Three Days of Work and a Whole Season of Fresh Veggies

This is an entry in our current non-fiction writing contest  by Kelly H

Okay, so my wife and I have gotten into the self-sufficiency kick over the last few years. From food storage to stocking up on supplies for any unknown event to gardening. For the last few years we have tried to jump right into the gardening but have constantly failed due to various soil and weather problems. This year we decided to take on both challenges with square foot gardening inspired beds. Understand, we are not professionals, we just like the hobby and decided to jump in with both feet.

garden 1

Okay, I know I’m not original, but I did put my own spin on Mel Bartholomew methods from his bestselling book “All New Square Foot Gardening“. For those few of you that haven’t heard, square foot gardening basically uses raised beds sectioned off by square feet and a matrix tells you how many of each type of plant can be planted in each square foot. The idea is to use every bit of your growing space without waste. The second portion of this method is to use a specific mix to create your soil, so that it provides the maximum amount of nutrients, aeration, and water retention as possible.

This is more expensive to start up than a regular garden, but for the benefits it promises my wife and I were willing to risk it. There are numerous ways to do this, but I’ll just go into what I did (right, wrong, or indifferent). I decided on 2 beds, measuring 8 foot long by 4 foot wide and 8 inches deep. This allowed me to make each of the beds from three 8 foot 2 x 8’s. For one of the beds I chose to make it raised about 28 inches off the ground just so it would be easier for my wife to tend. The other went on the ground at her request.

On the raised bed I built a frame from 2 x 4’s and a few recycled 4 x 4’s and added a sheet of 3/8 inch plywood to the bottom before sticking the 2 x8 frame on top. Each frame bottom was also covered in weed block cloth, (The raised bed just to help keep the soil from washing out the drain holes, and the ground bed to keep weeds from coming up into it).

Obviously there was nothing special or difficult about this construction. I managed to use several recycled pieces of lumber in the project so I did save a little money here.

Now, for the beds filler Mel Bartholomew calls for is a 3 part mix. He recommends 1 part compost (from 5 different sources), 1 part peat moss, and 1 part coarse vermiculite. The compost feeds the plants, the peat moss helps retain moisture and the vermiculite keeps the soil loose and prevents compaction. Sounds easy right?

garden 2We have never had a compost pile where I live, though I do see one in our future, and our local landfills idea of compost was chopped up lumber in long irregular slivers. I know I could have gone here and there and found some but I chose the easier and more expensive method. Instead for my compost I cheated and bought a name brand garden soil. The brand is not important, but I did check it before I bought it and I can say the quality was worth the cost for me. Each bed took 8 large bags of this soil. The Peat Moss was expensive but I managed to get 2 of the large compressed bags, one for each bed. The vermiculite was the biggest challenge.

garden 3We called numerous nurseries and couldn’t find a reseller. Finally after almost giving up, my wife called Lowes and discovered they actually had some in stock. Vermaculite was the one thing neither of us had ever used before. For that matter, neither of us had ever heard of the stuff before reading about it in the book. So we were in for a shock when we found that vermiculite, looks a lot like small chips of Styrofoam and weighs only slightly more. While Lowes didn’t have the large bags of coarse material as recommended, they did have 7 small bags and several bags of Perlite which is similar. I ended up putting six bags of Vermaculite in the raised bed and a mix of one bag Vermaculite and 5 bags Perlite in the second. For an extra boost I added a bag of cow manure compost to each box as well.

As for mixing you could mix them on a tarp on the ground but to me it was much easier to just do it in the bed itself. As long as the material is all dry then it mixes easily with a garden hoe and a little elbow grease.

garden 4My wife Googled square foot gardening matrix and found out how many of each plant that we bought that could go into each square foot and then put string down on the boxes as a guide. Once again, we were in a hurry to get this done so we once again went the expensive route and just bought starter plants at Lowes.

Ok, results so far have been amazing. The beds hold moisture but drain excess water perfectly and the plants LOVE it. I have never seen plants grow this quickly before and even after two weeks in the ground and a near miss with a tornado we haven’t lost a single one! As advertised the soil does not compact and the roots of even 2 week old potatoes are already about 4 inches down (we had to check)!

As for startup costs. It was horrible between lumber, soil mixes, and plants the total came to around $500. However, the only things that will be added from this point on are a few bags of compost to each bed every year to replace the nutrients absorbed by last year’s plants. The costs could have been cut down had we started plants from seeds, or even just recycled old lumber instead of buying new. So far though we are ecstatic and most importantly are working outside together on them every chance we get. The pictures speak for themselves.

