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Beginner seeking soil advice

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Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/6/2013, 10:08 am

Hello all, I hope y'all are doing well.

To quickly sum up my situation: I rent a small cottage on the farm of my girlfriend's family. I've been there for just under 2 years now. Last summer was my first foray into gardening/growing (was a city kid until college). While some things worked well in the traditional 30 ft row plan, I wanted to try something different. I was given a copy of ANSFG for Christmas and have been reading up. I was able to find all sorts of various old boards (why is it that old farms are full of all this random stuff? Very Happy ) to make a 4' x 16' plot (which i'm placing inside of one of the old 20' x 32' boxes that are in the garden currently). In addition to trying this for myself, I wanted to experiment to be able to show the Granny (86 and still getting after it!) that building a few of these smaller boxes might be a bit easier and more efficient for her.

However, I'm the classic situation of a recent graduate student who has no money and a job that barely covers bills while I pursue a "real" career. I would gladly make the investment to make 48 (just to make the calculation simpler for pricing) cubic feet of Mel's Mix for the box if I had a "real" job or could be sure that I would be in the area for a few years. So, I'm wondering if you guys might have any ideas for an alternative. I know from last year that the soil in these existing beds is pretty good but I'm also interested in the idea of using "new" soil to cut down on some of the weeds. Would buying some amount of topsoil / potting soil to use for this season be a decent replacement for Mel's Mix? My hope is that Granny will see that this idea works and then will be willing to put up the money for me to build her an entire set of boxes (or something to that effect).

Tl;DR Summary:
Could I use a potting soil mix as a 1 year replacement for Mel's Mix (hopefully cheaper) and get similar results?

Thanks in advance for any tips you may have!
~Tim

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Turan on 3/6/2013, 10:35 am

No, cheaper potting soils do so by being peat with short term fertilizers.
It sounds like weeds are what you are trying to get around. Your soil is good, so not so much reason to replace it. Just mix some good composts into the top few inches of it. By organizing what you have into intense beds like SFG you focus your ability to deal with weeds. If perennial weeds are the bane (mine is crab grass) you can sieve the roots out, which is possible when dealing with focused area. You can also cover the beds with black plastic and solarize them to kill a lot of weeds. Planting intensely like SFG teaches helps out compete a lot of weeds.

This is what I have done over the years.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Tris on 3/6/2013, 10:50 am

This has been my big question too. The old Mel apparently had a way of using current dirt and modifying it, so I may do that for one box and do Mel's mix for the other, with the intent of changing when I'm more fluid Smile But, Mel's mix doesn't actually use any soil at all, so if you can just get as much compost as you can, even if its not 5 different and varied, might be a better option. Then next year you can use your own compost that you've been working on for the year Smile
I'm very new too though, btw, so take mine with a grain of salt Very Happy

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  H_TX_2 on 3/6/2013, 11:36 am

This question comes up often. To save money can I buy potting soil/miracle grow soil/garden store soil... this year and fill my boxes and then next year replace it with Mel's Mix?

Potting Soil + frames + Mel's Mix this year $ > $ frames + Mel's Mix

True that you are spreading the amount over two years but it is still more money. I think a better approach would be to go smaller but do it right the first year. Try for just one 4x4 the first year. I would bet that most people here would change one or more things if they could go back and do their SFG over again. If you go small the first year and then expand on that the next year you get to make those changes that will result in a happier gardener. That knowledge only comes from actually doing it and learning what does and doesn't work in you particular circumstances.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  quiltbea on 3/6/2013, 11:47 am

Hey Timothy, welcome to the forum.
I agree with the others. Use what you've got. The soil is good garden soil for a start. I would broadcast some organic 5-10-5 fertilizer on the plot first and rake it in lightly, then lay a few layers of newspaper over it and on top of that about 3 inches of good compost. You can bury transplants and start seeds right in that. The paper will help prevent weed seeds from sprouting yet will break down little by little thru rain and watering. In the meantime, its keeping weed seeds from sprouting.

Never double dig your soil, which is digging it up and tossing it with a spade or shovel. Don't till it. That brings dormant weed seeds to the top. Disturb the top of the soil as little as possilbe and just add to it on top of existing soil.

Make sure you start a compost bin and you'll have plenty of compost to spread in the fall and then to add to each square as you plant next spring. Good luck.

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Grow in bags

Post  Hardcoir on 3/6/2013, 6:16 pm

Here is the cheapest and easiest way to grow plants for your situation.

Buy bags of humus and get a balanced fertilizer. You can cut holes in your bags and plant in the humus bags. I have found them here for 99 cents, and if you stack them in twos, they should get you enough depth to plant anything that you can plant in your SFG.

Take the bottom bag and cut the top open. Take the second bag and make several slits on one side to allow roots to move through into the second bag. Place the upper bag, slit-side down directly on top of the lower bag. Make "X's" where you plan to plant your seeds or transplants. Place a balanced fertilizer in the top bag and mix it well. When we lived in an apartment in Colorado with no usable yard, we grew tomatoes, cukes, peppers, lettuce, and salad greens in these. We also grew Kennebec potatoes in black plastic trash bags.

Good luck. Maybe, this Spartan-like beginning will encourage you to learn more so that you can build a real square foot garden in the near future.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  RoOsTeR on 3/6/2013, 7:09 pm

Tl;DR Summary:
Could I use a potting soil mix as a 1 year replacement for Mel's Mix (hopefully cheaper) and get similar results?

