Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You've made your bed...

Oh my, has it really been more than a week since my last post? Um. Ummm... I blame an amazingly fun group of people and distractingly delicious food. After the excitement of Meghan and Andrew's wedding, it's taken me a few days of nibbling on chocolate and cheese and sipping a few local brews to help me refocus. In recent days, I've had the chance to visit a number of farmers' markets and garden supply stores here in Houston -- more on those later. Right now I'm cracking open a nice cold St. Arnold's brown ale to celebrate the construction of my first raised bed, completed just this afternoon.

Many weeks ago, I had decided that I was going to build a garden for Meghan and Andrew as my wedding gift to them. (I'd gotten the idea in the middle of a long day of cycling. Was I suffering from sunstroke that day? Was I delirious? I've worked at a number of farms and community gardens by now, many of which have sported raised garden beds. I've seeded them. I've weeded them. But have I built one? Negative. What was I thinking??)

So on Monday morning I started researching, poring over a wide range of gardening websites with instructions (but, ahem, very few diagrams) on raised bed construction. Apparently you can make them out of just about anything: wood, stone, brick, concrete blocks. While I walked Olly and Penny around the neighborhood -- I'm dog-sitting this week while the newlyweds are honeymooning -- I took notes on creative garden bed arrangements we passed. Lots of interesting models, but how the heck would I transport enough flat rocks or concrete blocks on my bicycle? Actually, could I even lug one concrete block? Then I got to thinking. Meghan and Andrew are among the most environmentally aware people I know -- these two had things like rain barrels and compost bins on their wedding registry. How cool would it be to use recycled materials? I visited a few nearby antique stores. $175 for a wrought iron panel? I'd need 3 or 4 of them. Eek. And there was the challenge, again, of transport.

Back at the homestead, I came across a few bags of organic topsoil and fertilizer. Small piles of bricks lingered along the driveway and to the side of the deck. Last weekend's open house meant there were some local beer bottles in the recycling bin.... A trip to the shed out back yielded all of the tools I would need: rake, shovel, trowel, measuring tape, saw. Okay... okay... this was looking promising. I laid out my materials as the dogs watched from the bedroom window, casting puzzled looks in my direction. ("Why is she burying bottles? I mean, you can't even chew on those. Oh, and she's only half burying them. What an amateur....") I measured out the space -- 8' x 3' seemed like a reasonable starting size for a small vegetable garden (and also was the maximum size I could reasonably construct with the materials on hand) -- and started digging.

Once the brick-bottle-miscellany frame was built I rummaged around the recycling bin again for some weed-suppressing, soil enriching cardboard. (Hopefully Meghan wasn't planning on returning any mailed wedding presents....)

Then I shoveled a mix of soil, all-natural fertilizer, and mulch on top...

But I didn't have enough soil to fill the whole bed. (Clearly there is a learning curve here.) Also, I didn't have the plants yet. I'd bought a pepper plant from a backyard gardener at Saturday's Urban Harvest market downtown and a lovely tomato seedling at yesterday's Rice University market. Two plants. Not exactly a cornucopia of vegetables. Ollie and I visited no fewer than 4 garden supply shops this afternoon, finally finding the breadth of selection and helpful advice at Buchanan's. Here's a pic of Keith with the basil and an okra seedling he talked me into purchasing. (What? Okay, so okra wasn't on the original list, but it's so very southern. Plus I couldn't resist after the friendly salesperson shared a recipe for a lovely sounding vegetarian okra saute. He promised it doesn't taste slimy.)

I had to bike home and bring the car, as the additional 14 plants and 3 bags of compost were too bulky to haul home on Ollie. (Notice I didn't say "too heavy" -- I'm not altogether unconvinced that the load weighs less than the gear I've been schlepping for over 5700 miles now.) If you're interested, the following plants somehow launched themselves into my cart along with the okra and basil: heirloom Turkish eggplant, crookneck squash, summer zucchini squash, garlic chives, lavender, chocolate mint, cilantro, parsley, marigolds (good pest deterrents to plant near tomatoes), nasturtiums (a beautiful, peppery addition to salads), and a crazy variety of coxcomb (I couldn't resist). It was too late in the season to plant lettuce, I learned. Drat. I'm hoping it can take over parsley's spot when the weather gets cooler....

Anyway, to make a long story short, after a little elbow grease, a lot of compost, and a moderate amount of watering, here you have it: my first raised garden bed!

I'm hoping Meghan gives me regular updates on how things are growing. (And not too many updates on how the raised bed is falling apart. I mean, bricks and beer bottles...?)


  1. Garden update, Day 3: Plants still seem to be alive. After a trip to the midtown and heights neighborhood farmers' markets this morning, two more heirloom tomato varieties were added, along with a makeshift tomato cage I built from extra fencing (again found in the magic back yard shed... it's kind of reminding me of the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series, as whatever I need at the moment seems to appear there). Keeping my fingers crossed that the plants continue to thrive. :)

  2. Ah, good old St. Arnold's... brings back memories of college (er, uh, after I turned 21...). I think they are the official beer sponsor of Rice University (I hope you got to explore the campus on your way to the farmer's market).

    My new house comes with a raised garden bed. My (naive) question is: What is the point of the raised bed: why not just grow directly in the dirt?

  3. It's a good question, Sheffy. Raised beds are generally used when there are issues with the existing soil.

    Maybe it's contaminated (thus some folks put down a sheet of plastic and then build a raised bed frame and fill it with healthy soil) or maybe the drainage sucks (so building a raised bed will allow for healthy, well-draining soil to be put in) or the usable soil is too shallow for plants to develop adequate root networks (thus tilling the existing soil and adding a raised bed can add depth). Some older folks prefer them because they require less bending over (since they are higher up, and many raised bed styles are built of concrete blocks or bricks sturdy enough for someone to sit on while planting/weeding/harvesting). And, of course, some folks simply like the way they look. There are probably other reasons as well, which is where my readers need to help me out.

    In Houston, I was dealing with shallow, possibly contaminated soil (I didn't have time to send off samples to the local extension office for testing) so a raised bed made the most sense. And, okay, I was itching to try my hand at building one.

    I hope we can harvest some of your raised bed goodies for a group dinner one night after I make my way back to the DC area....

  4. Your explanations for the raised bed make a lot sense. There used to be a dry cleaners nearby the current location of my house so maybe there's still bad chemicals (or at least bad spirits) floating around. Some day I'll have to learn how to test the soil.

    Ibti, you are more than welcome to help me figure out how to dispatch my goodies. As soon as the sellers accepted my bid for the house in April, they sprinkled random seeds into the raised bed. I'm not sure if anyone knows what they planted so it's kind of like a homegrown mystery box of a CSA!


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