Saturday, June 23, 2007

Battle of the Gardeners

So perhaps I should keep track of all the ways in which I deviate from Mel's recommendations (of All New Square Foot Gardening fame). He is, after all, a gardening guru, and I should pretty much follow his advice to a tee. But that is oh-so hard for me to do. Stubborn Sara.

By keeping track of the deviations, we'll be able to wax more empirical as things start to work and other things don't. Come to think of it, we should also keep track of all the ways in which we go against the advice of the Plant Doctor. She sits at her own desk, surrounded by reference books, at our local, rock-star gardening center, Echter's. She really does answer the phone with the moniker of Plant Doctor.

Deviation from Mel's Advice #1:
The whole point of square-foot gardening is that you calculate (fairly precisely) how many plants can grow in one square foot, depending on what the thinning recommendation is on the seed package. (Interesting aside: Mel was a military guy, and his penchant for precision is pretty apparent throughout his whole approach.) For example, carrots need to be thinned to 3" apart, so you can plant 16 in one square foot. This process prevents the gardener from wasting 1) seeds and 2) time thinning the plants. One you make the 16 holes, you're only supposed to plant 2-3 seeds in each hole. Once the strongest one emerges, you simply snip the other ones (whereas pulling out the extras could actually damage the roots of the strong sprout).

Well, seeing as I have never had a particularly green thumb (or any shade of green, for that matter), I didn't exactly have enough faith to plant 2-3 seeds in each hole. I went for approximately 10-12. Yes, your prediction is right. We now have 10-12 sprouts growing from each hole. Who knew this gardening thing would actually work?

One point for Mel.

Deviation from Plant Doctor's Advice #1:
Matt and I had heard about the possibility of growing tomatoes upside-down. The benefit is that you don't have to trellis them, and there's little possibility of rot, since they aren't touching the ground. Because we used up all of our trellis spots with the pumpkin, watermelon, and cantaloupe (we're growing them vertically instead of horizontally), we didn't want to go through the rigmarole of setting up more support systems. The Plant Doctor informed us that the gardening center had considered systems for upside-down tomato growing but ultimately decided against offering any of the supplies in the store. I delineated the benefits of the upside-down approach, but she argued that rot is not an issue in Colorado because of the dryness and that the soil will dry out too quickly if it's up off the ground in a pot. I laid out a few a morerguments but quickly realized that she wasn't going to budge. I capitulated, and Matt and I graciously followed her to the tomato support system section.

After she returned to her post, Matt and I quietly agreed that we, indeed, wanted to try the upside-down method. We also agreed that we would have to purchase the supplies stealthily, so as not to tip off the Plant Doctor to our insubordination.

After using a box cutter to cut out a 2-3" hole in the bottom of a hanging plastic pot, carefully threading the plants' leaves through the hole in the bottom (while leaving the compacted soil of the tomato seedling in tack so it would prevent the plant from slipping through the hole), filling up the pot with extra soil from our garden, and watering the pot until water ran out of the hole, we are well on our way to having healthy, hassle-free tomatoes.

One point for the newbie gardeners.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Solstice Stealth

Our first seeds sprouted today. My paternal feelings are a little odd. Even Matt is suffering from an acute case of anthropomorphism. During dinner, he was silent for few minutes, scrunched his nose and said, "If we go out to a concert tomorrow night, we won't get home in time to water our plants at their usual time."

Matt was the first to notice them. One pumpkin sprout. One watermelon sprout. One cantaloupe sprout. Awed by the fact that the three sprouts appeared on the exact same day, I asked, "Matt, did you dig the plants out of the ground or something?" He confirmed that he did not. Then he added, "Well, one of the plants did have a chunk of peat moss on it, so I moved the chunk to the side."

Later, I pressed further, "So, you didn't brush off any of the dirt from around the sprouts?"

One of Matt's most endearing qualities is that he cannot tell lie. Well, it's endearing unless you're returning a Penske truck to the rental place with a giant scrape on its side and you're almost home free because the inspection paper made a vague reference to a scrape in the exact spot but then he says, "You know if they ask me about it I'm going to have to tell the truth."

So Matt said, "Well, I did kind of take some dirt off the top. Just like a little."

There you have it. Matt unearthed our first sprouts. But today is the summer solstice. So maybe rituals like that are acceptable?

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In It for the Long Haul

So the garden is up and running. Phew.

I'm too tired to even type about it. Really.

There was a point last month when I was debating about whether to follow the easy gardening path (i.e., the square-foot gardening method). I didn't realize that the "easy" gardening path would be so damn hard.

Matt and I pretty much devoted an entire day to constructing those boxes. Yes, power tools are fun, but they are more fun if you actually know how to use them. Fortunately for us, our super-friendly landlord was hanging out on the premises, fixing a few odds and ends. He was able to solve major conundrums in an instant: "Um, Sara and Matt, the reason you can't get the drill to work is because you're using the wrong drill bit."

Who knew that the deck screws we used to build the raised beds would actually come with their own drill bit? Why aren't these things taught in school?

And, stupid me, I followed my typical pattern of ignoring advice from experts. He recommended that we pre-drill holes in the wood before drilling in the screws. That's exactly what Mel said in the All New Square-Foot Gardening book. But the deck screw package said that no pre-drilling was required!

Alas, pre-drilling prevents cheap wood from splitting.

