Starting my garden for 2012

It’s sad but I’m getting the garden started late this year.  I intended to get it started earlier but some weather delays coupled with some availability of digging equipment pushed it back to mid/late may.

Our first year
…of gardening was 2010.  My mom came down from Branson and helped us build a 4’x16′ raised bed cinder block garden.  She heard about a gardening technique that a man named Len Pense from the Springfield Missouri area.  I purchased his downloadable manual which covered a lot of what you need to know to make these raised beds work so.. we built one bed.  I learned several things my first year:

#1 – Indeterminate tomatoes grow big – HUGE – in these beds.  I put two plants at one end of what I’ll call Bed #1 and they took off.  I made the mistake of planting two tomatoes together and buying the ‘big size’ tomato cages made of concrete reinforcement wire.  These cages are about 1.5′ in diameter and 5′ tall – great for most gardens – not for this one.  By the end of the growing season, both tomato plants were overflowing out the top and fell over.

#2 – I hate squash bugs.  I first saw the squash bugs and thought – eh.. no big deal – gardens are supposed to have bugs right?  No dummy – gardens are supposed to have worms.  The only reason most bugs show up is for dinner.  Thinking that gardens were supposed to have bugs, I paid these cute little white creatures no mind.  My yellow squash were the first plants to start to die followed by my beloved Zucchini.  I though.. what on earth would cause these plants to just die – was I not watering them enough? Watering too much?  No.. these white critters were now brown and there were even more little white critters … they were having dinner on my plants!!  Into the garbage heap and out to the street they went.

I learned several other lessons but those were the big ones.. oh.. and building raised bed cinder block gardens was challenging at best – especially when you have to dig out a hill to make it level.

Our second year
…started out pretty good.  I took some of the lessons I learned and tried to apply them:

#1 – Make sure your tomato plants are supported.  I planted another tomato at the opposite end of the bed this year – just one this time.  I read about Len’s huge ‘tomato tower’ so I set out to have some pipe welded to support them.  Unfortunately the guy who I got to build it for me was very busy with other work at the time and didn’t get me the support until it was too late.  My indeterminate tomato was sprawled out all over the ground.  To make matters worse, you are not supposed to plant tomatoes in the same bed year after year – at least in the south.  Tomatoes are in the solanaceae family (“night shade”) and from what I understand, the early blight and Septoria leaf spot are caused by failing to rotate the plants.  I also read that it doesn’t happen as much up north because the ground freezes and destroys whatever causes this (don’t know if it is true but it sounds good).   Tomatoes, potatoes (not sweet), eggplant, and peppers should not return or follow each other to the same bed for 3 or 4 years.  Needless to say, my tomato didn’t do so hot and I now had a 9′ tomato cage with a small dying tomato in it.  Kinda embarrassing.

#2 – Squash bugs still suck.  One organic way of fighting squash bugs is with Diatomaceous Earth which is available at almost every garden center and at the big box garden centers (HD and Lowe’s).  You can also pick up a 50lb bag for ~$1/lb (at the time of writing) from Amazon.    As a side note – I read some reviews at Amazon for DE and the uses for this organic product extend way beyond garden pests.  Some people even use it for acne control and constipation.  I’ve never tried it for anything else, but after reading what some people use it for, I’m tempted to take a tablespoon twice a day :).  Read the reviews on the health benefits of diatomaceous earth at Amazon and then get a bag!  Len suggested a dustin mizer to spread the DE under the leaves of the squash plants where the bugs lay eggs so I picked up one from him last time I was in Springfield.

#3 – Peppers and Aphids are not buddies.  So back to the whole – if there are bugs in your garden, they are probably there for dinner.  Aphids and other small pests have a natural predator – the lady bug.  I don’t know where to get them locally but you can order lady bugs online and have them delivered to your doorstep.  This year I will be ordering some lady bugs to keep the aphids and pests away.

That brings us to…
our third year
…in the garden.  I’ve wanted to put more beds in and if you’re in for a penny, might as well be in for a pound, so we decided to add 3 more beds for a total of 4 garden beds.  All the beds are 4′ x 16′ raised cinder block garden beds using a technique made popular by Len Pense.  He’s not the first one to come up with a no till garden, weed free garden, raised bed garden system that doesn’t use local dirt and yields extensive crops, but he did a good job of making it very popular.  The first I find this technique is in a book called Cinder Block Gardens by Lynn Gillespie and if you want to spend $82 on the book – go right ahead!  Honestly, I’d like to purchase it and compare it to what Len suggests.  The book reviews indicate that Lynn’s way includes sand, peat moss, compost, and weed barrier cloth for under the beds and the pathways so it looks like Len borrowed it from Lynn or Lynn borrowed it from Len – but who really cares – the way this system works is awesome and Len has done a much better job of informing the masses in my opinion.

Back on track… so this year I went all out and had our sloped back yard dug out by a professional to save time and the cinder blocks, compost, peat moss, and rice hull were all delivered by fork lift to the back yard.  I found a compact ComposTumbler on Craigslist used to help mix the soil-less medium.  My preference would be the larger ComposTumbler2 but my budget didn’t allow for it.  In spite of the two negative reviews on Amazon, if you keep it out of the weather, they are great.  The larger tumbler allows you to mix two ‘batches’ of medium at once and you can pull a yard cart or wheelbarrow under it to empty but my compact version isn’t near as easy to empty.

Len’s book does not contain a soil mix, instead he is selling a ‘pre-mix’ on his website.  Unfortunately for me, the shipping alone makes this a cost prohibitive option for doing 4 beds so the soil-less mixture I used is one I found online and compared it to what someone who had been to Len’s class years ago – most of the material can be purchased locally.

For each bed, you need:

The Peat Moss you get a HD or Lowes comes in smaller bags – adjust accordingly – 5 bags @ 3.0 cu ft.  I purchase my Rice Hull from .  They are really great people and are very helpful.

Len’s Essential Elements is a barley base organic fertilizer with additional natural trace minerals like you’d find in Azomite.  I think it’s worth ordering even with the shipping and one bag will start a bed or feed four beds for a year.

I mixed this in “batches” consisting of 2 bags CBC, 1/2 bale peat moss, 2 x 5 GAL buckets rice hull, and 4c. EE.  Beware – the rice hull is compacted and if you open the entire bag it will be a mess.  I cut the bag in 3rds as I went and broke open the 1/3 bag in a wheelbarrow.  If you don’t have a compostumbler, you can use a large tarp and two people to walk the batch back and forth in several directions to give it a thorough mixing.  8 batches make up a full bed.

After we mixed up our beds, we had to thoroughly water them.  The CBC and peat moss will heat up and start composting if you don’t.  You’ll kill anything you plant if you don’t water it all the way to the bottom.  The beds were cool and damp at the bottom so it was time to start planting.  One great thing about this mix is that it is very hard to over water.  The peat moss soaks it up to retain the water but the rice hull allows for quick drainage.

If you are interested in gardening this way and are going to spend the money to do it right, go to Len’s website and purchase the book and DVD or downloadable video –  I don’t get a kickback but it would be great if you’d mention my site in the comments of the order form.  Len is a tremendous guy and you will learn a lot from his book and video.

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