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Practical Gardening Series; Chapter 2, Planting Medium and Styles

Dec 16, 2023

In our last discussion we talked about seed selection. By now you have likely selected some seeds. So what do we do with them? Well, we plant them, right? OK,  but in what and how? What does this look like when we say, Planting seeds? Well we are going to look at some ideas. This discussion is really where we start to see some actions where we end up getting soil on our hands, well, in most cases anyway. When I was in college, in the psychology stuff, the beginning class we were always dealing with the technical stuff. We asked the instructor when we were going to start walking Pavlov's dogs. The Pavlov guy is one of the big discovers of Classical Conditioning in the behavior science field. Our instructor would always say that we had to get some of the technical stuff out of the way. The classical Conditioning stuff is basically pairing a stimulus (the technical stuff here) with a response ( the walking of the dogs). So here I try to cover the technical stuff, yet have fun walking the dogs. So let’s jump in. and focus on the dogs more than the technical stuff.

For many people when the idea of planting a seed is mentioned, the automatic, default picture that comes to mind is one of sticking a seed into the ground. OK, now what? This is the general idea of what is involved. In our present day we do not always plant a seed into a solid medium. Sometimes we do not use soil, we use a water solution that has many nutrients in it that the plants need. You might have heard of a concept called hydroponics.With hydroponics, a system is set up to where the seeds are held in place, in a water solution and the water is circulated past the root system and the plant takes up the nutrients as the plant sees fit to do so. Normally, this system is not for the beginner. I mention it to you here so that you have an idea of what it is as you will run across this idea as you do your research and learning of the whole seed growing process. But do keep in mind that it can be done on a limited basis by the beginner and does work real well. 


A more widely known process of basically growing seeds in water, really  just plain old water. You have heard of sprouting. You can sprout almost any seed and have a really, very nutritious food product within or on the inside of a week. One of the biggest problems encountered with this method is that you can’t eat the stuff fast enough and you end up with some waste. So if you do this process, go easy with it. Usually a person will have ajar with a breathable covering. This to allow the seeds to have air and allow water to drain from the jar without losing the seeds from the container. I don’t want to get technical here so I am not going into specific details, just the general idea. But trust me, it is easy to do. As a side note with this whole idea is that the seeds will usually yield about 6 to 10 times, by weight of produce from the seed sprouting method. Many of you have seen these little containers in the produce department that will have seeds that have been sprouted. Usually there are like 4 to 6 ounces or so in the container. Generally, these will cost from 1 to 2 dollars per ounce of the sprouts. On average, the seeds used for sprouting will cost you maybe 10 bucks for 1 pound, sometimes maybe 15 bucks per pound. So if you use the high end of 16 bucks per pound, for the seeds, and keep in mind that the glass jar, like a mason jar with a ring will cost you maybe 1 dollar per bottle, and you can really use any glass jar, as glass jars generally work the best, you can do the numbers here and you can see that you can find this method to be very financially rewarding. But you also have to factor into the multiple effect, which will in effect produce 6 to 12 ounces of actual food from that one ounce of seed. This is done within 1 week. Just remember that 1 ounce of raw seed will provide for a lot of food. Plus the nutritional value is very high. Also, here is what you have to keep in mind, when the plant produces a seed, a lot of nutrition that the seed needs to start its growth process is put into that seed. That seed has to have a lot of stored nutrition for the time period of when it begins its growth cycle and to sustain itself until a root system can be established and the photosynthesis process takes over. Some of the more popular seeds that are used in this process are ones like Alfalfa, Radish, Broccoli, Sunflower, most small grains, and the list goes on for a long time. So one would be able to find some that would work for your palate quite easily. Also, with these small grains, a big concern is the herbicides that are sprayed on some of them at harvest time. Normally, these seeds are not cleaned in the sense that the “bad” stuff doesn’t get washed off. Well, with this method, the bad stuff gets washed off. Just remember that these seeds are washed from 15 to over 20 times before you consume the produce. So when you do this method, you won’t be buying planting seeds, you will be buying sprouting seeds. They will be much less costly. Am I doing a good sales job here in trying to sell you on this idea? Yes, I hope so. I can’t say enough good about this process. 


