Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Imperial Gardening and Metric Costing

When doing by-the-book Square Foot Gardening, one makes up 4x4’ boxes (6” deep) and fills them with a mixture of composts, peat and vermiculite. The boxes are set on weed cloth and a precise number of seeds or plants are placed in a particular arrangement in each square. The soil mixture (plus water) is all that is healthy plants need, and – a big plus for me, the person who once mistakenly pulled up all of Bill’s parsnips -- the plots are almost entirely weed free and so it’s not a problem distinguishing between plant and weed. I thought it looked interesting enough that I bought the book and was going to follow his plan.

There were some obstacles, however. The author seems to envision (the pictures show) great fields of sunny green lawn on which he has plunked down these lovely white boxes overflowing with plants. Our back garden is about 20’ x 7’, enclosed by a brick wall, and here by the North Sea we’re as liable to have sea frets as sunshine; the temperature rarely hits 80. It is nearly always windy here, even within our little enclosed area and the warm growing season is short. Still, that’s not a major issue with the right crops, a bit of pre-planning and the use of cold frames (don’t I sound confident, never having done it!)

Also, Bill pointed out that the soil was in excellent condition, thank you very much. He’d been working with it for several years and all our composted kitchen waste has gone in. He objected to my ignoring all that work by covering it with weed cloth and so the soil in the raised garden area is just that: soil.

When I did the calculations converting litre bags of peat and vermiculite to the cubic area of our garden (after subtracting the area used for paths and the compost bin), it appeared that even using our own compost, it would cost £121 for the peat and vermiculite, before any wood for the frames or plant seeds were obtained. That was more initial outlay than I was prepared to make as that represents about 5½ months worth of vegetables bought at green markets. We don’t have any problem with water shortages up here, so the water holding qualities of vermiculite aren’t critical, though I did buy a couple of small bags.

I did think there were too many rocks in the soil to imitate the very light consistency of the soil the book proposed, so I spent a few hours sifting it (Bill provided a mesh-bottomed pan and said it was called ‘riddling’). I finally found a method that didn’t kill my back – sort of a let’s-do-the-twist move (with less soil) instead of the hula-ing motion that deposited as much on my feet as back on the garden. The sieved soil looked very nice, though I was disconcerted when I discovered earthworm parts at the bottom of the pan, which is nothing compared to what they probably thought about it.

Whilst he did think removing rocks wasn’t a bad idea, I think Bill was relieved to hear me remark something to the effect that control over nature was largely an illusion. I think he was a beginning to worry that I would try to get the earthworms signed up to tenancy agreements on their assigned square foot -- or, as it turned out, more like 710 sq. cm. Since Bill was doing the muscle work with a fair amount of skepticism, I didn’t feel I could be too exacting about the dimensions. I’m trying not to be too compulsive about the whole thing. (It’s a great way to procrastinate, being compulsive, you know.)

It’s definitely going to be a work-in-progress, as I suppose all gardening is. I think I have the sowing in recycled boxes down pretty good, though, so at least I have some little plants looking for a good home. Bill tells me it’s good practice drawing plans and considering the height and spacing of plants, etc, so that part is good fun (an activity I can do propped up with pillows and coffee, but I recognize eventually I do have to get out of one bed and get to work on the other.)

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