Prizes for this round (ends May 24 2014) in our non fiction writing contest include…

  1. First place winner will receive –  A $150 gift certificate for Hornady Ammo  courtesy of LuckyGunner, a Wonder Junior Deluxe grain millcourtesy of Kitchen Neads, a one year subscription to the Personal VPN service courtesy of unspyable and Three Survival Seed Vaults courtesy of LPC Survival.
  2. Second place winner will receive – Brand New, Sealed Case of Military MREs (Meal, Ready-To-Eat)  a $119 value courtesy and a Survival Puck  courtesy of Innovation Industries.
  3. Third place winner will receive – a copy of my book ”31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness“ and “Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat” courtesy of a copy of “The Survival Medicine Handbook” courtesy of and a copy Herbal Antivirals and Herbal Antibiotics .


  1. Good article. I can concur on the cost as I did the same thing this year. It’s the start up that is expensive, from here on it will be more affordable, especially with home made compost.

  2. Bam Bam says:

    I have a question: with the square foot garden method, do you just put the compost on top each year or do you have to mix the compost in?

    • You mix a trowelful of compost in each time you replant a square. And note, the peat moss and the vermiculite are the optional components; if you want, it is perfectly okay to use 100% compost, as long as it is a blend (e.g., leaf mold, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, mushroom compost, cow manure, etc.).

      • akaGaGa says:

        FYI, I started mine with just a truckful of composted manure. They grew incredibly well, but they did dry out very quickly. It was almost impossible to keep the soil damp. The next year we mixed in the peat moss and the vermiculite, and water is no longer an issue. And I just add some compost at the end of the season.

        • Thank you GaGa, that is the perfect illustration of why you want a mix for the compost. Leaf mold still has a lot of cellulose in it, so it acts as a spongy material to hold the water. After stuff has gone through a cow’s digestive tract, however, all the cellulose is gone. Rotted hay or straw would also work for that. Grass clippings are iffy; under the right conditions they can break down in a compost pile almost as thoroughly as in a cow’s stomach.
          The most interesting option is wood. If you have some well rotted logs that crumble easily, they could make a good addition to an all-compost garden. You absolutely do not want to use fresh wood chips mixed into the soil; from what I’ve heard, you get an almost concrete-like substance. If all you have is compost and fresh wood chips, then I would use the wood chips as a mulch layer an inch or two thick on top of the bed, after thoroughly watering the bed initially. Then just scrape away enough mulch to plant each plant.

          • Patriot Dave says:

            Thank you! I was wondering what to do with some firewood that never was used and became rotted. I will mix it with the compost. I am still learning this. My grass from last fall did not compost completely over winter. So I am running out of space in my large plastic trash containers I use. I have been keeping the lids on. I thought there are enough holes and gaps from age to provide some air. Should I keep the lids off? do the bacteria need a lot of oxygen? I did move them to a sunnier location to warm them up more.

            • be very careful about using grass clippings… not under any circumstances mix in to your garden bed until you are 100% + 100% sure all the grass seed is DEAD, double dead better yet!! Also, grass clippings contain weeds (seeds, roots & junk) Make sure these are 1000% X 1000% DEAD, DOUBLE, TRIPLE DEAD? Why, cause once this trash is introduced into your bed, you will prolly NEVER get rid of them- alas the sad voice of experience here-unless you poison the bed & wait a year b4 using it again. A little root sprig can regenerate a thousand fold.Also, composting takes regular work, (aerating, moistureizing, etc) I find it easier to go to a supplier, pay $5, shovel into bags till my back hurts then put a bag a year into each of my 25 beds. It’s great stuff, but requires knowhow to do on your own…..albeit good knowhow if/when shtf!!!!!!!!! Rodale’s book on composting a must read for burgeoning composters during winter’s gardening layoff/planning stage. I’ve yet to be disappointed w/a Rodale publication from its series.

  3. On building the raised bed -is the bottom made of plywood with a plastic liner of some kind? (I’d probably double the plastic lining, to be sure.)
    Also, as for the ongoing cost, one is going to have to keep that treated wood finished w/ some kind of sealer (like for decks), or even treated wood will rot; I had to learn that the hard/expensive way.

    With my bad back, I can’t handle the constant bending over required for a traditional ground level garden. But I’m considering a raised bed, or hydroponic garden. & starting small scale.

    • akaGaGa says:

      My back is the reason I switched, RedC, but we didn’t use treated wood. My wonderful hubby just stacked 3 layers of cement blocks for me, with the one-inch flat piece on top. We layered newspapers in the bottom, and then filled it with the mix. I can sit on the edge to do my garden work, which makes my life a whole lot easier.

      • akaGaGa, how many years have u used your raised bed? I like using concrete blocks, but would be concerned about the wood exposed to moisture. About how deep is the soil on the raised bed?