The next one to think about is container gardening. This has a lot of upside to it and not a lot of down side to it. However, if you go out and buy all new materials for this method it can be costly. Personally, I have found that a 5 gallon plastic bucket works pretty well for this method. Usually if you go and get a Homer bucket from Home Depot, it will cost you 5 bucks. But if you have connections somewhere, you can get used buckets that have been used in bakeries, food services, etc., for little to nothing. Just make sure they have only had food in them, not some weird chemical, etc. You get the idea, I am sure.   But you really will have a better success rate if you have a dark color to keep the sunlight from shining through. The soil mix needs to be kept dark. Normally, the “Fake it till you make it" people out there will tell you to drill holes in the bottom and fill them up with compost, then plant your seeds in them or transplant already started plants into the container. This idea is bad all the way around. A more effective way is to make up a mix of soil, nutrients and yes, some compost. Normally the compost should only be in the 10% to 15% range of the whole.So to make an effective container medium, you would need to do the following. Take the bucket and go up about 4 or 5 inches from the bottom. Drill a few holes in the side, 3, 1/2 inch holes are enough, of the bucket at that height. You don’t drill the holes in the bottom. Then you can fill the bucket up to about where the holes are drilled with sand or gravel. I kind of like gravel, but sand is OK as well. Then you come in with your soil mix and fill it up to almost the top, maybe a few inches below the rim of the bucket. Then you can plant the seed or the transplanted plant to this medium. You really don’t want the drain holes in the bottom. This method, especially when using a total compost or very well draining soil mixture, you will end up washing out the nutrients on to the ground. You have set yourself up for failure. By using the gravel or sand in the bottom, you will collect the water and nutrients in the sand or gravel. The holes will allow for aeration of the soil and the water so that molds and fungus won’t grow and it also retains the nutrients. As the plant grows,it can sense the rich nutrient source and will send roots down to it, if needed. Then you will or can have the movement of water and nutrients upward as in nature. This is more in line with the natural process that takes place in a natural setting. I like using these buckets for deep rooted plants. Plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, pepper and even spreading vine plants, (squash, pumpkins, etc., ), do well with this type of situation. By using buckets, you can move them easily if the need to do so arises. 


 A derivative to this method is to use rubber tires. No, the tires aren’t really toxic when used this way. Yes, tires do break down over time, but the amount of time the plant is in the tire, really, there isn’t enough breakdown to allow for any real amount of toxins to be transferred and taken up by the plant. Think about it, some tires can be in a prime breakdown setting and will still be a usable tire after 40 or 50 years and the plant is in the there for 60 or 90 days, so really??? Sunlight is what breaks down a tire, so the area exposed to the plant, well, it is dark. So what I have found that works really well is to go to a tire shop. Most tire shops will be happy to give you tires. The used tires they have in the trash pile, well, a disposal fee has already been paid on the tire, then they don’t have to pay for the disposal for the tire, if you take it, they just made 5 bucks in most cases. So if a tire shop tries to squeeze you for any money for a used, throw away tire, well, go find another tire shop.  Anyway, select one of these new type of tires, they will usually be 20 inches in the center. The tire series are like 50, or 60 series, that means the side walls are like only 4 to 6 inches. That way you don’t have to cut the sidewall away. With this method, just lay the tire down, maybe put something on the inside of the tire, although this is optional, to hold the soil medium in place, But here some gravel or sand in this open space on the downside of the tire is very helpful. However, I like to put the sand or gravel in the tire, between the treat and the side wall, which is now the floor of the tire thing here. This acts to hold some water and nutrients as like mentioned in the bucket method.Then fill the tire up with the soil medium. This works well for the root crops,and plants that tend to bush out or spread as they grow. The only real drawback to this type of style is that you can’t really move them during the growing season. But when the season is over with, just lift up the side of the tire and roll it away. Then scrape up the soil, mix in with the soil/nutrients and set it back up for next year. The tires will tend to collect heat and hold the heat better than the bucket method. This has a warming effect on the soil.This warming effect in turn helps with the plant growth. If you have the room, you can space the tires so that you can run your lawn mower between the tires to mow the weeds or mow the grass, and even run a tiller between the tires so that you can do an effective weeding/mowing job without killing yourself. 

Another medium that works well for some people is the straw bale method of gardening. This is a method of using straw bales as the main growing method. For this method you can see some books by Joel Karsten dealing with straw bale gardening. (Where ever you buy books).He is one of the foremost authorities on the subject. He has several books out there on the subject. Also, several other authors have books on the subject as well. With this method, you place some straw bales on the ground. Then you use a formula to cure the bales. Basically all you need here is some water and Nitrogen fertilizer.  The method to “cure” the straw takes about 12 to 14 days, then you can plant The way it works is you get the straw wet, then add some Nitrogen fertilizer onto the straw, water in the nitrogen and you do this formula for each day, some days only adding water, As the straw bales break down they turn the straw into a compost type growing environment and the plants get their nutrition as the straw breaks down. This method is an excellent program and method if you have poor soil. I see it working real well and makes life easy for gardeners in a higher rainfall area. In these high deserts where I live I think I would do it differently, based on my experimenting with straw bale gardening, although I do like doing the straw bale way. In this method, I would basically dig a trench wide enough and deep enough to contain the whole bale of straw in a trench. I feel like the natural process would make it work better by doing it that way in this particular environment, due to the desert dry setting. In my case it would work easy for me as I have a small backhoe and a loader to make this an easy task for me. Another option I have kicked around is to use round bales. Some areas some of you might have this as your only option. If I were doing this style, I would just make sure where I wanted the round bale to be, turn it on its side, then just follow the established methods for curing the straw and planting into the straw bale. I think the round bales would work great. Besides you could do a modified version of the tower gardening stuff on the sides of the round bales. I have a small round baler that makes a small bale that is like 3 feet wide and 4 feet in diameter. So turning those bales onto their sides, I would have a straw bale setting that would be 3 feet high and  have a 4 foot round table, so to speak, to do the gardening stuff on. I really like that idea. Maybe next year, right? 


