August 2009

No weeds, no duds, no money spent.

I am a cheapskate. Not that I am content settling for less. Oh, no. I love the snazzy stuff, and I love it more if I can get it at a discount.

Many companies are cashing in on the trendiness of the Green movement. Right now, you can get special composts, biodegradable planters made out of bamboo, special hinges for building a raised bed, environmentally secure heirloom seeds, and technical gadgetry that will analyze your soil and light conditions so you know exactly what to plant, and where it goes.

It bothers me that gardening, organic foods, and being Green in general is being sold as a luxury that is not available to everyone. A garden is not an expensive landscaping endeavor. Raising organic vegetables can be done without spending money on expensive fertilizer or store-bought compost that is “Nature’s mix of 4 different manures.”

Gardening is for everyone, and anyone who has the desire can plant seeds and harvest food and flowers, outside of income. I am a do-noting, square-foot gardener, which means that I use a raised bed, built on top of the ground and filled with compost for planting. No weeds, no digging. Just planting, watering, and enjoying the fruits of my garden.

It’s not too late to plant for a fall harvest of potatoes and winter greens. Last week, I built another organic garden bed… for free.

Build the box for free:

Earlier in the season, I demolished half of my deck, removing the portion that was starting to rot. I saved the good boards and nails for building projects around the house. Part of this wood was used to make my front garden and my free garden boxes.

You can find free, reusable wood, brick, rock, or other materials to use for a garden on Craigslist. You can also call construction, deck, and fencing companies and offer to take some of the old wood. Do not use pressure-treated wood for food gardens, as it may contain chemicals that will soak into the plants.

If you don’t have a yard, you can still grow items in containers on windowsills, roofs, balconies, driveways, etc. Plastic boxes, large cans, crates, buckets and other materials can be lined in plastic and used as containers. When I lived in a small apartment, I grew beans and peas in painted milk cartons on the window sills — they made interesting, green curtains. Currently, I am using the cover method to grow potatoes in an old garbage can in a corner.

Line the box for free:

The box will be filled with delicious, nutritious soil. To keep grass, weeds, and roots from sneaking into the box, I lined the bottom of the box with two layers of cardboard.

Cardboard is available almost everywhere. You can ask most stores, or find it in recycling containers (don’t take it from racks or bales, though). Using multiple layers of newspaper will work, too. I’ve seen fabric, paper, and thick layers of wet leaves used to line a box.

Free soil:

This is the beautiful part, and one of the reasons that the Tacoma area rocks so hard for gardeners. Tagro is the city’s waste composting company. During the growing season, they offer a ready-to-plant mix of compost with composted wood. There’s a huge pile available at the Tagro site, and if you’re willing to shovel it and drive it away, it is free. No mixing, no soil testing. Fill and plant. Plants go crazy in this stuff. I took a truck down and filled the back with it. When I can’t borrow a truck, I use a couple 10-gallon plastic boxes with lids in the trunk of my car.

You can also find free compost on Craigslist, or contact the Pierce Conservation District Manure Exchange Program at (253) 845-9770 to receive a listing of area farmers and ranchers that have compost they need removed.

What do you say? “If you have to drive, it’s gas money and therefore not free?” In that case, make your own compost and save the drive. It will take nearly a year to get your compost a-cookin’ though, with a mellowing out time of a few months. Or you can try the “lasagna method” of gardening, which is layering kitchen and lawn refuse in your box in the fall and planting in the springtime.

For a ready source of garden filler and fertilizer, you can also volunteer at the Rabbit Haven. Rabbits need love, care and attention just like any pet, and their droppings do not need to be prepared or composted; you can fill a bed with them and plant and be done with it.

Free plants and seeds:

I’m fortunate to know a few gardeners, and gardeners exchange seeds or starts with their friends. I was given some bulbs and starts from my mother-in-law; Cine over-planted lettuce and graciously gifted greens and an eggplant for peace.

You can also get free seeds from the most obvious place: your groceries. Dried beans are ridiculously low-priced, and if you eat them anyway, there’s no extra cost to plant a few. Melons, tomatoes or any other fresh produce with seeds can be used, and potatoes that are sprouting can be peeled or cut and planted. When you slice the root side of an onion, you can plant it: the onion roots will re-grow into a new onion.

Every year, decorative flowers go to seed. Is there a neighbor that has a beautiful poppy patch? Ask them if you can harvest some seeds for next year. Go for a walk in a park or on a trail; moss and other wildflowers can be sampled and planted at home.

Birdseed usually germinates, if you plant it like any other seed. On the plus, you’ll have sunflowers and more seeds to feed the birds later.

Additionally, you can use Google to search the term “free seeds.” Many companies offer a packet of seeds for free. You can also join a seed exchange.

Plant a little extra, let the plants bloom and save the seeds, to help out another free gardener.

Free water:

We live in the Northwest. We get gallons of the stuff for free most of the year. You can harvest rain and save it with simple methods like leaving buckets out, or running your gutter into a rain barrel. If you use Square-Foot Gardening methods, you will save water as well.

Gardening is a way to build the soil, to lower the grocery bill for fresh produce, to reconnect with nature.

