Sunday, July 13, 2008

Experiments in Gardening?

I am new to vegetable gardening and I am enjoying some surprising successes in my tiny city garden that I would like to share.

Experiment 1
My first attempt at city gardening came with strict instructions from my landlord, "Don't mess up the grass!" My yard, I must add, is on a dramatic slope of about 35 degrees. The total rise from the front to the back is about 10 feet. The base under the soil is rip-rap(fist sized granite used to hold the hillside in place and the soil is only about 4 inches deep in most places.)

That year I cleared out a portion of ivy that adjoined the yard on the west side and set up my first garden. Much to my surprise I found literally a truck load of aged compost under the ivy, left by lawn care workers over many years as they tended the grass. All of this was carefully scraped away and reserved. No permanent structures were allowed so I had to improvise my raised beds. I was just getting started so I went with the cheapest material possible--cardboard boxes. I had a good supply of 12 inch square shipping boxes on hand (usually used for my E-Bay sales) I set up a bunch of them, filled them with soil and compost and planted corn, beans & lettuce.

These boxes had 8 inches of soil and that is just not enough for corn so it failed. We did get 10 or so edible ears. The beans did fine and produced for about 2 months. We had greens beans every other night and I have developed many recipes to put green beans in the main dish for dinner.

The lettuce was eaten as it showed up. The slugs were determined to eat all of it. Luckily I planted plently for all of us! Slugs really seemed to love the cardboard boxes and they were very hard to battle in this experimental garden, there were just too many place for them to hide!

Experiment 2
Later in the season, I had run out of boxes and wanted to add tomatoes so I used the very lazy approach of just laying a bag of soil on the ground and cutting out a space to plant in the top. I have never seen this done but it was expedient at the time.
I planted more lettuce in these as well as tomatoes. In this picture the tomatoes are about 1 inch tall. Eventually, those tomatoes grew to over 7 feet tall and needed elaborate support, sorry no pictures of that semi-fiasco! We got 3 or 4 dozen small tomatoes and had lettuce until November 14th, the first frost of the season.

Experiment 3
I have read about Gro-bags in various places on the internet but most of them were $10.00 or more each and all of them seemed to have problems when it came to watering them. One garden commentator resorted to dipping the whole bag into a barrel of water to fix the problem. With each bag weighing about 40 pounds, this was not an option for me, so I tried to invent a better bag.
I made these bags out of contractor's grade garbage bags, duct tape, twine, and staples. Each of these bags has 4 or 5 pockets and takes up a space of 8 inches wide by 40 inches long on the wall of my building. Or in this picture, on my balcony. I have cherry tomatoes, baby lettuce and squash.

Here is a happy cabbage plant basking in the sun.

Here is a zucchini growing in front of my window.

Every thing did fine in these bags early on, but I had the same problem...uneven water distribution. By August, I had to water these 3 times a day and still the black plastic got too hot and par-boiled most of the plants. Tomatoes and squash seemed to enjoy the heat but all the lettuce and cabbage plants were cooked in their soil. The encouraging part of this experiment was the lack of harmful bugs. Spiders set up shop in gangs but no slugs, no grubs and very little of anything else to munch on my veggies. I harvested tomatoes by the handfuls and an average of 10 baby squash from each of the squash plants.

My second permutation of these bags added an automatic drip system to each bag. 2 - 1/2 gallon drippers in the top and middle of each bag set on 15 minutes of water 2 times per day. This worked well but heat was still a major problem. The black plastic simply absorbs too much heat. Also the constant watering seems to wash the nutrients out of the soil. These small pockets do not have enough room to side dress with compost so I resorted to Alaska Fish Fertilizer. The nitrogen levels in this product make for fabulous foliage but probably wont help fruit production much.
This is my balcony as of July 13, 2008. I have harvested pounds of lettuce and the tomatoes are going crazy. I also have Foot-Long beans planted in here but they are growing very slowly. Over night temperatures have finally reached above 60 degrees so I am hoping they will finally show some growth. If you look very closely, you can see the pipe for the watering system.