        • akaGaGa says:

          I’ve had this bed for 4 or 5 years now, RedC. I’de say the soil is 18-20″ deep. (I grow some great carrots!) I did consider putting filler underneath so it didn’t require so much mix, but that just didn’t happen. We didn’t use any wood, so there’s nothing to rot. Just blocks stacked on the ground. My WH is a bit ocd, so the blocks are perfectly square and level. I don’t think that’s required, though. 🙂

  4. Hunker-Down says:

    We use the same method in two 24 X 4 raised beds. We stopped gardening about 1985, thinking we were too old to do ‘hard labor’. In our old style garden there were 70% paths and 30% growing area. After TDL got elected we knew inflation was going to eat a big hole in our purchasing power. One of our reactions was to resume gardening. We chose the two raised beds because of the efficiency of space and labor. We didn’t use string to mark out the square foot boundaries, we just marked the footage with an indelible marker on the lumber. We use a four foot carpenters level, with a yardstick painted on it, laid across the bed to place our plants.

    I really like your pictures, they say a lot. If you are planting heirloom plants you can save some money and have seeds after TSHTF by learning how to save seeds. There are good instructions at

  5. Buckwheat says:

    I am working on trying to marry what you just did with SqFtG (using a bunch of scrap lumber) and a self watering container. The only problem that I see is using too heavy of a soil. Does anyone else see other issues?

    Here is the model that I was loosely working towards.

    • I used 2 x 12’s, lined with a pond liner. Then a “layer” of 4″ corrugated & perforated landscape drain pipes, plus the “sock.” One one end is a 1″ pvc cut into the perforated pipe up to the surface for a fill pipe. At the other end is a small tubing overflow drain, inserted at the top of a corrugated pipe. I stuffed rocks around and between the pipes. Then soil.

      I water by sticking the hose in the pvc pipe and filling up the corrugated pipes until it comes out the overflow. My bed is 4′ x 8′, so it probably holds 30-40 gallons. Since it waters from the bottom, I can mulch heavily, and only have to water every couple of weeks; every week in our 105 degree summers (Dallas). Plants love it.

      • the pic was before I added the sock to the corrugated pipes. I decided I needed to keep the soil out of the pipes.

        • Buckwheat says:

          that is awesome. thank you.
          Quick question: did you connect the congregated pipes to each other?

          • no. The pipes are in a sock, and the sock is tied at each end to keep out dirt. Water flows freely between the pipes through the rocks/soil between the pipes. Oozes might be a better word.

            There are no openings other than the fill pipe and the overflow tube, and they are 3 corrugated pipes apart and at opposite ends of the bed.

  6. Urbancitygirl says:

    I studied square foot gardening a year prior to my first raised veggie bed. Bought the book also. I was sidelined in finding vermiculite-no luck. I went forward with my beds but after the first one, I quickly adapted to 8′ x 2 -1/2′ and having better success in reaching the beds for planting,weeding and such.

    I am going to acquire perlite, such a good idea for less soil compaction. Although, since I do not walk on my beds, they don’t compact too much.

    For me, I just add compost to the top of my existing beds in the spring and /or dig holes and trenches and add compost to them during the growing season because my compost bin gets too full.

    New raised beds are not tilled. I put down newspaper, wet it, add tree limbs and such, then add compost/peat/topsoil. Though I will now add perlite. I will have to look this weekend at Home Depot.

  7. Just finished transplanting our starter plants into our SF garden. Also have Mel’s book, we are working 16 square feet this year as a starter garden to teach my girls how to be self sufficient. Found some ready to go with vermiculite garden soil – 2 cubit feet per bag for less than 6 bucks each at Menards. Mixed in some mushroom compost in all but the squares dedicated to the peppers… should be a good crop. we built our own box and have a sprinkler system installed also… fun project.

  8. Dennis Selby says:

    My first year of SFG, as well. Cost a pretty penny because I used 2″ X 10″ lumber and, as usual, went into overkill mode and built twelve 4 X 8 beds! My excuse was that there will be a learning curve and, if the S ever HTF, I’d be able to feed about four households! I purchase 20 yards of a good garden soil rather than create so much Mel’s Mix. Getting excited as we just finished the beds and the fence. Now to plant. Always a little leery here in Michigan, but now I can cover the beds easily enough!

  9. I have been using Mel’s ideas even before he wrote the book! My ground beds are 16 inches high. I have a 4 x 24 box at waist height for bush beans, onions, garlic, bell peppers, and eggplants. Production is exceptional. Keeping beds weed free takes less than 30 minutes for 12 beds. I still use some traditional techniques for tomatoes, etc. I will have between 6-7 dozen tomato plants this year. I plan a lot of canning.

    As for buying bulk vermiculite and perlite, check out farmers’ cooperatives. I use a lot of both in the nursery business. Be sure to wet down perlite before using as it is an abrasive dust. Better yet, wear a mask. You might also find double ground bark for the main ingredient at a landscaping supply business. I buy it by the yard-3 x 3 x 3 cubicle same feet. My cost is $50 a yard. I get 8 cubic yards at a time with a $40 delivery fee. Be sure to add a variety of compost, bone meal, Epsom salt, and a timed released fertilizer to the mix. The bark, peat, vermiculite, and perlite are inert of any nutrition.

