Garden Update #2: How I Added 10sq.m of Growing Space for $50

So I’m back again with another set of garden show-offs. This one, though, should be useful to those of you looking to expand your own growing space on the cheap. The question for me has been, “how do I create more growing space on top of the landlord’s weed mat, at a reasonable price?” The answer, it turns out, is mulch.

It started with this:

IMG_20150128 Mulch Pile 01
I hate gravel – it’s impossible to scrape mulch off neatly. Just saying.

This, my friends, is a truckload of mulch, or approximately 5 cubic metres of shredded trees. A local tree services company delivered it for, and I quote, “$50 or a carton of beer, whichever”. That’s about $10 per cubic metre, for those playing at home. I’d be lucky to get a third as much for that price from a garden centre.

I was really impressed with the quality – there’s quite a lot of leaf mixed in with the bigger bits of shredded branches. And while there are some larger chunks – some were six inches long and and inch wide – most was much smaller and more uniform in size. And none of it had thorns, or seemed to be from allelopathic species. (Allelopathy is the fancy term for “contains substances which stops other plants from growing”. Black walnuts, pine trees, and eucalypts are famous for it, but there are plenty of other species that are allelopathic.)

For my purposes, more leaf is ideal. Fresh leaves have a fairly high nitrogen content whereas wood is all carbon. So the more leaves in the mix, the less outside nitrogen I need to apply to get things composting. It also means you can apply it directly to garden beds and have fewer problems with nitrogen being robbed from the soil.

So once the mulch was delivered, all we had to do was move it.

And this is the path to the back yard:

IMG_20150127 Ready for Mulch 02
Can you say “tripping hazard”?

Just to clarify: the space between the water tank at left and the growing trellis at right is 65cm wide. The narrowest wheelbarrow I could find was 70cm. Sad Squirrel did not enjoy this revelation.

The day the mulch arrived, Raccoon and I spent four hours shovelling it into things and taking it out the back. The downstairs neighbours lent a hand too (thanks guys!). We started off with laundry baskets, until I had a semi-desperate brainwave and took the small wheelie bin round the back to see if it would fit past the tank. Happy days, it did! That cut a significant amount of time off haulage. A mere two hours the next day had all the mulch off the road, and in the garden.

IMG_20150129 Mulch out back 01
The back yard thanked us for the contribution. (The garden bits in the shade belong to downstairs.)
IMG_20150129 Mulched Front 01
As did the more formal beds out the front.

After raking the stuff out the front and along the edges a bit to make it all street-pretty (I live in a swanky neighbourhood so keeping things neat is important), I headed out the back to tame the random piles we’d made. I ended up with an L-shaped bed next to the raised bed:

Not shown: Back-breaking labour and toil in the hot sun.
Not shown: Back-breaking labour and toil in the hot sun.

And a U-shaped bed just to the South.

I guess it's really a C from this angle, but U stuck in my head.
I guess it’s really a C from this angle, but U stuck in my head.

Both beds are about one metre wide all the way around, and 40cm high. In all, I’ve added about 10 square metres of raised bed to the garden. With plenty left over to mulch everything that needed it. I even built a compost pile!

Compost day one. Oooh, exciting.
Compost day one. Oooh, exciting.

I started out following the Berkley composting method. This is a hot method with requires a heap at least one cubic metre in diameter. (Mine’s 80cm x 120cm x 110cm.) You leave it for four days and then turn it. Then you turn it again, and again, and again, every two days – for eighteen days of total composting. It does take a fair amount of water to wet the pile down, though. I’m sure it was too dry a few times, even though I kept adding water and biological nitrogen (ie urine) when I turned it. And we had a heatwave during this process, so I didn’t turn it every two days on the dot. But I’m still turning out some pretty respectable compost.

Here’s the innards of the pile on Day Four:

Starting to decompose nicely.
Starting to decompose nicely.

This may be a TMI moment for some of you, but see the weird-looking brown jelly-stuff in the bottom half of the photo? That’s the only remaining traces of the innards of a disposable nappy (urine soaked, no poop) that I dumped in the middle of the pile. The absorbent layers of a nappy are mostly cotton or other plant fibre, with a bit of rainsaver-like crystals that swell when liquid hits them. Eco-friendly nappies are even better at composting than the standard, run-of-the-mill cheapie on the supermarket shelves.

See? This is Day 6, and even though I looked hard, I couldn’t find a single nappy trace. It was hard to get a good picture, but steam was rising every time I moved a forkful over, and the pile was definitely warm in the middle.

IMG_20150203 Compost Day 06-03

And just for completeness’ sake, here’s Day Eight (the last day I bothered taking a photo):

IMG_20150205 Compost Day 08-01

Happily, the raised beds have been composting in situ as well. Pulling back the top inch of mulch reveals wood chips that are brown and rotting. I’m hopeful that the beds will make fit habitat for plants. In fact, I got all industrious and planted up a few squares.

This will probably change before it's all done, but at least I have a plan!
This will probably change before it’s all done, but at least I have a plan!

Most of the plot names (Horta, Aztec, Root crop, Winter Stir-fry) refer to the plots outlined in “One Magic Square” by Lolo Houbein. She advocates growing a food garden on just one square metre, adding squares every season as you get more comfortable with growing your own food. It’s a different version of Square Foot Gardening, but one I find easier to work with given the size and shape of my garden beds. Houbein being an Adelaide local helps, too – I don’t have to go through any mental gymnastics with “will all these things grow at the same time down here?”

I’ve already planted up the Aztec plots (sweet corn, beans, and pumpkin), a square of beans, and half a square of Horta greens. The beans are mostly for a green manure crop, but if I get anything edible off them this late in the bean season, I’ll be happy. And what is Horta? According to Houbein, Horta is a Greek term.

The Greeks have since ancient times gathered horta by climbing rocky mountains after autumn rains to pick a multitude of edible wild greens for the plot. If your environment does not have such abundance – few Australian landscapes do, bush tucker notwithstanding – you can sow a Horta Plot.

Basically, you take a pinch of every seed that produces edible greens that you have, mix it all up, and rake it into a quarter of the plot. I plan on sowing a lot of horta – mainly because leafy greens just grow so dang well down here through winter. They’re also a great way to boost natural folate, which is important for the Raccoon given his wonky methylation pathways and all.

So I think that’s all the garden stuff I have for you – for now. *Insert ominous tomatoes here* I’m hoping to make gardening-related things a semi-regular post, though, since it’s just so much fun. I mean, you get stuff to eat out of it. What’s not fun about that?