Neat shoots and leaves in a square-metre garden

This post originally appeared on the Sustainable Witney website.

Those of you who followed my construction of a raised bed from pallet wood might be interested to know that we’ve already begun square-metre gardening in the resulting bed, with some success!

This form of gardening is meant to be relatively intensive, turning a quite small growing area into even smaller crop squares, in a chequerboard pattern. Also, by implementing crop rotation within each zone, and by avoiding disease by planting dissimilar crops next to each other, square-metre gardening permits the sowing and reaping of potentially several crop types, from each square, within a single year.

The square-metre bed was divided up into four columns A-D, and four rows 1-4. We began planting by… well, actually, we began planting by not planting, but by creating a Google spreadsheet to upload all the details of:

  • what we had sowed (crop, variety and “crop rotation type” e.g. legume)
  • what date it was sowed (and, later, whether sowed indoors or out)
  • what chequerboard square each crop was sown in
  • how much we sowed, with spaces to note initial yield, how much we thinned out etc.

About six weeks after the initial planting, our bed looked like this:

raised_bed_shooting_20130421

This is our raised bed, with the first few shoots, on April 21. Three weeks later, you can see a lot of leafy growth:

raised_bed_leafing_20130512

Here’s the layout in detail:

Basil Beans Chard
Carrot Spinach
Beans Chard Carrot
Chard Carrot Beans Spinach

… and with all that in mind, here’s what we’ve been growing.

Broad beans (Robin Hood) We’ve had a fair bit of success with broad beans in the past, although they always seem cramped in pots and start to spiral and get leggy. We sowed three beans in a triangle, in each of three squares. All but one have sprouted, and you can identify them by their broad, flat, grey-green leaves. We’ll need to attach these to canes as they get taller, so hopefully having more than one in each square will help to brace them either side of a cane.

Carrots (Early Nantes) An early carrot variety that the Cogges Victorian garden team have had some success with. I sowed them far too thickly, as I simply didn’t know how much would grow. I must must have already thinned them out by a factor of three or four (!) which is always dangerous with carrots as the smell attracts carrot fly (although the height of a raised bed will deter them.) Sowing in drills was much better than simply raking in, by the way: it really helped me control the density of plants as I thinned. You can hopefully spot the spindly fronds of the carrot leaves.

Perpetual spinach (Leaf Beet) A pseudo-spinach which as with the carrots we sowed far too thickly. I’ve been thinning and thinning this, and even though there’s now around 15 or 16 per square, you can see it’s getting crowded. But this crop is very much “cut and come back”, so we can probably start eating it now, and see how far we get! The spinach is a very bright green in these photographs, with broad, curvy leaves.

Swiss chard (Bright Lights This is our biggest disappointment. The chard looks like darker spinach, with red or yellow colouring near the soil. We sowed it really quite thickly, almost as thick as the spinach, but as you can see comparatively few have come up so far: maybe half a dozen plants at best, frequently with two plants growing right next to each other and requiring thinning out to one! We’re keeping an eye on it and hoping that more will appear later in the season.

Basil Straggly-looking, this is last year’s basil that we’re running to seed. We hoped to plant some tomatoes near it as they apparently make good companion plants, but just haven’t had time.

We’ve avoided putting the same plants in directly adjacent squares, and left some squares empty for lettuce (Lollo Mixed) and maybe some sunflowers, nasturtiums and anything else. We’ve also got one miniature squash (F1 Balmoral) specifically designed for square-metre gardening, but even then, it might be difficult to fit it into any of our currently fallow squares; maybe in the square-and-a-half next to the basil?

We’ve also had to do some watering to keep the surface from going really very dry and dusty. Something for you to be aware of is that as you might be able to see the soil level has settled considerably below the top of the bed, in part under the pressure of that watering. But that’s fine as far as I’m concerned, as it’ll leave room for composting later in the season and next year.

That’s it for now: one great thing we’ve found about this method of vegetable gardening is that after the initial chore of building and filling the beds, it becomes very straightforward and low-maintenance. We can recommend it for that reason alone, I think. But if there are any more exciting updates, I’ll post them here. Otherwise, do let us know if you’re trying anything like this yourselves; and happy gardening, either way!

(By the way, if there are any more useful updates I can make, I’ll also tag them “squaremetre“, so they’re easy to find.)

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How to build a raised bed from pallet wood

This post originally appeared on the Sustainable Witney website.

A few weekends ago I dismantled a wooden pallet, yielding a surprising amount of wood. Last weekend I reassembled this wood into a raised bed.

As before, there are plenty of guides out there on how to put a raised bed together from pallets: here’s one way to do it although there are plenty of others within searching distance. Anyway, this was the method I broadly followed, with (as before) a few interesting observations which I mention below.

