March 6th, 2009

A $600 Soil Lesson

In 2007, my wife asked me to build her a couple of raised gardening beds as a gift for her birthday. She was interested in growing a few vegetables to teach my youngest about gardening. I was in the middle of rebuilding our deck and my wife knew that she had to play the birthday card to get her garden project to the top of my “honey-do” list.

Having no interest in gardening at that point in my life, I begrudgingly started building the raised beds. We used the old cedar deck boards I had recently removed from the deck to create two 4′ x 4′ boxes and built them into the backyard hillside where our youngest plays (we call this the “kid zone.”)

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One of two 4′ x 4′ garden boxes I built from old cedar decking.

The soil we have in our back yard is pretty poor, so we decided to shop around for something better to fill the boxes with.

What I didn’t know then is that good garden soil should look like chocolate cake with lots of organic material and a nice earthy smell. What I also didn’t know is that the (free) soil a few hundred feet down the hill from our house in a wooded flood plain would have worked great to fill those beds.

I thought that I had to use official “garden soil”. After calling around a bit, we discovered that the trash dump (yes…the trash dump) 10 miles from our home sold “garden soil.” I had recently purchased a trailer from craiglist, and to save money, we decided hook up the trailer and haul the soil ourselves.

Early one Saturday morning, my wife and I loaded my then two year-old up into our SUV and headed to the dump. After I paid the woman at the small entrance booth for the soil, she directed me down some back roads behind the public area of the dump to where the garden soil was. We drove where we were told while dodging massive dump trucks that looked like they could crush our SUV without feeling the bump (I brought my child along, why?).

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R.I.P. Melon – This little guy didn’t make it in our new “garden soil”.

Eventually, we found the piles of soil and a friendly front-loader driver to fill up the trailer. Unfortunately, I think we loaded the trailer from the wrong pile. What we loaded was a fairly lifeless, light-brown fill dirt. It was not the stuff that great gardens are made of – but we were blissfully unaware. We were also unaware that the huge load of soil was far too heavy for our SUV and would cost over $500 in brake repairs the next week.

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Planting the garden beds.

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Despite our lack of gardening know-how, and our load of dirt that ultimately cost us $600, our first garden was lots of fun. The mint and other herbs did great, and the scrawny big-box tomato plants managed to eke out enough cherry tomatoes for our youngest to munch on as she played in the yard. We considered it a success.

And it got me thinking. What could I grow if I really took gardening seriously?