Growing medium for your boxes


September 24, 2012 by frontyardfarm

The two original boxes sat in the garage for about a week.  But then I knew Labor Day weekend was coming, so I was bound and determined to get what I needed to finish setting up over the holiday.  I even had seeds and plant starts at the ready by the time the weekend hit.  All I needed was a growing medium.

When I say “growing medium” I am purposefully setting it apart from the soil in your garden.  Soil is a very complicated, living, wonderful thing.  But DO NOT just dig up some soil from your garden.  If you are going to plant directly in your ground you have no need to dig it up and transport it to another part of your property.  If you have the room you may want to experiment with growing directly in your ground.  Make sure to get a soil test first from your local Ag Center (at Lindley’s if you bring in some soil, we will take it to the Ag Center for you, and it only costs $1.00).  Florida soil tends to be low in fertility and rather alkaline, two things that can be fixed with judicious applications of organic fertilizers, compost and other soil amendments.

Choosing to plant in raised beds or containers has both its benefits and draw backs.  Let’s do the bad news first.  When growing in containers, or raised beds, plants cannot send out their roots far and wide to hunt for water or nutrients.  Certainly one of the biggest draw backs of trying to grow edibles in this way is that it requires a lot more water.  The mix must be light enough to allow for drainage but also retain enough moisture so that the plants roots don’t dry out too quickly.  But no matter how good the moisture retention is in your mix, by planting plants closer together they are going to be competing more for water and therefore you must provide more of it.  To this end my husband and I will be installing several rain barrels.  I would also highly recommend that if you can, then do set up a grey water system in your home.  Or investigate if their is a reclaimed water program in your community.  You have the potential to not only save on your water bills, but reduce the depletion of our water table.

The second issue is less a drawback, and more of a consideration.  You are in charge of making sure that your plants have access to all the major and minor nutrients they needs to give you the most delicious and bountiful harvest.  For this compost is the key.  It is easy enough to make your own and I will cover home composting later.  Compost has everything your plants need to be healthy and strong.  However, compost releases its nutrients slowly, so you will also want to use organic fertilizers (I will discuss my reasons for this in a separate post) to supplement the compost.

This sounds like a lot of work.  And it kind of is, no doubt about it.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  But, by planting in raised beds you are taking care of several issues that plague Florida vegetable gardeners: soil born pests (like nematodes, other insects or weed seeds), pH level and fertility.  You are also able to grow more in a smaller amount of space.  And if you are going to be a front yard farmer then the aesthetics of carefully managed and orderly raised beds are simply more beautiful to look at than long unruly rows and furrows.

All right, enough preamble.  What should you use?

You could get enough bags of high quality organic potting mix, like Happy Frog by Foxfarm  and fill your boxes with that.  4 bags of Happy Frog ($14.75) would fill one box and cost you $59.00 plus tax.  There are a couple of customers at Lindley’s that employ that method, but to me that is a bit pricey.  But they are very happy with the results.

As I said in an earlier post, the last raised bed I planted I used an adaptation of a Square Foot Gardening mix.  This was adapted by the good folks at Lindley’s Nursery so that we employees could sell the right combination of components easily and on site to people who wanted to get started quickly.  Here is the shopping list that will fill one 4’x4’x1′ or one and a half shallower boxes:

One 2 cubic feet bags of compressed peat moss  – $16.00

One 4 cubic feet bag of medium vermiculite  — $19.75

One 25 pound bag of Black Kow  — $3.75

One 40 pound bag of mushroom compost — $5.75

One 20 pound bag of Black Hen  — $10.25

Two 1 cubic foot bags of Lindley’s Mix Florida Potting Soil  — $9.00
Total $64.50 plus tax

If you follow this recipe exactly it will give you an excellent mix.  The price tag, much like the potting mix, is prohibitively expensive for me.  So I deviated from the recipe and substituted cheaper mushroom compost in for the Black Hen.  And it still cost me nearly $60 to fill one box.  Now, as I said, if you follow the recipe you will have an excellent mix that you don’t need to recreate each year.  You can recharge your soil with some compost and organic fertilizer when you re-plant the following season, so that initially high price tag is in fact a one time start-up cost.  But I didn’t do that.  I cheated and my garden suffered.

So this time I had the idea that I could get compost in bulk.  That is where CSI Natural came in.  I was able to purchase a generous cubic yard of what CSI calls Natural Spent Compost for $20.  My coworker Rocky picked it up in his truck, we shoveled it into the back of my husband’s truck and I drove it (very slowly and carefully) home.

Here is a picture of me after we shoveled it out of Matthew’s truck.  It’s kind of fun to be covered in dirt!

Jessica and the soil

What you need to know about CSI Natural is they are open only Monday to Friday until about 3pm in the afternoon.  And you must have an open truck bed or trailer bed to transport their product in.  They do not sell their lovely black gold in small quantities, or bags.  And according to people who shop there, their prices can vary (it may be a good idea to email or call them for a quotation before you show up).  So it isn’t terribly convenient.  And let me tell you, a cubic yard of compost is VERY heavy.  Matthew wasn’t exactly happy with how much the back of his truck was weighed down.  Evidently I pushed it to its maximum capacity with that load.  It isn’t a terribly big truck, but usually it serves us well.  Next time, however, we will borrow and hitch up a trailer.

All that being said, it was the most economical way to get bulk, good fill for the boxes.  It was dark in color, light in texture and smelled like dirt.  I had almost forgotten that smell.  And that cubic yard not only filled two boxes, but also a third, and I still have enough for a fourth!  So that $20 plus sweat equity was a wise investment.

The CSI Natural Spent Compost was not the only thing I put in the boxes, however.  I also added Black Kow composted cow manure, some earthworm compost and a product called Azomite at the time of filling the boxes.  You can purchase all of these things at Lindley’s.  You can check my Running Talley page for a break down of price.

It is important to note that if you are trying to be 100% organic getting bulk compost from CSI Natural is not the way to go.  Their composting operation is not certified organic.  They accept yard waste that may have been treated with pesticides or herbicides.  If you are lucky enough to live in city that offers recycled yard waste as compost, that compost will not be organic for the same reason.  I fully support and believe in organic practices, I purchase organic products and food when I can find and afford them.  Working towards a more organic lifestyle is one of the reasons I try to grow my own food.  And although using compost that is not certified organic is a compromise, I believe that the amount of chemicals and toxins that may still be present in the compost after it has been cooked down must be significantly less than what is used directly on food crops that are conventionally raised on farms and sold in the supermarket.  Can I certify that my vegetables will be organic?  No.  But I use organic practices, including organic fertilizers and organic pest control methods when needed.


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