We recently decided to change our garden space. For years, we have gardened the traditional way, and we were ready to try something new. Last summer, JJ’s parents converted their big garden into square foot gardens. We decided to see how they liked it, and then see if it would work for us. I am not an expert, but I like to share ideas and I thought it would be fun to share what we did.
Our garden is about 25 ft. by 28 ft., and we have enjoyed the space the last few years. These pictures were taken last summer at the first and near the end.
Our plants produced well, and we enjoy sharing our abundance with neighbors. Weeding wasn’t terrible, but it did take time and hard work to grow a big garden.
The kids have been wanting a trampoline for a long time. Since we didn’t want to put one on the grass, the logical place was to put it in our garden space. That was really the big reason for this makeover.
Before we started, I borrowed All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (or here for Kindle) from JJ’s mom to learn about square foot gardening It is a good resource, although we didn’t follow it exactly. After some planning, we got to work. We were able to complete this project in two days.
Our first step was to till the whole garden. With all the snow we got this past winter, the ground was well compacted.
JJ rented a rear tine tiller, and it took about an hour to till our garden area. The tiller broke up the soil well, and gave us fluffy, loose dirt that was much easier to work with.
We used landscaping rakes to clear an area 17 ft. by 17 ft. (the new trampoline is a 15 ft. circle). We wanted about a one foot perimeter around the trampoline, and that area gave us plenty of space to move around. Our previous garden space was built up, so we had to move 6-8 inches of dirt to level our trampoline area out.
After it was level, we covered the area in weed fabric and staked it down. For now, we are covering the fabric with rocks that we find around our property. The rest of day one was spent putting the trampoline together. The kids were thrilled!
It can be very windy in our area. In fact, some of our neighbors have had trampolines blow over fences. We didn’t want ours to take flight and knock out our fence, so JJ bent pieces of rebar and put two rebar stakes on each leg of our trampoline. It adds stability when the kids jump and gives us peace of mind that the trampoline won’t go anywhere when the wind starts gusting over 50 miles per hour.
We started day 2 by building our garden boxes. One of the advantages to square foot gardening is that you can build your boxes as big or small as you want and out of whatever you want. You want your boxes no more than 4 foot wide so that you can easily reach from each side. Also, experts advise that you do not use pressure treated wood because it can leach poisonous chemicals into your soil.
Based on the area that we had left around our trampoline, we decided to make three boxes 4 ft. by 5 ft. and three more boxes 4 ft. by 6 ft. All of our supplies were purchased from Home Depot, but you should be able to find everything you need at any home improvement store. We wanted deep boxes, so all of our boards are 2x10 in. Douglas Fir boards.
For each 4x5 ft. box, we bought an 8 ft. board and a 10 ft. board. We had them cut each board in half so that we had two 4 ft. boards and two 5 ft. boards. For each 4x6 ft. box, we bough an 8 ft. and a 12 ft. board and had them cut in half as well. By doing it this way, we didn’t have any wasted wood. Each 4x5 box cost about $21, and each 4x6 box cost about $23.
We had a big berm around our garden at the end of day 1. After JJ built the boxes, he leveled out the space where they would go. He laid out a tarp and set aside part of our soil to use in our boxes. Then he leveled the rest of the soil and put each box in place.
In our previous garden space, we had three garden faucets (marked with orange flags) sticking out of the ground. The three lines are part of our sprinkler system but they run independently on their own valve/system. In past summers, we attached a 50-100 ft. soaker hose to the each faucet and then set the system timer to water the garden every other day.
Since we now have six garden boxes, we wanted each box to have it’s own hose. JJ marked the corner of each box with a green flag and then moved the boxes out of the way. Then, he dug around each line and dug a trench to two boxes. He used a poly pipe tee to split each line into two lines and ran each new line to a box.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of the whole process, but this is what each box looked like when it was done. JJ filled in the trenches, packed them down, and made sure everything was level again before he put the boxes back.
