I have long been intrigued by the concept of square foot gardening ever since I first heard about it while doing a news story in my former position as a Farm Broadcaster (agricultural journalist for radio…you know those guys who wake you up in the morning with pork belly prices and news about farm conditions).
The benefits of square foot gardening are manifold. You can produce more with less space, weeding in the raised beds is easier, if even necessary, and you have more control over the environment in which your plants are growing.
My problems with the system number exactly 2. Number one, philosophically I am a cheapskate. One of the reasons I garden is to save money on produce. So spending money on the lumber or railroad ties to build the frames ran my cost per plot up and lowered my ROI. Number 2, I am a REALLY bad carpenter. I did not trust myself to build the frames to begin with and the thoughts of piles of mis-cut, mis-measured, mis-constructed piles of lumber and the awkward looking, almost-square frames did not thrill me.
So I have created my own concept for square foot gardening made easy and cheap. The local tire dealer in my small East TN town had piles of old worn out tires just sitting around. I knew these were bound for the local dump at some point and would add to the environmental problem. So, I called him up and asked how much he would charge for some of the ‘junk’ tires. He told me I could have all I was willing to haul away, for free!
Never one to shirk at anything that is free, I loaded up two dozen tires (I am getting more this weekend) and returned home. Once home, I mixed compost and top soil 50/50 in a wheel barrow then misted the mixture with Monty’s Liquid Carbon to improve its organic structure further.
I arranged my tires in three locations for three distinct experiments, the first is my ”tire-farm” on the edge of my traditional garden, the second is a ‘kitchen garden’ just outside my back door so my wife can have ready access to them, and the third is my “Tater Towers” out in the garden area. I will show pictures of each and describe the process below.
First, let me say that each wheel barrow took about 7 shovel-fulls of dirt and 7 of compost to fill. Once filled, mixed and treated, each barrow-full of my created dirt is enough to fill two tires. I fill the tires, including the area inside each tire till it is just about flush with the rim. This new soil mixture is far richer and looser than my native East TN clay and makes a better growing medium without having to overhaul my entire garden.
One benefit of using these tire gardens is that the black of the tire attracts early spring sun and acts as a heat sink, warming the soil quickly. The plants in my tires are germinating much faster than those in the actual garden. The soil also drains better than the heavy clay in the garden. The two factors are a benefit, but also a cause for caution; you will need to water more frequently.
I have planted my potatoes in tires (four seed potatoes per tire) and I may thin them later as needed. As I planted them, I soaked them overnight in Monty’s Liquid Carbon and Monty’s 4-15-12. They have emerged and are looking good. My next step will be to place another tire on top of the existing one and filling it again with the soil/compost mixture. Each time the plant is covered, it will send it through a stress which will cause it to send out more lateral roots, each one of these laterals will start producing more potatoes. The plant then, in an efort to reach the sunlight, will continue growing toward the top of the new tire in the stack. By the time I am done layering the tires, I will have four feet tall towers that should be full of potatoes at each level. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far, things are looking good.
The Kitchen Garden
My wife and I both love to cook. I prefer to use as many fresh ingredients as I can and having them at the ready will be convenient throughout the summer. In order to accomplish this, I have arranged a row of tires just off of our back porch and have filled them with my soil mixture as described above, then planted onions, tomatoes, basil, oregano, thyme, parsley and other goodies bound for sauces, spice racks, and fresh salads.
The onions are planted intentionally too thick, so that I can thin them for green onions while letting some of the bulbs mature to full size. As this planting plays out, I will plant more throughout the season.
The herbs are planted two varieties per tire to make the most of my space. Again, I will keep you posted, but the ‘crops’ have been planted for one-two weeks and are all looking good.
The Tire Farm
One section of my garden , toward the back and out of the way in case it fails miserably , I have dubbed my “Tire Farm” I have groups of four tires arranged by crop. Again, these are filled with my dirt mixture as described above. Although I am not, I suppose you could use just a straight potting mix or regular top soil. So far I have planted broccoli, lettuce (leaf), spinach, carrots, and watermelon with others to be seeded as time and weather permit.
This was my first year to plant carrots and I had no idea those little seeds were so small. I eventually gave up trying to separate out the little buggers and just scattered seeded them then covered them with a layer of compost. They have germinated well, but I am going to have to thin them heavily. The other crops have all starting germinating this week after being in the ground about 7 days.
As with all of my seeds, I soak them in a solution of Monty’s seed starter and Monty’s Liquid Carbon.
Again, with words and pictures I will let you know how my experiments work throughout this season.
Enjoy, and write/post back any stories you may have or recommendations for successfully gardening in square foot style. I would enjoy hearing your stories of success and difficulty. Plus, the other readers might benefit as well.
In the meantime, I am looking forward to the results, knowing that I have taken something bound for the dump, that will not break down in my lifetime, and found a useful new purpose for it; one that will benefit my family and the environment (and save me some money.) Who knows, if all goes well, I may expand. I have already threatened my wife with an entire garden full of tires next season.