Thanks in advance for any tips you may have!
~Tim

You want the straight and simple answer? No, you can't use potting soil or any other potting type mixes (like Miracle Grow) as a substitute for Mel's Mix. All New Square Foot Gardening is a specific garden method and each component must be intact to be considered as such. Mel's Mix is Mel's Mix, and without it, your not Square Foot Gardening. Very Happy
I will add there may be a part in the book that may be of interest to you. Refer to pages 186 and 187 under Humanitarian Projects Wink

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/7/2013, 11:46 am

Thanks all for your incredibly helpful advice. I've decided to use all of it!

I think I'm going to plan on building this up slowly by buying enough mix for one box at first, then slowly buying more mix material as I get more money together (why I got it in my head that I needed to do it all in one shot is beyond me thinking ). Thanks for pointing that out H_TX_2!

And just to prove it to myself, I'll have one box be the existing soil in the garden mixed in with some good compost, just to compare. I think that will strike a good balance between doing it the right way and proving to myself that the other way just isn't as good geek .

Again, thank you all for the quick responses, and any other ideas you may have would be welcome!

~Tim

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Turan on 3/7/2013, 12:02 pm

I was thinking about your gramma yesterday. Is this her family farm you are working on? If so she might be very offended if she percieves that you do not consider the soil she worked her life to tend and improve to be good enough to grow food in. That was how my gramma felt when the neighbor field had a commercial greenhouse put on it. She was outraged at the waste of covering "the best soil in the world" with tarp and then planting in artificial junk in pots. Your gramma might greatly appreciate raised beds that are easier to work but want them filled with the soil she spent her life making.

You know this is an ANSFG forum that supports that method but that is not the end all of gardening, nor necessarily the 'best' option for all circumstances.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/7/2013, 12:16 pm

Oh, she is not at all offended. In fact, she sort of suggested that I do whatever I would like. It was about mid-January when she said that she was realizing that four 32' x 20' plots was starting to be too much for her and that I was free to try whatever I wanted in one of them. But I appreciate your concern!

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Hoggar on 3/7/2013, 12:23 pm

Hi Tim, Welcome to The SFG forum.

In the new Answer book Mel mentions Soil Solarization, If I recall right he says to use black plastic but I have linked to a detailed article that says to use Clear. I think if you Solarize half of your 4' x 16' box and cope with the few weeds in the other half with your early crops you can plant your late crops in the other half after it is clean then you can Solarize the other half during the last half of the growing season.
The article says to cover it with a clear plastic tarp for 4 to 6 weeks during a hot period of the year when the soil will receive the most direct sunlight.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Turan on 3/7/2013, 12:35 pm

O good cheers

Was she suggesting you just use the area and replace the soil though? Be careful to show respect for the soil. I have found people who grew up in the Depression and before are often at first resistant to the idea of organic, but are open to the idea that you are applying practices they grew up with with a modern understanding and technique. That organic does not mean going back but does mean respecting that old form they knew (and rebelled against often) with all the horticultural understandings since then. But that is different than saying you need to buy better soil to grow on top of what she has worked to create.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/7/2013, 1:08 pm

The solarization idea is a good one too! Now if i can find some plastic...

As for the soil, I won't end up wasting it. Any that I end up moving will get put into the plot that she's going to be planting in (if she needs it). Otherwise I'll spread it around in the area that I'm not planting in.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/10/2013, 11:32 pm

Hey all again, just wanted to give you guys an update:

I'm filling the boxes over time. Here was my big pile of ingredients before mixing:



Sadly, I way underestimated how heavy that mix was (I think in part because the compost I purchased had been stored outside for awhile) and partially ripped the tarp. Ooops!

And here is the gridded (is that a real word?) final product with some broccoli transplants!



I can't wait to keep planting and trying things. Thank you all again for your help! Hope to show you more results soon!

~Tim

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Turan on 3/10/2013, 11:39 pm

cheers

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  brainchasm on 3/11/2013, 1:40 am

Looks pretty good man.

I just got done making my mix for my raised beds, and for working solo, I was only making 4cf at a time to keep things sane, and keep my back (and everything else) from crapping out.

It didn't hurt that 4cf per batch made the math easy for me, but YMMV.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  RoOsTeR on 3/11/2013, 7:20 am

Looks great Timothy

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  Turan on 3/11/2013, 12:24 pm

Looking at your pictures again I find myself wondering if you thoroughly wet your MM before planting in it? It looks sorta dry except just around the transplants.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/11/2013, 3:41 pm

I did spray the mix with each "layer" (wheelbarrow full) that I added to the box, but perhaps I could have used more water. I took that picture immediately after transplanting and watering, so perhaps that is why they look fresher? Either way, I was planning on giving them a thorough watering when I get home from work today.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  brainchasm on 3/11/2013, 3:47 pm

For each batch I did (4cf spread across 16sf to a depth of 3in), I had to spray them solidly for 5-10 minutes per batch to get them to get wet all the way through. Peat moss (are you using peat moss?) has a tendency to repel water for a bit when it's dry, so it takes some almost water-logging to get it to "take".

Upside is, with proper Mel's Mix, you can't really overwater!

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/11/2013, 3:51 pm

Ooo, I definitely didn't spend that long watering, so perhaps I should do a whole lot this afternoon!

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  brainchasm on 3/11/2013, 3:54 pm

@timothy.bergeron wrote:Ooo, I definitely didn't spend that long watering, so perhaps I should do a whole lot this afternoon!
To be clear, I only watered that much because it was proper Mel's Mix...if you are just doing soil, your results might be...terrible.

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

Post  timothy.bergeron on 3/11/2013, 3:56 pm

Oh yes, I understood. I'm using Mel's Mix too. Even if I raised pigs that much water on a box of regular soil that size might be too much o.O

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Re: Beginner seeking soil advice

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