  • Different plank heights.You might find that some planks are “higher” than others, in the sense that when you put three or four together to make a side of the bed, the result is also higher. It’s not a big deal: you can still nail different-height sides together exactly the same. I was lucky that two of my planks had split from 14cm to 10cm along their length; this meant I was able to basically arrange the planks so that no two sides met at a different height. But you can ignore it or saw down one or two planks.
  • Different plank thicknesses. This is a bit harder to deal with. Firstly, the uprights don’t nail well to three or four planks of different thicknesses – everything rocks about. Then, when you’re nailing the sides together, there are gaps at the corners. Use thin pieces of wood first as props, then to fill the gaps: we had a lap fence panel blow down about a year ago, and we still have thin shims of wood left over.
  • Nails poking through. If you’re nailing together two 17mm (2/3″) planks, then a 38mm (1.5″) nail will poke through. This does mean you need to be careful assembling, filling and tending to the bed; but you want the nail to grip both planks, and it won’t do that if it’s lost inside the wood of one of the two. Take care assembling, filling and lining the bed; wear suitable gloves.
  • Making your first side-to-side join. If you’re working alone – not recommended from a safety perspective, but maybe your companion isn’t strong enough to support wood in mid-air – you’ll need to make the first join with the two sides on the floor. Prop one up with one end flush against a wall; prop a second one against it, leaning on it at the corner. Keep them braced with garden objects, rocks etc, as you micro-manoeuver them into a good right angle and start banging in nails in the direction of the wall, which will stop one side from zooming away under the force of your hammering.
  • Uprights will split under the strain of too many nails. The upright pieces for a given side will split if you put lots of thick corner-joining nails into them. Consider drilling the thicker holes first, or even offsetting the uprights from the corners so you’re only nailing throught horizontal pieces. Either way, expect at least some wood to split.

Again, despite all this, things worked out very well. Here’s the end result:

raised_bed

The long-term idea is to line this bed (to avoid that blue paint – or any fungus – leaching in), fill it with soil, and use it for “square-foot gardening“; or, in this case, “625cm2 gardening.” Given each side of the bed is 1m, then I can divide it up into 16 smaller squares of side 25cm, using twine stretched across the top, and grow different crops in each square. I hope to blog more about that at a later date, maybe after the Met Office stops predicting snow!

Dismantling a pallet into reusable wood planks

This post originally appeared on the Sustainable Witney website.

Wooden pallets are practically the original and most recognizable example of discarded and waste wood. Also, you usually expect to see them consigned to the flames: it almost isn’t a successful Guy Fawkes’ Night, until you’ve put at least one of them on the bonfire.

But they’re also a convenient source of second-best reclaimed wood, if you can get your hands on them well in advance of your DIY project. Taking apart a pallet is really satisfying – it’s feels a bit like magically conjuring usable wood – but there are a few tricks you’ll need. Here’s a video that shows one successful method:

In short, you start by lump-hammering the chocks – the cuboids of wood between the planks – at right angles to the nail direction. This gradually bends the joins apart and eventually frees the chocks entirely. Once you’ve got some chocks to prop up the upturned remainder of the pallet, you can lump-hammer individual planks away from others, and they drop down between the chocks. As you proceed, continually claw-hammer any nails back out, in the opposite direction from how they were hammered in.

The problem with such instructions, and the videos that accompany them, is that they tend to assume that your pallet is in pretty good shape: some other videos I’ve seen appear to dismantle brand-new pallets! So if you’ve only got Hobson’s choice of a pallet to start off with, you might find that things don’t work out so smoothly.

I recently took apart one of these pallets, of slightly unusual design, very graciously donated by fellow Sustainable Witney volunteers:

pallet_original

There was a lot of wood to it, more than normal; but that was because it was bigger than the “standard” pallet, and therefore had more strengthening structure to it (not what you want when you’re pulling it to bits!) So here are some of the problems I encountered, and the solutions I came up with:

  • Wet wood. If the pallet has been outside, the wood will be too flexible. This means that as you try to hammer the joint apart, the joint just bends and absorbs the hammer blows. Eventually, the nail heads can even pull through the wood, tearing as they go. Try to store the pallet somewhere dry for a few days before working with it.
  • Soft chocks. The cuboids of wood that separate the pallet top from the strengthening planks underneath can have softened with age and weather, so as you lump-hammer them they just split. The ones on my pallet were also made from MDF, not solid wood, which made them split more easily. Have a crowbar or prybar handy, and hammer the bar into the joints between chock and plank; but take care not to damage the planks when you do so.
  • Extra strengthening planks. The standard pallet has nine chocks assembled in threes, with a plank under each triplet. Sturdier pallets (like mine) can have crossbar planks, joining the triplets. These mean that you can no longer lump-hammer the chocks as easily, as the bending stress gets passed along all three connected sets. Consider using prybar on just the first layer of crossbar planks, before then lump-hammering as usual.
  • Repaired pallets. If the pallet has been repaired – maybe with an extra plank of wood in places, or just partially disassembled then reassembled – then you can find some nails are actually completely hidden under the repair, and cannot be hammered backwards. Learn to spot the change in tone when a nail starts to move under your hammer-blows: if that doesn’t happen after half a dozen blows, check to see you can see the nail head at all. Try to disassemble the pallet in such an order that you never need to remove a trapped nail.
  • Splintering planks, lost nail heads, left-behind bits of chocks. All of these can happen if your pallet is complicated. Don’t worry too much, but avoid putting too much stress on wood once it starts to splinter, and try to keep track of stray nails: you probably want to discard any wood that has nails irredeemably stuck in it, or only use it where the nails won’t cause you problems trying to make a join. Wear sturdy gloves to avoid splinters, and use gentle taps on the prybar to remove any fragments of chocks towards the end.

Despite what sounds like a lengthy list of problems, it was still fairly straightforward to get the pallet apart. And I ended up with a large quantity of wood:

pallet_disassembled

Nearly eighteen metres of 10cm-wide, 17mm-thick planks! That’s more than enough wood for me to build a small raised bed (one metre squared) and try out some square foot gardening. But that’s a project for another day (edit: click here to see how to make a raised bed from pallet wood!): right now I’m just chuffed to have all this wood to work with!