Friday, May 15, 2009

Reclaiming the Cement Pad with Gardens

“Ma’am, this is gardening, not rocket science. I think you’re making it way more complicated than it needs to be.”  Under my breath I cursed Mel Bartholomew, however I refused to let the clerk chide me off-course.  I kept calm and said, “Sir, I need five different types of compost totaling 300 litres.”
The adventure started in my back yard in my Alberta Avenue home. I’ve a large concrete pad next to my garage. It’s 25 by 15 feet and about 2 feet thick. I once mentioned to my neighbour that I hoped to jackhammer the pad up and plant a garden (it’s south-facing and sheltered). Nearly choking on his hotdog, he said,

“Do you know how much [insert past owner’s name here] paid for that?  It’s probably worth $10,000!” I was stunned… needless to say the pad has remained in our back yard, empty except to collect random bits of garbage from our renos and host the occasional basketball game.

But this year, I’ve got a plan. And this plan promises to produce more vegetables than I ever imagined from my small yard. I stumbled across All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew while scrambling after my toddler in Save-On- Foods’ book section. Here’s the basic gist:
1.     1. Build 4 x 4 square foot box(es) out of wood/bricks to a depth of minimum 6”. Boxes can be placed anywhere in the yard (over grass, weeds, gravel, CEMENT!!, decking).
2.     2. Cover bottom with weed paper (if necessary) and fill to depth of 6” with Mel’s Mix, a composition of:
a.     1/3 Peat moss (or coir substitute now available - Save Our Bogs!)
b.     1/3 Vermiculite (or Perlite though Mel doesn’t like Perlite’s texture)
c.      1/3 compost (if purchasing compost, 5 different types must be 
mixed to ensure variety of nutrients. If using your own, don’t worry about this bit)
3.     3. Build a grid distinguishing each 16 square foot and firmly attach.
4.     4. Plant seeds/plants according to Mel’s handy chart. The plantings are incredibly intensive, for instance one square foot can be planted with:
a.     16 onions or 1 pepper or 8 pole beans or 9 beets
5.     5. Water and Harvest and Replant.

Mel promises that weeding, tilling and fertilizing will no longer be part of my gardening experience. I liked the idea of a ‘free ride’ when it came to producing my own veggies.  So I bought the book and I committed to following the instructions (a tough proposition for someone who ‘skims’ recipes and hopes for the best).

It has taken six trips to the greenhouse/hard ware store to purchase materials and two days of building in the shop, but we now have three and a half beautiful boxes filled with
 growing medium and seeds. It’s been a lot more work and money prepping than I expected. The boxes each cost me: $22 for vermiculite (at Holes Greenhouse), $4 for Peat moss/coconut (Canadian Tire), and $20 for compost (I splurged and bought worm castings which put the price up substantially). So it cost me about $46 each to fill. Plus wood. 

I wondered if it was all worth it, until I started planting. The benefits so far:
-       1. I am not an ordered person, but I surprisingly can vouch for the grid. By seeing each square foot mapped out it’s easier to visualize the end harvest. For instance, I planted only 2 square feet of peas because I know I don’t want to harvest more than 16 plants at a time. Next week, I’ll plant 2 more square feet. 
-       2. The ease of access was brilliant. I could reach all parts of the box with little stretching.  If it was raised, people with mobility difficulties could easily garden again!
-       3. Experimenting with companion planting also felt simpler because I could visualize all the plants in that one area as more of a group than individual plantings. 
-       4. I love the prospect of how much food he promises can be harvested from that one box.
-       5. And, I’m using space I never thought I’d be able to garden in.
Now, I can only wait and see if Mel’s promises of bushels of organic vegetables grown on my cement pad come true. I’ll keep you posted.

If you're interested in more info, check out the following sites for great pictures and tutorials!


Michael J Brisbois said...

Hello! How did you tackle drainage? We container gardened on our cement slab this year, but we can some salvaged brick we'd like to use to create a square foot garden this year.

An Avenue Homesteader said...

We didn't have too much problem with drainage except for a part of the gardens that was mostly in the shade. Water drained out the bottom (the wood isnt always flush against the cement). I think it also becomes portant that there is enough vermiculite in the mix.