As a side note on this experiment, I'd like to say that using these plastic bags gave me time to think about plastic in general. The experiment was not perfect and far worse is the fact that when the experiment is over, I will be adding many pounds of plastic to the landfill. The un-sustainability of this project has really bothered me and I am not going to continue this after these bags wear out. Plastic is one of the items of everyday life that has an extremely long life as waste. The type of plastic I used is recyclable but not accepted here in Seattle where the recycling company insists on recycling by shape rather than by the numbers. For example we can recycle water bottles (#1 plastic) but we can't recycle strawberry boxes (also #1 plastic). We can recycle yogurt containers (#5 plastic) but we can't recycle Glad Food Boxes (also #5 plastic). Our system is flawed so many, many items that are marked recyclable still end up in the trash headed for a landfill.

After looking around I have found a product that is headed for landfill but suits my needs very well: Lumber Wraps. This Tyvek like material is used to wrap bundles of lumber during shipment and is discarded once the lumber gets to the lumber yard. It allows air to circulate by it will contain the soil and water. Plus it is much stronger than plastic so the steps needed to make a plant bag have been cut in half. I made 18 bags out of 1 lumber wrap with very little waste. Total time for 18 bags was about 2 hours. Each bag uses: 20"x 40" of material, 44" of duct tape, about 100 staples, and 2 wire ties.

This is my first bag made out of a lumber-wrap. Note the top pocket is fitted with a lid. I will be able to add compost and fertilizer to the top and then water the nutrients down to the other pockets. I have transplanted 2 Blue Lake beans, a Romaine lettuce and a broccoli plant into the pockets and I will report on the outcome later in the season.

This new material is 1) recycled, 2) white so it doesn't absorb as much heat, 3) air-permeable so it allows air circulation to the plant roots, 4) very easy to work with, and 5) very stable. I expect these bags to last 5 years of more even out in the sun. Oh, did I mention it is CHEAP?

I have a PDF available on how to make these GroPockets. I will e-mail the PDF within 48 hours of your notification of payment! Total cost for the detailed PDF is $ s&h!

GroPocket Instruction PDF $2.00

Experiment 4
My small successes in my first year seemed to impress my landlord and he has given permission to install more permanent raised beds, so when we got a break in the weather last February, we installed 13 beds. Each bed is 2.5 feet wide and 5 feet long. The depths vary from 8 inches on the top to 16 inches on the lower side of our sloped yard.
The skylights were salvaged from a construction project here in Seattle and they make excellent cold frames that fit into the beds like they were custom made! This picture is from February of 2008, right after the beds were built. Total cost was less than $200 using all new cedar lumber from Lowe's. Notice the wide paths between the beds to accommodate our wheel barrow and my ample!

I only have about 140 square feet of space to work with so I have been using a combination of Square Foot Gardening and French Intensive Gardening. Each bed is 12.5 square feet and is planted with many different plants. Each plant is spaced from similar plants at the recommended distances but the space is filled with other types of plants. Over all, one bed contains about 100 plants.
This bed is a good example: 2 rhubarb, 10 strawberries, 50 shallots and 50 beans. The shallots were harvested in June and replaced with leeks. The beans are blooming now. The strawberries are just beginning to produce following a horribly cold and wet spring. They are everbearers so I expect them to continue producing through September or November.

One unexpected problem with my garden has been moles and rats, both of which love to dig around in my beds. This isn't much of a problem for established plants but seedlings were dug up every night. I have resorted to rat poison and traps as well as a Sonic Mole Repellent. The moles have left but the rats haven't been impressed. Finally I had to wrap each bed in 18 inches of 4 mil plastic to make an added barrier to deter the rats. The plastic is held up by flimsy bamboo stakes and is loose so it is very hard for the rats to chew it or climb it. So far, this has been about 75% successful.


Mary T said...

I love your containers! I'm a renting gardener too. It does present its own set of challenges.Hope you post more on how things are going--great photos!

Grammy said...

Hi thanks for sharing. I want to try the bags of topsoil. But now I know they need to be rethought. I tried tomatoes upside down in 5 gallon pails that were headed to the trash. They started our great. But not very productive. And heat of aug was not good for them. I will try a diffrent type. next year. I used early girl this year. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Thanks

thanks for sharing said...

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