Saturday, April 4, 2009


My name is Luke. I'm 31 and live in Central New Jersey with my wife and two kids (ages 6 and 5). I've worked in IT for 7 years (most recently as a SysAdmin) until being laid off in Oct., 2008. After being laid off, my wife and I decided to fulfill a dream of ours of starting a vegetable garden in the backyard. Inspired by my uncle, who started started a small square foot garden in Maine last summer, I bought a used copy of Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening and started planning our garden.

Being technical by nature, I really like the orderliness and efficiency of SFG. We decided to put 4 4x4 boxes on a gravel area just off the patio behind our house. This space is largely wasted and previously had a small, neglected flower bed along the edge.

After a bit of clearing, leveling and digging, the space looked like this -->

I then bought the 8 8ft 2x10's from Home Depot, some landscape fabric from Walmart, and got to building using some deck screws left over from another project. And a couple weeks later, I had this...

Those 2x2's sticking up from each box are cleats to which I'll bolt the trellises when the time comes. Next came filling the boxes with some variation of Mel's mix.

As stated in the SFG book, "Mel's Mix" is 1/3 peat, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost. After an inital search for vermiculite, it seemed like it was generally unavailable in central Jersey, or was obscenely expensive. Best price I found locally was at Agway, and that was $25 for a 4 cu ft bag. I just about decided I wasn't going to use it when I stumbled on a wholesaler 20 minutes away who also sold to the public. Price was $13.15 a bag, so I shot over there and bought 4 bags.

I then bought a couple bales of peat at Lowes and some various composts and manure at the local Agway (which is only 5 blocks away). After a laborious afternoon of mixing and shoveling, I got the beds pretty much filled. The next weekend, I bought another 10 bags of manure to top off the beds. I was skeptical at first, but this soil is absolutely beautiful -- light, friable, and holds moisture well.

I planned to grow everything from seed and bought 2 Jiffy-7 greenhouses, 72 pellets each, as well as a 25-pellet version with slightly larger pellets. Most of my seeds came from Pinetree Seeds. The nice thing about them is the price and the fact that the envelopes contain a reasonable amount of seeds. One of the advantages of SFG is supposed to be that you don't plant a huge row of plants, only to thin out 80% later on, so a small number of seeds is needed.

I threw together a simple 2-shelf rack made of 2x2's and one 4 ft florescent T12 light fixture from Walmart for $10. The other 3 fixtures came from Freecycle so didn't cost anything. This gives me 4 40W light tubes per shelf. Should be plenty of space for now. It's tucked in the corner of our partially finished basement. Stays rather cool (58-60 degrees), but the seedlings don't seem to mind it.

At the moment, I have parsley, broccoli, cauliflower, cayenne peppers, California Wonder bell peppers, four types of tomatoes, three types of lettuce, mint and basil started indoors. I also have yellow onions (from sets) and two types of peas planted out in the garden. I have a master spreadsheet with my garden grids, planting schedule, cost breakdown, harvest schedule, succession planting schedule, etc. EVERYTHING I do is based off this spreadsheet, and yes I do have it backed up since I'd be totally lost without it!

Today, I built the chicken wire fence around the first box. We have a lot of rabbits around here so keeping them out is a priority. It took me a while to come up with something suitable. For a variety of reasons we can't fence in the whole area at the moment, so I needed to come up with something to surround the individual boxes. So it needed to be either low enough to reach over to tend the plants or be easily removable. I ended up building 2ftx4ft frames from 1x2's and tacking chicken wire to it. These panels are placed against the box and tied at the corners. Seems like it will work. I need to build the rest next week.

Well, this was a long introductory post, but there was a lot to get up-to-date. Overall, I'm enjoying our first garden and it has really given me something to keep me going during my layoff. Now that the planning and most of the construction is done, when I do eventually manage to find work, I should be able to tend to the maintenance.


  1. Cool! Central NJ. I grew up in Jersey, mostly in Monmouth County. Married a soldier, so have been all over the place since then, but I still have alot of family up that way.
    I thought of something similar for my rabbit problem, but haven't done it yet. I was afraid it'd look tacky, given that we live in a place with lots of close neighbors. Now that I see it in action, I see it looks pretty good.
    Nice job on your garden, gonna be a good one! Good luck on the job search, too.

  2. Yeah, the fencing wasn't nearly as ugly as I expected it to look. We'll see how it does this season. We already have some ideas of how we'd expand the garden next year, and we may end up fencing in the entire area. But this should work for now.

  3. Nice looking garden I started square gardening this year and still learning. I also have containers like yours and you are right lots of work to get them started I also use 5 gal containers for peppers same basic as the totes but less work Good Luck. I'm also in Central Jersey

  4. Great blog!
    I also live in NJ (Bergen county) and I have trouble finding vermiculite sold in quantities other than 8 quarts for $7 or so. Since one cubic foot is roughly 28 quarts, you can see this gets very expensive, so I am wondering if you can share the phone number or name of the wholesale place where you got your vermiculite. Thanks a lot!

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  6. I'm a first-time gardener in NJ, ready to begin my SFG adventure, but I'm having difficulty locating coarse vermiculite for a reasonable price. Could you share the name of the wholesaler that you found? Thanks in advance for the help!