Cultivate

A Garden is Born

This weekend we officially started our garden! The boxes were built, the plans were laid, and finally Saturday was dirt and seed day! I was so excited! I have been wanting a garden for years, but even more so recently, since we’ve make some health changes and started eating a lot more veggies – both in quantity and variety. Patio planters with tomatoes and herbs were nice, but I want to be able to grow more varieties, and see if I can figure out how to best take advantage of the long growing seasons here in Phoenix. I have read that if you plan it right, and pick the correct veggies, you can actually have a near-continuous harvest year-long. We’ll see how it goes!

I decided to try the square foot gardening method (SFG) for this venture. You can read more about the details of this method on my Learning about SFG post, as well as some additional references. Living in AZ we have really hard, dry soil. Doing a raised bed is one of the best ways to ensure good growing medium and to also keep things moist. [That being said we have had amazing success with our jalapenos and serranos, just growing them in the ground with some amended soil.]

The Dirt

The dirt used in a SFG is supposed to be 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost (Mel’s Mix). For our 4′ x 4′ x 8″ boxes (see how I built those here), we needed 12 cubic feet of the total dirt mixture per box, x2 boxes = 24 cubic feet of garden dirt!

  • 8 cubic feet peat moss LOOSE or ~4 cubic feet COMPRESSED **pay attention to this part – you’ll see why later**
  • 8 cubic feet vermiculite
  • 8 cubic feet compost

The dirt

In case you live in the Phoenix area and are looking for any of these components, we found the largest bags (2 cu ft) of vermiculite at Home Depot, and the largest bags of peat moss (3 cu ft compressed) at Lowes. We had to go to three different nurseries to get a large enough variety of compost (5 different kinds if you are not using homemade). We collected all the components, and then started mixing everything together on tarps. Since the compost needs to be a combination, I first mixed all the composts together, and then added that to the peat moss/vermiculite mixture.

Dirt Mixing

After mixing all that good dirt together, into the boxes it went! We lined the boxes with weed cloth, stapled it to the sides, and then filled ’em up! I filled in 4 layers of the dirt, stopping to thoroughly water each layer.

Filling the boxes Full!

Then we tied the rope through the eyelets we’d put along the edge of the boxes to mark off the 16 square foot sections, and started laying out the dripper lines we were going to use. At this point it was time for lunch and we came inside… while we were eating Hubby started browsing the SFG book, and OH BOY. Did he ever find a mistake I had made in my calculations. The peat moss we had purchased at Lowes was COMPRESSED. But the calculations I had done were for LOOSE. That meant I had used twice as much peat moss as the recipe called for!!!!

Ugh. I felt sick to my stomach, literally. ALL THAT WORK. Not to mention the extra cost. NOW WHAT?

Too Much Peat Moss

I started to research around online. What does peat moss do to the dirt? What would happen to the vegetables if there was A LOT of peat moss in the mix? From what I could tell, it would be bad news for those veggies. For one, peat moss lowers the acidity of the soil, so twice as much would certainly throw that balance off. Some folks said you could add lime to the dirt to balance out the acidity, but then I would just be messing with “the perfect dirt” mixture, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that.

I finally stumbled on one of the SFG blogs, and found that there were other people who had made the same mistake! Phew, I did start to feel a little better at this point. However, the common consensus was – FIX IT NOW. Don’t try to fuss with modifications, just pull out some of the existing mix, and amend in the missing % of vermiculite and compost. I decided I didn’t want to ruin my entire gardening experience for the season, so I’d better just take the advice, put in the extra work, and fix the problem. Sigh.

So a few excel calculations and a home depot run away, combined with some more sweat and sore muscles, and my SFG dirt is back to the “perfect mixture” of 1/3 each peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

The Take Away

So for all you new SFG’ers out there, let my lesson learned be yours as well. First, read ALL the directions thoroughly before starting. Don’t skim! Second, and most importantly, pay attention to the state of your peat moss! Loose or compressed? And calculate accordingly. The FIRST time, not when you’re trying to correct a mistake.

And so the garden adventures begin! Fingers crossed that the growing environment has been corrected and my little seeds will be off to a healthy start!

The Seeds

Now comes the fun part! Planting the first seeds! Since we live in AZ and the highs are in the 70’s (yes, it IS January), I don’t have to worry too much about seedlings. I can start most veggies off just dropping the seeds into the dirt (at least so I’ve read). Only a few things need to be started as transplants – tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are on my list. But for now, I am starting with seeds in the garden! I decided to use seeds from Native Seeds – an organization in Tucson that collects native seeds that are acclimated to our desert climate, and makes them available to farmers and home-gardeners alike! I am hoping using these seeds will help with my goals of extending my growing season as long as possible. A lot of these particular varieties are heat and drought tolerant. Here’s a look at what I intend to plant this year.

Seed packets

I also spent quite a bit of time planning out a planting schedule. I took recommendations from the University of Arizona, and Native Seeds, combining their planting calendars to make my own. We’ll give it a try and see how things pan out!

Planting Calendar

Here’s what my planting calendar looks like:

Planting calendar

And here is my plan for the two garden boxes – each color represents a different week. I am going to stagger the planting for 8 weeks, and by then I will probably be able to re-plant some of these squares. There are a couple of veggies I definitely want to plant in early March, so I indicated those on here, and am planning to plant some of the cool weather crops (i.e. spinach and lettuce) in these “March” plots within the first couple weeks of January, so they should be ready to harvest early March when I want to plant my tomatoes etc.

Garden box plan

And that’s it for now. Let’s wish these little seeds luck, and hope the garden flourishes. I’ll keep you posted on its progress!

 

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