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my first raised vegetable garden: maybe I overdid it…


There were so many alternate headlines I could have used here: Lettuce — rejoice and be glad! Lettuce eat! Lettuce entertain you! The point is, I’ve learned something already about vegetable gardening: just because you really like a certain vegetable, doesn’t mean you have to plant every last start.

I wanted to start small (ha) so I started just two kinds of lettuce indoors: arugula, which is my favorite, and Batavian Full Heart endive, just because I got the seeds free from a friend. I used Root Riot seed starter cubes and just kept them warm and watered and lit by a standard flourescent tube light. I was so excited at how well the lettuce took off, you could say I went a little overboard with my planting. I didn’t choose only the hardiest looking starts, no sir. I was so itching to put something in those beds, I planted ALL of them.

This, as you may imagine, is not advised. The photo above is of one day’s harvest, and I had at least eight times that much all told. It turns out arugula is a super-fast grower. Ooops. From mid-May on, we have been eating a lot of salads, to be sure, but I also became the local neighborhood lettuce pusher. Stopping by to say hi? Don’t leave without a bag of leaves! Oh, you garden? Let me pull up this entire plant to give you — no wait, how about four?

After a few weeks of this, I pulled out more than half the lettuce to make room for some other plants. Nothing else is ready for harvest yet, but I am experimenting with several varieties of tomato (they have flowers, yay), some scarlet runner beans, broccoli romanesco (why not), and even a couple ears of corn. But I have planted a very, very reasonable amount of two to four each.

P.S. Here’s a photo of our raised beds with the lettuce in mid-grow. The beds are built against a retaining wall in a little-used, oddly shaped lower section of yard. We’re using branches from a neighbor’s fallen tree as plant supports.



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my first raised vegetable garden: filling it up

After Craigslist scouring, I ended up with nearly enough cement blocks to build two raised garden beds (I had to buy about seven new to fill the gaps, which added up to around $8). The next step was to calculate how much soil I would need to fill each, starting by using this really nifty soil volume calculator at Gardener’s Supply Company, which told me that I would need 75 cubic feet (or 2.765 cubic yards) of soil to fill one bed. Gardener’s Supply lists a “recipe” for raised bed fill as follows:

  • 60 percent topsoil (I would need 45 cubic feet for each of my beds)
  • 30 percent compost (22.5 cubic feet)
  • 10 percent soilless growing mix that contains peat moss, perlite and/or vermiculite (7.5 cubic feet)

That kind of volume meant that bagged materials were out of the question. If I went the Home Depot route, buying Earthgro ($2.47/cubic foot),  Ecoscraps compost ($5.97/cubic foot) and  Grower’s Gold Outdoor Growing Mix ($10/1.5 cubic feet), I’d end up paying nearly $300 to fill each bed!

There’s got to be a cheaper way.

And there is! If you have access to clippings, cardboard, and kind neighbors, check out this simple recipe at Eco Films Australia:

  • Top layer: straw
  • Layer 2: compost
  • Layer 3: newspaper and cardboard
  • Layer 4: grass clippings
  • Layer 5: rough mulch
  • Bottom layer: branches

The gardener in question swears by this mix for growing great plants. But while I do have great neighbors, what I don’t have is patience. So I ended up contacting a local green landscaper for a bulk delivery of their growing mix: topsoil mixed with compost. I paid about $248 to get five yards delivered, and this was more than enough to fill each bed and have a big pile left over for another section of the yard that needed some love. And then came the plants — in my next garden post.

Image via Eco Films Australia.

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my first raised vegetable garden: the materials

I spent most of my life in Ohio, so moving to the Pacific Northwest was a shock for this laissez-faire gardener, who used to just throw tomato seeds on the ground, then sit back and harvest all summer long, thanks to the hot weather and frequent storms. Our first summer in Seattle, I got a reality check: it was in the 60s most of the time, so my tomato plants just kind of did…nothing. Silly me. The disappointment put me off vegetable gardening for five years, with last summer moot as I wasn’t living here at all.

This year, I decided to finally learn to vegetable garden in Seattle. I knew this would take a lot of planning, and it seemed that raised beds were the key. Not only are they better in a cooler climate because the soil warms up faster above ground, they are easier to weed and, in my case, easier to keep out of range of two big, nosy dogs.

Cement Block It Is

After doing some reseplace, I realized that I didn’t have to go all spendy on (admittedly nice looking) wooden raised beds. Instead, I could simply use concrete blocks to put a bed together. I’ve been using this SHTF blog tutorial on building a concrete block raised bed as my guide. I love the idea of cement block because they’re heavy (so there’s not as much digging required, as “Ranger Man” at SHTF points out), they’re inexpensive, and you can even plant inside the holes in the bricks. We’re putting our beds in a section of yard that’s oddly shaped and not visible from our house, so it didn’t matter to me that the cement block wasn’t quite as pretty.

How Much Will Blocks Cost?

After measuring the space where our beds will go, I calculated what I might spend, figuring that prices at the Home Depot site were probably a good standard to follow. The typical 16″x8″x8″ blocks cost $1.32 each at Home Depot. If each bed was three blocks high, three blocks wide, and seven blocks long (exactly the same as the SHTF post, basically), for a total of 60 blocks, I would be spending about $80 a bed. That was more expensive than I had hoped, so I went to plan B:


I posted that I was looking for concrete blocks, and got two responses in less than a week: one from a man dismantling his old retaining wall (those are his aged blocks above) and one from a woman whose blocks were just a few years old — and all for free!