Humans planted food long before all of these amazing, plastic gizmos and “biologically enhanced” fertilizers and composts were invented to herald in the Green Age. No matter what your income, you can join in.

Do you have any other free or inexpensive resources for building a garden? Let us know in the comments below.


Earlier this season, my friend Cine and I came across a disheartening sight: a once thriving community garden in hilltop had been abandoned.

We wandered around, digging at the various beds and weeds. Silver dollar plants and mallow dotted the area, joined by fennel, sorrel, poppy.

17 of the 20 raised beds had been abandoned. Strawberries, lavender, rosemary, thyme, volunteer tomatoes, and all types of tiny herb and vegetable plants were struggling to grow through tall grasses that had taken over the beds, most of which were hidden in the same grass that covered the pathways.

Only a few years ago, this community garden was an oasis in Hilltop. I could see the former glory with every handful of grass I ripped up as we wandered the lot.

The pathways were once thickly mulched with bark, the beds filled with Tagro. Four rain barrels collected rain from the roof of a locked shed. A large, expensive, metal, rotating compost bin was rusted, the black gold it contained leaking from a split seam that had buckled open on the bottom. PVC pipe was stacked by the shed, perfect lengths for making cloches over the beds. It was heartbreaking.

For Cine, plants are to be nurtured and cared for, so they can in turn give back to us in beauty and harvest. They connect us to nature.

For me, land is everything. It sustains mind and body, provides a sense of peace and a space for quiet. We should steward the land and grow the soil, especially when we find it in a concrete community.

It is hard to see a community waste a space land in a thoroughly urban area. Environmentally-conscious items like compost bins and rain barrels become nothing but refuse when they are not used.

We wanted to become involved. But no one knew who was in charge. We talked to the few others that had rehabilitated a box or two, and the few who were willing to talk to us told us the history of the lot and confirmed that there was no contact. Everyone was ninja-gardening.

After digging for a month to find out who legally owned this land, Cine found the owners and learned that the land gift to the community had a hefty caveat: the land was given free to the community for gardening, but if it was abandoned and there were no gardens, the land would revert back to the owners.

At that point, we decided to join our ninja-gardening community, and care for two boxes.

We found out that we weren’t the only ones. While we were researching and asking questions and pointing out this community garden, others also were becoming interested.

Someone came through and cut down all the grasses and weeds. Strawberry plants were pulled from one box and placed into a freshly-prepared bed. Someone else had taken the old compost pile and bagged it for anaerobic composting. Tomatoes, zucchini and corn were sprouting from various beds that had been cleaned and composted.

One of the issues for this lot is water. There is no connection to a water line. But nearly every rehabbed bed had a bucket nearby to catch the rain. We saw a few natural deep watering systems.

So who is in charge now? No one. And everyone. In the middle of what is notoriously the roughest area of Tacoma, the community is slowly rehabilitating and redeveloping an abandoned community garden to former glory. There is no steering committee, no steward, no list. Little signs are posted: “This is composting, please call me if you have questions,” “This is grain, not weeds.”

It is truly a community garden.

Overcast and early, a friend and I arrived at the Blueberry Park in Tacoma armed with buckets and totes, intent on making our haul. We had discussed the best time to forage in the city, briefly wondering when dawn actually cracked in the morning; we didn’t want to be lost among the crowd of weekend blueberry hunters.

We arrived and as we walked up the paved paths and through the rows of bushes, we realized that perhaps we were too early. Berries were decidedly green, with one in each cluster a startlingly plump purple. My friend calls this her “Tomato Principle”: One ripe fruit in each cluster releases natural ripening chemicals that tells the rest of the fruit to ripen. In a week, the bushes would be dripping with ready fruit.

Metro Parks and a group of volunteers keep this little-known park cleared and groomed for use by the public. We explored row after row of the 400+ man-sized, semi-wild blueberry bushes, eventually picking over 2 quarts of berries while still enjoying a fresh-picked breakfast.

As we plucked, we chatted with each other and the other harvesters that arrived and wandered through our area. At one point, I heard someone ask at large, “What are you going to use these berries for?”

The calls came back and forth energetically through the bushes:

“I’m gonna use ‘em in my juicer!”
“Nom-nom, eating!”
“Gonna freeze for winter!”
“Or smoothies!”

There was a pause, then from a different area, “Man, now I want pancakes.”

After the laughter, we heard a small girl running excitedly through the bushes, unseen, “Grandma! Grandma! I found blackberries!”

A cross-hatch of Tacoma wanders through the bushes. College guys with gallon-sized bags and bags lining recycled buckets. Young parents with children excitedly playing and snacking on the berries from the lower branches. Grandparents, singles, men, women, all races, chatting and picking and being friendly.

The Blueberry Park is really a lesser-known treasure in Tacoma. Formerly an abandoned blueberry farm, the park was rescued by city grants and now encompasses 20 acres. There are 5 different types of blueberries planted; there’s plenty to please any palette.

Volunteers meet at the park every Saturday to help maintain the bushes and pathways. Invasive blackberries and raspberries are held in check by goats that the city rents as needed. The blueberries are free to anyone who wants to pick them.

A former farm in the middle of Southside, this city park helps to show a connection of what we eat and where it comes from.