Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Turning a grassy backyard into an organic garden - the easy way.

Brother Al was generous enough to write about (and photograph) his experience installing a raised, square foot garden last weekend! Read on...

Let's start with the fact that I am not a gardener, but I want to be. I have a grassy backyard with soil as deep as a microchip and about as healthy as prison lunch. I wanted to plant healthy food to feed my small family but I didn't know how. Should I get my soil tested (what little soil there is)? Should I dig? Should I make raised beds? Where? What to plant? When?

These seem like such basic questions, but I had no answers. There are a zillion books and a gazillion internet articles (now a gazillion and one). Where to start reading? Which one is right? You see, the questions were increasing, answers few and far between, and no garden was happening. I was stuck.

Enter the Sustainable Food Center in Austin. I met them while attending a TEDx event. They brought a live chicken and charts about compost to a technology seminar. Hello - I fell for them quickly. Erin and I had a meeting with them and learned that they do more cool things than a juggling disco troupe. I also learned that they were teaching a "Citizen Gardener" class that advertised in its description it would teach me how to make an organic garden out of a grassy backyard with no previous knowledge required. Were they reading my mind, and how?
I never did figure out how they were reading my mind, but I did find out exactly how to make a garden, and a nice one at that. I though I'd share with you what little of their knowledge I soaked up so that you can do this too. It's easy. I promise.

Several quick points:
1) None of the knowledge here comes from me. It's all kind of open source and taken from a number of places such as a book by Mel Bartholomew called "All New Square Foot Gardening". There are a lot of resources out there to improve upon this blog post (just Google "Square Foot Gardening").

2) What was so cool to me about all of this was that there was an action plan to follow - do this, then this, then this, then eat. Now I am sure there are areas anyone can improve on. And you will surely improve on these ideas. But the basics technique is a quick and very straightforward method to go from lame unhealthy grass to a healthy source of food in a number of easy to follow steps. So let's go.

The idea is to create one or more 4 foot by 4 foot raised beds (about 8-12 inches high) in which you'll do some intensive gardening. You don't need a lot of space! Each 4 foot by 4 foot raised beds is then divided (mentally, not physically) into sixteen square foot areas. Each area is planned out and grown to create a high yield, easy to manage garden. One bed per mouth is a good place to start. I went for two. But remember to start small - this is intense gardening.

Here's my makeshift carpentry area where I cut down the 2 by 12 cedar boards for the raised beds (you can do 2 by 10s no problem and probably even 2 by 8s). Here in Texas we're spoiled with cedar. You can use anything, just make sure it's not treated with gross chemicals that will surely leach into your food.

Then I planned out where the garden would go. In a sunny (and grassy) part of my lawn, I laid down an area of cardboard that is then soaked with water and covered in mulch to prevent weeds and grass from ruining the garden. The cardboard looks kind of ghetto, but it's free, and once covered in mulch no longer looks so ghetto.

Here's the soon-to-be-less-ghetto-looking cardboard weed preventer with a pile of compost I made over the winter in the background. Yum - compost!
The first raised bed is filled with dirt I scavenged from another area of my unhealthy yard combined with compost - mmmmm. I even made a little dainty moveable seat out of the scraps of boards left over from making the raised beds. I copied this from my class. Don't think I'm that clever.

Here's the first 4 foot by 4 foot bed placed on the watered cardboard. In the background there's more compost I got from the Sustainable Food Center. Theirs is so much more delicious looking than mine...

Leveled out the second bed, and spread mulch around the first.

Tied up some string to level the two beds with each other (yes I'm that annoying), and spread mulch around both beds. Call up your local tree service - I got all the mulch I could use (which is a lot) all for free.

Each bed is divided into sixteen squares - here a little string helps out with the visualization. Then each square is planned out
according to how large each plant gets and how many of each plant can be fitted in a single square. Some plants, like tomatoes, are one per square. Other plants, like radishes, carrots, garlic, and spinach, can have six, nine, or even sixteen plants per square foot. Wow! Make sure you plant short plants towards the South and tall plants towards the North so that the tall ones don't shadow the short ones. Flip that if you're in Australia.

Then the plants go in the dirt! Some of these were transplants, and others I started from seed. There are tomatoes, basil, several kinds of chard, hot chili peppers, bell peppers, cucumbers, spinach, radishes, potatoes and I even have a square left for carrots. And that's only one bed! You can also plant flowers, especially ones that bad bugs and deer and annoying rodents don't like.
And there you go! I even made a little journal where I made grids and notes and dated entries. But if you're not a nerd you don't have to do that. Most important is getting a garden going and having fun.

I'll follow up through the growing seasons with some updates. I hope this can inspire others to begin growing healthy food instead of weedy grass! Thanks to all who were involved in teaching me this great technique. I had a blast and look forward to more growing - and eating.


  1. Go you! This is awesome! Makes me so sad that soon I'll be in an apartment with no opportunities for this stuff again for a while. Well, I'm in an apartment now but, oddly enough, we have a small backyard, lol.

    Can't wait to play with your techniques in my mom's yard ;).

  2. Looks great! I've had a good experience using cinder blocks to make veggie beds, they have handy pre-made spots for little stuff to grow around the borders.

  3. Great article! I can not wait to try my hand at veggie gardening this year. So helpful, cant wait to implement some of your ideas here, you've just made me want to do this all the more...thank you!!!

  4. Thanks for posting this Alex! Your garden looks great and it's a joy to see the curriculum in action, especially with such great description.

    Happy Gardening!

  5. Wow! what a great garden, a great story, a great write-up, and a great new Austin Gardener.

    Good luck with the garden - I look forward to the next posts about your growing and bountiful harvest and joy of doing it.

    We are so happy that the Citizen Gardener program is having your kind of results and raves. Please tell your friends and blog readers about the course - there will be 5 of them in the fall - August 20th - all of Sept. - see www.citizengardener.grouply.com. Thanks

    You mention that you made a journal of your gardening experience with sketches, etc. I love that you did that. I'd love to talk about/show excerpts from yours at future CG classes as well as our Permaculture Course - I want everyone to try journaling and illustrating/sketching their "naturalist experiences". Is there a way you could share a page or two/sketch or two from your journal to help us persuade others how easy/fun it is? I am Dick Pierce at DickPierceDesigns@gmail.com if you could get back to me. Thanks for all you are doing.


  6. Great post Al! Raising the bar...

  7. I had a garden years ago and it was a lot of work. I knew I wanted to try to do a raised garden, but wasn't sure how to go about it. One of my friend gave this book (All New Square Foot Gardening) It was very helpful especially to the beginner like me. The book is very informative, I now have
    a thriving, great looking garden that requires very little maintenance.