    I also use same mix in 3-20 gallon pots and in planting hole in the row garden as Northern Arkansas is nothing but a gravel pit. The new area will use beds and other techniques of intensive growing. Each year more compost and mulching material will be added. In the end, I will have very rich soil, but I will continue to harvest the best crop Arkansas has: rocks. Lee Tool out of the Carolinas carry a wonderful hand held rock rake. Also does a pretty good job of cultivating.

  10. Those raised beds look great but how do you plan on keeping the squirrels, stray cats, birds and other critters out?

  11. TexGalatHeart says:

    I have a raised garden that is made of cinder block. 2 cinder blocks high. I was give three quarter of the amount of the cinder block and just bought the rest to make a bed that is 10 feet across and 4 feet wide. Have a dirt place close by and can get a pickup load of good gardening soil for $25 – $35
    We laid window screen wire on the bottom and then added the soil. Each year I add a pick up load of compost and use part of it in the garden and part in my flower boxes and raised herb boxes.
    Bad back made this raised bed a necessary if I am going to garden. I have had this arrangement with the cinder blocks for 9 years now and I always have a great garden.
    As far as keeping out the birds and squirrles I buy those really cheap pinwheel and place them in the garden box. Also if you have a protected area where you can protect a radio; turn it on to a 24 hour talk station and leave it on fairly low.

  12. K. Harris says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I’m getting even more great ideas from them. As for keeping out the critters, the only problem we have had so far is cats. A few spritz of vinegar on the soil has so far repelled them. I’m not sure of the birds but if they get to be a problem, I can always post little spinning windmills in it. One additional thing I plan to do now to the beds is throw in a half a container of fishing worms from wal mart into each bed. I’m not too worried about soil compaction, but the waste they produce along with the extra aeration should be great.

  13. We are on our 3rd year of SFG. We started out with 6-4’x4′ units at ground level, about 8″deep. The yield is more that enough for just the two of us and we share our abundance with neighbors. The initial investment is a bit crushing, but there is nothing like garden fresh on a daily basis. Our main problem were the wild ‘visitors’ appreciated our crops too. Rabbits ate young shoots, squirrels chewed on young peppers and cats thought it the perfect litter box. We quickly solved that problem by making full chicken wire cages, about 2 1/2 feet high to cover each 4×4 area. The best features of SFG’s is they are practically weedless, you can water with out wasting on a deep soak (this can be done through the cages), harvesting is a breeze, seeds are easily saved. If you compost you kitchen scraps you need only complement with cow and chicken manure, and mushroom compost each Spring. I use a weekly fertilizer called Mittleider Magic Micro Mix which is mixed with Epsom salts and 17-17-17. This is an outstanding mix of essential mineral nutrients and I highly recommend it.

  14. Babycatcher says:

    Our raised beds that are our old redwood deck, recycled, are 10×3 and 8 x3. We have 14 of them, and I used the garden soil I had. Didn’t have the money for the premade dirt that was recommended, and no money for landscape cloth, so I have spent many hours weeding, and this yr we are removing 1/3 of the soil in each bed and replacing with peat moss and vermiculite. Also composted hore manure, which is at least a year old. The hard part is keeping the wire grass and Johnson grass out, both of which are deep in the soil and will grow thru newspapers, landscape cloth and wood, eventually. So I didn’t bother with any of that, just laid and leveled the frames on the ground, and weed as I can. They are 4 years old now, and this is the best garden I have ever had! I do grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn, beans, potatoes and squash, pumpkins and gourds in traditional rows because they take up too much of the bed room.hope that helps a little…

  15. Babycatcher says:

    Oh, and my hubby made me some PVC pipe frames that hold a tarp for frost or shadecloth for sun, for most all the beds! I get lettuce in July!

  16. Happy Camper says:

    In the Mittleider method, I’ve noticed that some of its advocates use styrofoam balls, like what you would fill a bean bag with.
    The cost savings would be massive, I have been paying about $2 per litre of perlite. Styrofoam is food safe in packaging, so I guess it would be ok in a garden bed also.
    But I’ve not looked at the long term leeching of the petro chemicals it’s made from, perlite and vermiculite are a natural substance.

  17. winonageek says:

    Nice article. I did the exact same thing this spring and agree that the start up costs are high. I bought the lumber for one 8×4 bed, peat moss, vermiculite, and 5 types of compost. Overall, with plants, I think I spent around $200. But the on going costs should be low. In theory you only need to add compost when you replant. I’m also going to be doing my own compost in the future. I was able to acquire some used pallets and made a compost bin out of them.

    It all sounds good to me, but right now it’s all theory to me. Ask me after I get my first batch of veggies.

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