In the Square Foot Gardening book, the author recommends hand watering each plant when it needs it. In our experience, gardens don’t grow very well if they aren’t watered consistently. Since we are a busy family and I knew we would struggle with hand watering consistently, having our garden on a system was the right choice for us.
Another advantage to having each box on it’s own water line is that it gives us control over the watering and planting. We have never planted in the early spring because we liked to get everything ready and plant all at once. We couldn’t do that until after the chance of frost, usually Memorial Day. With the separate boxes, we can plant each box when we want to and turn the water on for that box. Oh, the possibilities!
Our next step was to fill the boxes with soil. The book recommends using “Mel’s Mix” which is 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 blended compost. You are not supposed to use your own soil, but we decided to use some of our own soil for a few reasons.
1-We have added compost and soil amendments for several years and feel like we have pretty good garden soil.
2-Mel’s Mix is a light soil mix. As I mentioned above, we live in a windy area. We were concerned about our soil mix blowing away this spring if we didn’t have some of our own soil mixed in.
3-We had plenty of it left after clearing the spot for our trampoline and we didn’t want to haul our good soil away.
One of the reasons that master gardeners say not to use your own soil is because of the weed seeds that are in regular soil. I have heard from others that have used Mel's Mix that you really do have very few weeds in your garden. After we filled our boxes, I was a little concerned about having extra weeds. After all the wind we have had the last two weeks, I’m glad we did it this way because our soil has stayed in place (unlike the soil in our flower beds and the bark around our playset).
I know people will disagree with us, but this is what we chose to use for our boxes. We’ll see if our opinion changes during the summer. If (or when) we decide to build another house, I would probably just use Mel's mix. If you are concerned about your soil or weeds, then just follow the instructions for Mel’s Mix in the book.
For the soil mix in our boxes, we used a 3 cubic ft. bale of peat moss, 3 bags of steer manure blended compost (1 cubic ft. each), and about 3-4 cubic feet of our garden soil in each box. We didn’t add vermiculite at this time because we had trouble finding it at the store. We did find it later. (keep reading!)
You can mix everything on a tarp and then move it into the boxes. We didn’t have an extra tarp, so we just dumped everything in the box and mixed it all together with rakes. As you can see, we did not use weed fabric on the bottom of our boxes (again, just a personal choice).
Since we were having a typical windy/rainy spring day, we decided that it would be a good idea to wet our soil down after it was mixed well. Our boxes are pretty full (remember they are 10 inches deep), but they did settle some when we wet the soil down. If you have a 4x4 ft. box that’s not as tall, you would want to use less (maybe 2 cubic feet of each soil ingredient).
In case you were wondering how we placed our boxes, the 4x6 boxes are next to each fence and the one that JJ is standing by. The boxes in between are the 4x5 boxes. The trampoline curves closer to those boxes than the ones by the fence.
A couple days later, we finally tracked down vermiculite. JJ searched Home Depot’s website, and it told him how much they had in stock and which aisle to find it. He was able to find it out in the garden center at the store, although they did have it stacked under a table (no wonder we couldn’t find it before!).
The book recommends coarse vermiculite, but the bags we found were medium grade. Each bag was 2 cubic ft. A little seemed to go a long way so we decided to only use half a bag for each box (1 cubic ft. per box).
Vermiculite is very light. They do recommend that you use it on a calm day and that you wear gloves. We didn’t read that until after (of course), so we had to work together quickly to mix it in since it was windy. Trust me when I say that it is a very good idea to do your mix on a calm day.
We finished by wetting the soil down again so it wouldn’t blow away. Even though we used some of our garden soil, our mix is still light weight. The total cost of our soil mix was about $26 per box. Each box contains a 3 cubic ft. bale peat moss, 3 cubic ft. steer manure blended compost, 1 cubic foot vermiculite, plus 3-4 cubic ft. of our own garden soil.
We love how our boxes turned out, and I’m so excited to start planting!
And here is our finished garden space. We will be adding paved paths at some point since the kids have to walk through the dirt to get to the trampoline. Stay tuned…..