Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anatomy of a Garden Box

Boxed gardens full of yummy beauty
We have four large raised boxes my husband built in our back yard so we could grow vegetables beneath our fir trees.  The boxes became a necessity due to the constant battle between the trees and our veggie garden for water rights and nutrients.  If you want a lesson in futility just try to garden under fir trees.  No wait, don't.

People don't realize how much water trees drink.  The numbers I heard were somewhere around 500 to 600 gallons a day per fir tree and we have three of them in our back yard.   I decided that either we were going to stop gardening back there completely or we needed raised beds. Well, actually I had thrown up my hands to the idea of gardening back there at all in part because of the trees but added to that was the fact that we got bad soil mix twice from two different sources.  Nothing seemed to be going right and it was so hard and shouldn't have been.  Ugh.

Our boxes are made of recycled 2"x10" lumber, fir to be exact and for $50 it was a steal even though we knew it would last only a few years.  It's already dilapidating after only three years and probably next year may need replacing, but still for the price was worth it.  Next time I'm hoping to be able to afford cedar or even composite decking. Both are somewhat expensive but worth the investment as they last a lot longer than fir.  Composit decking is nearly indestructible when it comes to the elements but is much more flexible than regular wood and needs more support along the sides.  The composite doesn't warp either which is great and comes in assorted colors, another benefit if you want that sort of thing.

Wood has a tendency to warp when it gets wet and dries which can cause corners to separate even though they are screwed together into a 2x4.  We had this problem and not wanting to have to buy expensive metal brackets we poked around a local home improvement store for another solution.  I just love hardware/home improvement stores, there are so many ideas to be had there.
Note the corner below the cat (Boomer)

We like inexpensive a lot around here and what we found costs much less than those fancy metal brackets.  They are called mending plates and are normally used to hold trusses together.  Boy oh boy they work slick on the corners of these boxes.  Don't waste your money on brackets unless you are picky about how things look.  Mending plates are less than a dollar each (I think we paid just over fifty cents each for ours).  The hubby just lined them up so he could pound the teeth of one end on one side of the corner, bent the plate around and pounding it into the opposite side and that was it...not even any screws or nails!

Warping can also cause the boards to wow along the sides.  When this happened we just pulled back the soil and screwed in a small section of 1" by 2" wood to pull them back into place.  I recommend taking an ounce of prevention and putting in extra support inside along the sides before you fill the boxes, its a lot less work.

A couple days ago we purchased new compost for one of our boxes which had laid fallow all summer because the soil or what we thought was good three-way mix, turned out to be nothing more than 90% bark mulch with a bit of sand and just enough composted manure to get things to sort of grow in it.  I blame myself in part for this error as I sent my husband, who has little knowledge of soil and soil mixes, off by himself to purchase it and was not there to assess the product we were paying good money for.  That was an expensive mistake...a $300 dollar mistake actually. (We have four 12'x4'x19" boxes and it takes lot of soil to fill then.)  My advise to you would be to be sure and do your homework before you buy and don't send someone else to pick it up unless you have seen it first.  You will save yourself a lot of grief and money if you do.

Gotta love a good truck and a strong man.
Last year we pulled that bad mix out of the first three boxes and did various versions to try and save money.  I won't go into details here but I think we actually have made every mistake in the book when it comes to soil in these boxes. We still don't have it right. Lord have mercy and I hope this compost will be the fix for our raised bed sorrows.

So back to box...  My husband had decided he was going put the beautiful compost we had just purchased in the bottom half of the box since we had to take most all the old stuff out anyway.  I blanched and put my foot down.  No way were we going to do that.  Those seeds I was planning on sowing didn't have a snowball's chance in a heat wave to survive if we did and I told him no we were not and why.  He did the hubby harumph still arguing his way was best until he saw all of the big chunks of wood still in the old soil mix after three years.  (I tried to tell him it was nothing but wood.)  That's all it took to change his mind real fast.

