I was sitting here recently pondering construction materials for making square foot gardens or raised beds.
So many materials are just not cost-effective. Others are either difficult to find chemically untreated or will be a welcome sign for termites. Others are quite heavy and wouldnt be easily moveable if I decided to change the garden design at any point.
I need something with good moisture retention, but also adequate drainage. I need something that won't rot. I need a size that can be easily accessed and assembled. I need a low skill level of construction because I don't want another lengthy project at this time. I need it to not be an eyesore. And I just don't like the idea of using recycled tires, no matter how enthusiastic the following is out there. I grew up in Mississippi where more often than not a weed-filled tractor tire in the front yard WAS the adornment. I'm no snob, but it's just not my taste, and I do worry about the chemicals in that rubber. I'm not sure there's any grounds to my worry, but as someone very sensitive to fumes and such, the memory of tires left to bake in the sun and their resultant baked-rubber smell just doesnt equate with the lettuces, herbs, and root veggies I hope to tuck away in a raised bed. Probably just my own preference. It's the same preference that has so far kept me from experimenting with black plastic weed barriers, though I may someday change my mind if needing to cover a very large area.
Back to the subject. As I was sitting and thinking and thinking on this that night, I had a Eureka moment. Here in our office is the detritus from the other parts of the house...all collecting in not-so-organized drifts on any available surface until a later organizing inspiration hits. J has taken to coralling the stacks into a little more order by periodically purchasing those nearly-indestructible cube-like egg crates...the stackable squarish lid-less kinds with the "holes" in them.
The idea that came to me was in conjunction to my free supply of brown paper grocery bags and my need for a better soil than the hardpan that's on our property, which would take a fortune at this point to amend to prime productivity all at once...it's going to have to be a gradual process. Well, what about the veggies and good things I want to grow in the meantime...affordably? The milk crates popped into my mind.
If I were to dig out the lawn sod a bit larger than the dimensions of my intended raised bed and then arrange milk crates side by side to form whatever shape I needed (such as 3 deep by 6 long), I could line the bottoms and outer edges with thick layers of brown paper grocery bags and then fill the interior spaces with quality soil mix and any amendments I'd want. The small spaces (an inch or two) between the the crates could be filled as well. This would essentially be a raised bed made of cubes pushed together into whatever shape is best, interior perimeter sealed off by a biodegradable barrier to keep in moisture, and soil filled into all the compartments up to nearly the top as a solid mass, which would help mass plants for shade and also would be nice dividers for different varieties of plantings. (Theoretically)
Would it be attractive, though, or an eyesore? I tried to picture it in my mind's eye. The outer edges were my main concern. The cubes are about 10 inches tall and are hard plastic, but not rubber. For plants needing even more depth, they could be stacked double to the same bed dimensions, lined and filled, since the holes in the cubes would allow for root penetration downwards. The question is about the beauty.
I could plant bushing flower plants around the exterior, which would correspond to my plan to always plant flowers among other plants for the friendly pollinator bugs that eat other insect predators. They'd have to be pretty thick and vigorous plants to really hide the plastic cube edge, though, and then there's the weeding. Whatever's "outside the box" would be more upkeep. Still, it's a thought.
I also thought of bales of hay, after seeing them in an organic gardening magazine arranged around seedlings in a square and supporting a prostrate window panel for a very nice makeshift coldframe. (It looked very handsome even though it was so easy to assemble...SO much easier to take down and put up when needed...just store the window panel till the next time around). J is not keen on the hay idea since he thinks that would be a perfect hiding place for snakes, which we have so many of here.
The other idea is to mound soil up the sides, which would not give exactly a crisp edge, but would act as additional insulation and moisture insurance.
Another idea that got me excited was thinking that after the cube-beds are fully assembled and filled, I could take a sharp blade and where the cube holes are, pierce through the brown paper barrier layer just enough to insert strawberry plants or other plants that would gladly grow out the sides, while still utilizing the top surface for other plants. I've seen hanging baskets done this way, and the effect is beautiful! I could tuck numerous types of herbs, like thyme, or flowers that way, too. Not sure I'd be doing that for beautification purposes, since it might look like one big mess, but it would be great for getting more use from it overall, and incorporating even more diversity in the plantings!
I haven't tried any of these ideas yet...but intend to!! I'll start small, with two. It's only cost-effective if done gradually, since the cubes run two or three dollars at the dollar store. I'll probably start with lettuces, since this is our ONLY cool time of year in Florida, and for the reason that I've never grown lettuce and this sounds like an easy way to start. To use just a couple of cubes for lettuce, I probably won't even bother to dig out the sod underneath, but will just put down a barrier of several thicknesses of brown paper bags, plop a cube on top, line it with more brown paper bags, fill it with good soil, and sow the seeds. It should be possible to move it to a shadier area as the weather changes, if necessary, since experimenting with it on a small scale.
I don't think this idea would really work on a large scale very economically unless someone had an abundant source of free milk crates (and no, those ones stacked behind the supermarket are NOT free for the taking :)). But we'll see if it's a good idea on a smaller scale. I'll try to document the process, and maybe I can convince R to take pictures I can post here. We certainly have NO idea what we're doing, but I'm trying to start with some ideas based on my conjecture of what might work best for the plants and my budget.
Let's see what happens!!