-charred, it should still have 80% of the lifetime of treated wood.
Yes, going down to Dome Hepot to buy cedar is probably out of the budget. But with a little sleuthing, you could find a nearby sawyer who will be glad to get rid of cedar mill slabs! We get a 1-ton truckload, delivered, for $70, about 1/20th the price of finished cedar.
We built about 2,400 sqft of raised beds in our greenhouse with cedar mill slabs for $210 worth of materials. Dimensional lumbar from a lumber yard would have cost over $4,000.
On top of saving money and keeping toxic chemicals out of the ground, they look pretty cool, too!
You have learned along the way Wendy – even if it feels like failure or a setback. In reality it's progress.
I know we started with one large raised bed, three house bricks high, made of stacked bricks. Things we have learned, and are yet to fix or are dealing with are: our yard is not large and even though we have the garden bed away from our only tree, the tree is sending its roots into the bed for the moisture in that area; wind and heat evaporate moisture from the edges of the bed, especially the western side, some of what we plant along there does not suit such dry, hot conditions, and sometimes when we water it runs out the brick walls; one large bed results in compacted areas where we walk to access things; blackbirds dig at the soil disturbing seedlings – netting the whole area as one would be a big job; large crawling plants like pumpkins and raspberreis are not seperated from other crops and tend to take over; the depth is too shallow for things like potatoes before we hit the hard sticky clay underneath.
We have been here 6 years and in that time learned a lot. This garden bed is still in place, and needs remodelling. The bricks are rot and pest proof, very well aged, and easy to handle and remodel the borders with, as we have done once already, but a single stack of three is not high enough for good soil depth or adequate at keeping moisture in, and ants like to live in them.We have experimented with new smaller beds in other areas of the yard – but there's still work to be done!
There are pros and cons to whatever we choose to do, and whatever materials we utilise. I guess we are all learning what works in our own patch of the world, and this takes time.
As for creosote – I remember my father painting it all over wooden poles when I was a child and using these to build cow yards and fences. It's a unique smell.
We live in an imperfect world, and we are not going for an "organic" legal certification for a kitchen garden.
The new garden will cost at least $2,000 as it is. Topsoil was $390; we could not afford compost at $790. The drip irrigation will be about $600 including a pressure reducing valve and all the tubing, absolutely necessary since our well pushes our 22 gallons per minute. If you substitute the word "cheap" with the word "attainable" you have my situation. The landscape ties cost $886; we priced it locally and cedar would have broken us financially. Plus, we needed a retaining wall so in places the heavy landscape ties doubled as that.
Don't even suggest anyone getting used railroad ties, though, since those might have been treated with–I'm not kidding–Agent Orange.
But thanks for the suggestion that we refrain from leaning on the creosote-treated lumber while weeding.
I'm sorry for putting you on the defensive. I have a keen appreciation for the "attainable." And I totally agree that cedar from a lumber yard is prohibitively expensive.
And I also understand that you were not seeking organic certification. But at some point, the use of these chemical poisons must stop, or they will stop us! That creosote will continue to leach out past your life-time.
I encourage you to start from that position, then be creative about attaining it. Personally, I'm willing to pay a small premium for small-o "organic" methods and materials (not necessarily big-o "Certified Organic"). But when it looks like it's going to take a large premium, I do spend time researching alternatives, which is where I came up with the mill slab idea — which is actually cheaper than treated lumber!
Keep up the good work, and again, I apologize for what might have seemed like a personal attack.
I did not feel personally attacked, Bytesmith. The creosote ties are in so we're stuck with 'em. You have no idea what peace of mind it give me that the insane levels of insects in the subtropical climate can't eat through my boxes. The tradeoff was worth it for me.
I've seen a couple of large vegetable gardens that used cinder blocks, but not bricks. The ones I saw were large community gardens in Florida; they were only one-to-two blocks deep and I saw no ant problem. Interesting that ants like the spaces between your bricks. What climate/USDA Zone are you in?
If you have hot, dry conditions where water runs out the brick walls you might try adding something like tar paper inside the bricks, and some peat moss. Also, that area might be good for crops that like hotter, dryer climates. Here in USDA Zone 8A we've had good success in our dry season (all of August) with jalapenos, Lima beans, Jericho lettuce and (loose leaf lettuce and kale do better than head types oddly enough), okra, and a type of green bean that has less transpiration–"greasy" beans –in places like that.
We originally had SFG boxes to avoid compacted areas but now we are going to leave intentional walking paths where we can access things. Try leaving designated paths in the raised beds, I've seen lots of gardeners do that.
Be grateful you only have blackbirds digging at the soil disturbing seedlings; we have cats trying to use our boxes as litter boxes . We put chicken wire on the seedlings until they are large enough to discourage the neighborhood cats.
When we had 14 SFG boxes, we solved large crawling plants like pumpkins and cukes taking over by giving them their own spaces; we may still need to do that by growing them in large containers. We have to do that anyhow with our tomatoes, which require new soil every year due to insect-borne bacterial wilts that infect the soil. Large storage tubs seem to be the best for that.
And I hear you on the clay layer interfering with potatoes. Try a potato tower. The link has three ways to make them, including in tires. Be aware that above 75 degrees potatoes will not make new tubers much, and that in a hot climate they might cook in the black tires, but it might work for you.
I used 16x8x4 inch concrete blocks for one of my garden beds. I set them with a 4×16 inch side down so they are 8 inches high.. They cost about $1 per foot of bed edge and are quick to set up, but can't make a bed deeper than 8 inches unless you lay them like bricks with mortar or hammer in rebar on the outside to prevent toppling or stack them flat in which case the cost quadruples for a 16 inch high bed. They work great for 8 inch height.
[quote=Wendy S. Delmater]Try a potato tower.[/quote]Nice link!
But I'd advise against tyres for the same reasons I advise against creosote.
The open designs (chicken wire, hardware cloth, etc., but not the wood design) also feature something called "air pruning," that is also a feature of soil blocks for starts.
When a root encounters a solid object, it says, "Oh, a rock. I'll just go around it," and as those of us who have experienced "root bound" pots know, the result is a tangled spiral of roots around the outside.
But when a root encounters air, it says, "Oh no! I've reached the surface! Full-speed reverse!" and the result is that the roots tend to be evenly distributed throughout the soil, which in the case of a "potato tower," results in more potatoes where you want them.
One enhancement I'd suggest: staple your hardware cloth to a 2"x2" on either end, then screw those together with three screws. Then, when it's harvest time, you simply take out the screws and potatoes fall out!
One of the reasons we love soil blocks for seed starting is air pruning, boy they take off when the hit the soil, just don't seem to have any transplant shock either.