And, if you do try this at home, please wear protective foot ware (e.g., no flip flops). Matt managed to drop one of those cumbersome beams right on my toe.

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

$180 Later

In the square-foot gardening book, Mel advises to start out small. Matt and I shirked his advice and decided that we wanted to have enough vegetables for a salad and dinner (for each of us!) every day for the entire growing season. That amounts to 65 square feet. We broke out the graph paper and decided to arrange our 65 square feet as follows:

(1) 2ft x 6ft bed for vertical gardening (cantaloupe, watermelons, and pumpkins)
(1) 2ft x 3ft bed
(5) 2ft x 4ft beds (with plywood bottoms, so they can be easily moved, since we're not sure how much sun stuff will need)
(1) 2ft x 2ft bed (again with plywood)
(3) 1ft x 1ft beds (for carrots!) (more plywood here)

Of course 65 square feet of raised beds (most of them with plywood bottoms) calls for quite a bit of wood. Oi vey!

Enter Home Depot.

Home Depot is an entirely different place during the week. No more DIYers. It's serious business with contractors and other polo-shirted men scurrying here and there. No wandering in the aisles. They have the sections memorized.

Matt and I, however, had to pop a squat smack dab in the center of the aisle (on top of our parked flat bed shopping cart) to do more calculations (I had my graph paper on a clipboard). Since the plywood was 4ft x 8ft, we had to reconfigure our original plans (which involved 2ft x 5ft beds) so we could use one sheet of plywood for four boxes.

Then we had to draw out each piece of wood and divided it into sections (i.e., we needed 12-1ft pieces, 18-2ft pieces, 2-3ft pieces, 2-6ft pieces, and 10-4ft pieces) to make sure we had bought enough 16ft pieces of pine wood (the cheapest we could find). But then it turned out that we had been reading the signs incorrectly and had stacked the wrong sized wood onto our flatbed. Twice.

Splinters abounded. Matt and I bickered about how to do the calculations on the graph paper. We were each wrong at least half a dozen times. We stopped and kissed.

The hours passed.

We realized that the raised beds would actually be two inches wider than we originally calculated because you rotate the corners to make a box. For example, the piece on the left side of the square gets screwed to the outside of the piece that goes across the top. Then that piece gets screwed to the top of the piece going down the other side. Then that piece gets screwed to the outside of the last piece. Since each piece of wood is two inches wide, the end results is a box that is two inches wider than the length of the wood.

This realization (a la Matt) affected our plywood estimate. The 4 x 8 plywood would no longer fit our boxes. That is, of course, unless we decreased the length of each piece of wood by two inches. So instead of getting 18-2ft pieces of wood, we would need to get 18-1'10" pieces of wood. Aack!

The saga continued. Really, I could on and on about the wood situation. I cursed myself for my arrogant commitment to 65 square feet. Then the Home Depot wood cutters gave us a hard time. They asked us if we were positive that we wanted them to cut the wood (at $1 per cut after the first two free ones). While I was looking for wood screws, they convinced Matt to buy a saw instead. If we were going to spend $67 on cuts, then we should surely buy a $40 saw. Matt was perfectly commited to the idea until I asked, "And how, pray tell, do you plan to get 6-16ft pieces of wood plus 2-10ft pieces of wood plust two pieces of particle board plus 13-6ft wood laths into your car?"

He replied, "I'll tie it to the bike rack."

I raised my eyebrows.

We went back to the wood cutters and informed them that we did, in fact, want to spend $67 to cut the damn wood. It's a lot cheaper and faster than a trip to the emergency room.

So, long story short:

1) Do draw out your garden on graph paper first. If you aren't sure about the sun and shade situation, plan to cover the bottom with plywood so you can move them around the garden once you get things figured out (our boxes are big, so we bought plywood that is 5/8 inches thick).
2) Purchase wood that is 2in x 6 in. If you want carrots or other things with deep roots, plan to buy 2in x 12in wood.
3) Buy outdoor deck screws that are 3.5 inches long. You'll need three in every corner. Do the calculations before you get to Home Depot!
4) Don't forget the wood laths. They are really cheap. Mel says a garden isn't a square-foot garden unless it has the grids on top. Yes, I do follow his advice sometimes.
5) Plan to spend several hours procuring supplies, unless you follow Mel's advice and start simple.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Survey Says

We decided what to plant in our garden. In order to reach consensus about the decision, Matt and I implemented a new process. 1) We brainstormed all the possible ideas. During this time, we did not comment on each other’s ideas. I know, I know, that’s the actual definition of a brainstorm, but I’m not good at holding myself to this kind openness. The judgmentalness that my grandmother bequeathed to me forces me to critique and question every idea. It’s an annoying habit. And because of it I am not much fun to collaborate with.

2) Once we brainstormed all the ideas, we agreed upon the criteria for decided which options to go with. In this case, we decided that we should consider two things: first, does it grow in the summer and second, do we already eat it frequently? We decided not to experiment too much in year one. We’re keepin’ it simple.

3) We then applied our two criteria to each of the items on our brainstormed lists. It was refreshingly simple! We reached consensus immediately. Our 2007-2008 garden will consist of the following:

Tomatoes (of course)
Red and green bell peppers
Carrots (lots of them)
Pumpkin (to be ready for Halloween)

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