Scaling Back

I ended up with 60 blocks total, and we decided to try to break these into two smaller beds rather than keep trying to find more blocks for two bigger beds. Partially this is because I don’t want to burn myself out by taking on too much garden since it’s still a learning experience for me. Partially this is because, well, remember how I like the idea of concrete blocks because they’re heavy? Yeah, they’re heavy! Which means, they take some effort to transport. Our van just could not handle more than 30 blocks at a time — we really didn’t want to see how low we could make it sink onto the tires and still move forward. So we decided to call off the block seplace for now until we get what we have in some semblance of order. More to come!

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life lessons from the garden tour


Summer comes a bit later to the Pacific Northwest than the rest of the country — particularly this year. As such, my neighborhood’s annual garden tour was held just a few weeks ago (and it was kind of cold and very rainy even then). As much as I loved peeking into other people’s yards — especially those I would never get to see otherwise, like a house right on the water — it struck me that there are universal truths to every garden, no matter how big or small. And even though this season is winding down, these lessons can still be applied not only to gardens, but, I’m finding more and more, life.

Go with what works.
In the Midwest, I could throw seeds pretty much anywhere, and the hot sun and frequent thunderstorms would assure me a huge crop without much planning at all. That’s emphatically not the case in a clime where a day in the mid-60s is considered summery, and I’ve driven myself a little crazy trying to cultivate plants that need more loving care than I have time to give them. The gardeners on the tour were smart: lots of plants that thrive here with little effort, like lavender, Japanese maples, and rhododendrons. The big surprise? A good amount of common annuals like petunias and geraniums. Cheap to buy, simple to replace, and planted in profusion, quite gorgeous. So it really doesn’t require exotic hybrids to plant a beautiful garden.

Take your cue from your surroundings.
I was particularly delighted with a garden on the tour that had a storybook style that isn’t my instinct at all, including a small boxwood hedge sculpted into a fleur-de-lis. But the style worked perfectly with the Tudor home with its arched windows and stained glass. The beach home had very little “yard” at all, unless you count decking and sand. No matter; they filled the deck with potted plants in a variety of colors and textures, used espaliered trees to take advantage of a narrow corridor between houses, and chose a lot of grasses that stand up to sea spray.

Make room for sitting.
If you’re not careful, you might get to the end of a beautiful weekend and find that you spent the entire time cutting, mulching, weeding, watering — but not enjoying. If that’s the case, who exactly are you planting that garden for? Get a $20 plastic Adirondack chair, a $500 designer bench, or a salvaged rock, but set up a place to sit down (or even several places) and do it.

Try to see the potential in everything.
The beach garden mixed up spiky sculpture with spiky grasses growing like hair from a cement head. An eclectic garden (my favorite on the tour) used the springs from an old mattress as great-looking wall art and festooned fence beams with bottle caps left over from barbecues. What twee statues or broken furniture might you re-imagine into a clever addition to your own yard?

Don’t try to get it all done today. Or this year.
One garden that was heavy on trees and raised vegetable beds was very much still a work in progress, and yet they’d been working on it for ten years. Even if you hire someone to weed and mulch, it takes time for plants to reach maturity (just like people). Sometimes you have to give up on a plant that isn’t working (hmm…just like people). And even if you do it all yourself, gardens cost money. Unless you’re among the very wealthy, you likely won’t have a garden quite as glorious as you envision the very first year you work on it. And that’s okay.

You can encourage beauty anywhere.
A lot of houses in my neighborhood include a graceless set of cement steps that lead down to a basement door. I have been encouraging some jasmine to grow over a railing to help obscure ours, and was happy to see that other gardeners had the same idea. Even damp steps to the basement can look charming with a flowering vine or a few pots of flowers.

Keep your sense of humor.
Even the manicured Tudor garden had a yellow rubber ducky floating on a pristine bird bath. Listen to your instincts and have fun with your garden. I can guarantee you that you will sometimes step deep into mud (or worse if you have animals). You will walk into the occasional spiderweb. And you will accidentally turn on the hose when it’s aimed at your face. It’s always good to remind yourself to laugh.

Garden on. — Mary T.

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the deal on farmigo: how this online farmer’s market is improving our meals and school


A few weeks ago one of our friends and fellow elementary school mom had the idea to bring Farmigo to our community. The concept is simple. Order fresh farm goods online through the easy-to-use site, pick up your edibles once a week at her house, and a portion of the sale gets donated to our local school. In the first week, we raised over $600.

Clicking through Farmigo you can find all the staples you need: bread, eggs, milk, meat, and of course, fresh veggies and fruit. Start browsing around and before you know it you are adding things to your basket that whet your appetite and inspire the chef in you. The first week, I admit went a little order-happy and bought more stuff than we could finish off in a week, but now I seem to be in a groove. I found the key is use Farmigo to supplement the trips we take the main supermarket, and the treat is discovering ready-made short cuts that make getting a healthy dinner on the table during the week super simple. We currently have fresh ramp-ravioli and spinach pesto in the fridge.  Today, I’m going to bring a cup of bone broth with me to work as part of my low-cal lunch. And, I can’t wait to eat our fiddlehead ferns! The plan is just to keep them simple, with a light saute of butter and lemon juice.

Benzi Ronen, founder and CEO of Farmigo, told Forbes this week that he thinks his start up will kill the supermarket. I don’t know if I agree with that. The physical act of hand selecting your food with your eyes and hands and nose should never be fully replaced with online ordering. It’s skill set and social ritual that is too crucial to our civilized lives. But if you have a hard time making it to the weekly farmer’s market, and consider buying locally sourced food a priority for you, Farmigo is a no-brainer. The fact that it helps our school with additional funds is only a bonus. We’ll be using the money, in part, to start a vegetable learning garden at our school. How cool is that?

Learn more about Farmigo here. And if you’re already using it, tell us what’s in your basket!

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