Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poor soil and Square Foot Gardening

I had a friend write: We have Georgia red clay for soil in our small family garden and are having trouble getting things to grow. Do you have any suggestions for those of us with poor soil conditions?

I lived in North Florida for 16 years. We actually lived closer to the Georgia border than to Tallahassee. So I dealt with that wonderful red clay myself. Also, I grew up near St. Petersburg, FL and dealt with the sandy soil that we had there, too.

Basically the solution to poor soil has these possible remedies - just keep using the poor soil and learn to grow what will grow in it, amend it or replace it.

Keep using it:

There are varieties of plants native to the area where you are trying to grow your own plants. Go to the local Extension Agent and they can tell you what varieties of fruits, vegetable, and flowers will grow well in your area. Planting what grows in your area will be of some help.

The County Extension Agent is a good resource for gardening information. They are sponsored by the State land college and have a lot of free information about everything that grows well in your state. These guys have a degree in agriculture. The ones I have know have been around the block a few times and can teach you anything you want to know about gardening. They even sponsor a "Master Gardener" program. At one time, when I lived in Florida, I was a "Master Gardener". I went through a course of about 8 weeks of intensive training and then could volunteer to work in the office, answering the phones and helping walk-ins with their questions to help out the agent. If I had a question that I didn't know the answer to, I could ask the agent. They can do soil tests, test for nematodes and other pests in your soil and some will send in water samples to be tests (for those who would like their wells tested).

Amend it:

You can and probably should be using a compost heap or bin. However, for myself, I found that my kitchen scraps were being given to the chickens and dog to eat, so there wasn't much left over to compost. We don't drink coffee or tea, so the only thing to compost would have been grass clippings, which I fed to the chickens too. (Boy did we have some NICE eggs!)

At one point, when I didn't have any chickens, I would take my kitchen scraps and dig a hole in the garden and bury it. Waited a couple of months to plant in that area and it was "composed" into the soil.

If you Google compost plans you can find all sorts of information on composting and all sorts of gadgets that you can make to help in the process. Composting is as simple as digging a hole like I did for bits and bobs of scraps; to as complicated as metal drums on a axle that rotate the compost. You can make it as easy/free or as complicated/expensive as fits your style and pocketbook. I'm a single mom, free is all I can afford.

Here are a few sites to start you off:

If you have friends that have animals - horses, goats, rabbits, even the chickens, you can also amend the soil with their manure. We had rabbits and chickens and would use that to add to the garden. Also when you clean you fish tank, the water removed will also make a good fertilizer. A note about chicken "poo", unless your putting it on corn, it MUST be allowed to mellow first or it will burn your crops.

Replace it:

First off, my favorite method of gardening is called Square Foot Gardening. I've used this method for years and had great results. Here's Mel's website:

Ok, so where does "replace it" as pertaining to soil come into the picture? It's in the way I square foot garden.

We've already established that I have no money and that I like being frugal - it's what allows me to make the most of the money I do have.

So to make my square foot gardens, over the years, I have done several different things.

My first square foot garden was made out of discarded pallets. I worked for the Tallahassee Democrat, the local newspaper. We had broken pallets in a pile and I merely asked permission to haul them off.
I then took the pallets and recycled them using a hammer to separate them into boards. I then buried about 1" or so of the 4' side of the board. The pallets are 4' x 4', the size recommended for the square, which means that the boards were 4' long, so I butted the ends together and I had my "square" for gardening. This was then filled with soil I dug up from where the squares were, along with a few bags of top soil I bought at the garden center mixed in. For 2 "squares", this wasn't costly.

For my next garden, I was living on my own land and by then I had married. My husband worked across the street from a place that made cement blocks. He noticed that there were piles of discarded blocks laying in a pile. They were the cast-offs that had a broken corner, a chip, crack, or other flaw in it. So he asked the owner if he could have them. He'd haul 3 or 4 at a time home in the car or truck. (He only took a few at a time to keep from overloading the car and messing up the axle.)

We then built our 4' x 4' squares out of these blocks. We stacked them with the openings facing up, 2 high. At the time I was pregnant and at that height, I didn't have to bend down quite so far to work the garden. We didn't bother to use mortar to hold the blocks together, we just butted them next to each other and stacked them on top of each other. When we were filling the squares, I also put dirt down the holes in the cinder blocks, giving me some extra space to put plant and the extra weight down the two sides of the block helped stabilize the bricks even more. Surprisingly, this arrangement was very stable. By the time we moved from there, my oldest was 5, loved to work in the garden and we never had any movement in the blocks.

After we got our squares built, we had a dump truck load of top soil/mushroom compost delivered. This was almost 20 years ago so the $5 I paid then is not going to do it now. But I wouldn't think it would be over $30 for a load of dirt, delivered.
This is indeed a lot of dirt. We were able to fill nine 4' x 4' x 24" squares.

How well did this arrangement grow food? Well, we got buzzed by the Drug Enforcement agency. I heard the chopper overhead and looked out the door. He was over the garden at about 50', so I went out and moved the tomato plant over, pull a tomato off and held it up for him to see. Then I went to the green peppers and pulled one off and again showed it to him. He grinned, waved and signaled the pilot and off they went. lol

The nice thing about using the square foot method with the cinder blocks is that I never touched the soil at the bottom of the blocks. I put the cinder blocks down, then simply filled the square with the top soil/compost on top of the ground. I never turned it in, so it wasn't "diluted" with the clay soil.

Time passed and I took my children and left an abusive marriage. By then, we were in north Georgia. Where I live, we're not allowed to dig up any of the ground for a garden, but I can have containers with plants in them. Square Foot gardening continues with 55 gal barrels cut in half. This time, I've had to use some of the local clay-filled dirt. But into it I've mixed vermiculite, top soil and compost from the garden center. This was more expensive, but done over the course of several years, it was manageable. And it has improved the quality of the soil. I've since been able to get 2 barrels that were cut in half filled with dirt and I now plant some herbs, tomatoes, peas and carrots in them. It's not much, but it's nice to have something homegrown.

A very nice thing about Square Foot or intensive gardening is that since you're never walking on the soil, your never compacting it. It's easy to water, easy to see any bugs on your plants which you then pick off the plant (and feed to the chickens lol). And it's easy to replant. You need no special tools to work this garden. No hoes, shovels, rakes, etc. I garden with an old tablespoon and my garden hose.
The garden squares can be done in beds raised up on "horses" (those things construction workers use to prop stuff up with. aka "saw horses".) to accommodate wheelchair uses, or, like my first one, with just boards on the ground. See Mel's book "Square Foot Gardening" for more information and for spacing requirements for each type of plant.

No, I'm not a paid endorser for this method, it's just a system that has worked better than the rototilled, hoed, raked, planted, thinned gardens that I use to try to work.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss organic ways to rid the garden of pests. (Animal/insect types. You're on your own with the neighborhood kids!)

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