An idea that I have played with some is the post hole style of gardening. With this type of a deal, you would basically dig a post hole. Then mix in the soil mixture that you desire, while incorporating some of the soil that came out of the hole, then fill in the hole with that material. With this method, one would typically set out a grid, I would leave enough room to run a lawn mower between the holes to cut the grass, weeds and other material. Use a post hole digger which makes it easy for me because I have a post hole digger and tractor to run it with..Then just back fill the hole with the soil mixture, then plant, water and care for the plant. Pretty simple the way I see it. This method would work well in steep hills and such where erosion and run off is a concern. Then in following years all you have to do is add the nutrients to the hole area that was previously dug.. This would cut down on wasting fertilizers and would help you to concentrate your efforts in the area where they are really needed. 


Another popular method that people will use is the raised bed method. Now keep in mind there is nothing wrong with this method. It is a widely used style and has proven to be an extremely effective and productive style. Many people with disabilities find this to be a good way for them to garden. Also, it usually looks cool. I don’t know what to add to this other than this method is really just an incorporation of all of the main points in the previously mentioned styles and methods. But this method really takes it to the next level. Kind of like putting these other methods on steroids. I guess the biggest drawback is the work and expense involved in putting this style together and making it work. Once that is done, then it is a cake walk from that point on. I would think that in most of these raised beds styles, one would really benefit from having a loader and a dump truck as a lot of material would need to be moved to fill some of these types of beds. But if it is your desire, and you can make it happen, then great. However, I feel like is that most people seem to chose one of the most expensive ways to do this type of a raised bed garden, is to use these water tanks for livestock. Those tanks are very expensive and will rust out within a few years. Yes, they look great, but only for a while. 


So what is my solution? I am always looking for a better way to do things than what I see the multitudes of the mob doing. My solution to these bigger raised bed type of gardens is to use tractor tires. These are old, worn out tractor tires. The ones I am thinking of are ones that stand at least 5 feet tall. The larger tires will stand at least 8 feet tall. But the 5 to 6 feet tall ones will work best. So with these you get them, lay them down and cut the bead off of one side, an easy thing to do.This is to give you a better workspace. But it isn’t really, totally necessary to cut the bead off. You can lay those down, fill them with your soil mixture. Keep in mind that it will take a lot of material. But it is worth it. I have made an executive decision and that decision s to make a number of these types with tractor tires for next year. As with most of these ideas, space them out so that you can get your lawn mower between them and that way you don’t have to chop or pull weeds or grass. By letting grass grow between the tires helps to promote a healthy environment for the garden plants. 

The last idea that I am going to cover is this, doing what historically works really well for me. That is to grow your garden in a field. I have always liked to do several acres, on the low side some times up to 5 or so. By doing the garden this way, I just run the tractor with a furrow maker down through the field, then go back and plant my seeds, then just water them along with anything else I am growing. Some people do the surface watering, some have sprinklers of one sort or another. The normal furrow spacing around here is at 28 inches.This works really well here because of the soil and absorption rates. However, most potato furrows are 36 inch on center. At least my potato planter and digger are made, based on 36 inch centers. For my needs I am going to go with 36 inch furrows on everything, going forward, because of the potato row spacing. Then if a particular crop needs a narrower spacing, I will just split the 36 inch rows. These kinds of actions work for me because I have the machinery to do various ideas, but the main so-called leader in this is the needs of potatoes. I love growing potatoes and even love eating them even more. This is what works for me. The idea mentioned in this paragraph works real well for root crops. Each one of you can look at these concepts and adapt them for your personal needs. 

Summary; In this chapter I have introduced you to a number of different methods to work with your plants, for the growing process. I am sure that you can adapt them to fit your specific need. One thing to keep in mind is that plants, as a general rule, don’t do well in isolation. They always do better if they have other plants nearby.In fat, they do better if they are touching another plant. Most of these methods that I have mentioned will allow you to plant for a more concentrated plant number per given measurement of space. Everyone of these methods will allow for drip watering. This is likely one of the best methods for you to consistently apply the proper amount of water for the plants.There are always exceptions to the rule, based on your specific needs. I'm just giving you some general guidelines.  

In this chapter I am hoping to spark some brainstorming for you to consider what method of growing your garden might work best for you. In future chapters we will look at how to make each of these methods work real well for you.This includes the tools needed. Fertilizers used, and so on. I didn’t mention the hoop house type of greenhouse or even the more expensive types. Also included here are small raised bed hoop houses. Generally this would work real well for most of you. I have some friends that have a small greenhouse that they designed where they plant directly in the soil. These work extremely well. I have done this method as well, it works great.

So hang in there and we will have more exciting material for you in future discussions/chapters.



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