So we dug all but just a little bit of the woody stuff out of the bottom, yanked out the invading roots that had grown up through the hardware cloth we had put down in the bottom of the box to keep moles out and then spread out the beautiful rich compost on top.  YES!  Finally, several inches of good soil to grow in!  I could have danced the happy dance if I hadn't been so tired.  But planting would have to wait for another day.

Not taking nothing for granted the newly filled box was topped with something to keep the neighborhood cats from using the fresh soil as a litter box, snow fencing.  You know...people use all kinds of things to keep cats out of the garden.  little sticks poked into the soil, which I've never really understood why that would work unless they spaced then really really close together and that is way too labor intensive for me.  Who wants to work that hard?   Cayenne pepper is supposed to work but when I tried the cats didn't seem to mind it much at all and dug up the area like it wasn't there.  Then there are those sprays, nope, they didn't work either.

In thinking about it I pretty much decided in order to keep them from digging in the beds the area had to be completely covered until the plants were large enough to hold their own.  That's when I began using chicken wire, those plastic mesh flats plants come in, hardware cloth and piled up branches but found the snow fencing to be my favorite.  Its very flexible and light weight can be cut to size without becoming dangerous.  Chicken wire and hardware cloth can be dangerous to handle because the cut ends are very sharp and can wound you pretty good if you are not careful.  So if that's what you want to try just take note and be sure to have a box of band-aids on hand just in case.  There is only one other thing I think would work better and make covering and uncovering the beds easier and that is to cut the snow fence into 4' sections. Gee, I won't have to use the wire at all anymore and will save on medical supplies too. Yippee!  It will also make it easier to cover smaller sections.  That will come in handy as the crops begin to grow.  Oh and you can cut the plastic fence with regular scissors, another great benefit.

String, sticks, seeds and scissor...oh and plant tags

Saturday I got up all was planting day!  Grabbing my seed list, some graph paper and a pencil I headed out to the box and lined out where I wanted things to be in the box.  Back to the house for a double check of my seed stock and draw up a clear plan I could actually read.  Once that was done I took my scissors, plant tags and marking pen, stakes and seeds and went to work.

My awesome ruler.
 Oh before I go any further I have to share one more very cool four foot metal ruler!  Its the coolest thing ever.  It fits the width of our beds perfectly and I can use the edge to make the seed furrows. I had been looking high and low for something I didn't have to make and then there at a local thrift store was my ruler!  Just wide enough to lay in the bed, metal so it will last forever, measurements on either side for convenience.

I cannot believe sowing the garden takes so long.  My husband can't believe it either but then he's not doing the planning and planting.  I had told a friend it would take about an hour and a half. (ha ha ha)  Maybe its just that I don't move as fast as I used to but I swear I was out there for five hours at least...well maybe four.  I suppose if I was the sort that didn't care how it was going to look and more about production it might go faster...but nope, not me, I have to have it look pretty too.  No wait, gorgeous!  Oh and I did do some other things but mostly I just worked on this one bed.  Go figure.
Tags are laid on top of the ground until seeds are sown to help keep track of what has been done and what needs doing.

So I lined out the design and set the stakes and string, put out the plant tags in their prospective locations, double checked my drawing and sowed the seeds.  I am not a fan of sowing seeds as its bending down kind of work, even in a raised bed like mine, and my back complains whenever I do it.  But the reward is worth the little bit of discomfort and the thought of the fresh greens this fall and winter are already making me hungry for soups made with kale and collards and oh parsnips.  I was late getting those in...but baby is good too.  Now to keep it all watered and wait...and dream of future harvests.

Happy Gardening!

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  1. easy way to discourage cats...get a motion sensitive sprinkler.

  2. I thought of the sprinkler idea but this was low tech and would not keep the leaves wet which has been a bit of a problem the past couple summers here in the Pacific NW. It is better on the plants if we avoid overhead watering completely.