Two weekends ago, we had intended to start covering the empty plot with aged horse manure and wood shavings to begin enriching the hard soil. It turns out that the reason the ground was so hard was because our landlord had filled it with decomposed granite (the same material used in horse riding arenas in our area). We decided that we would make life easier by building small raised beds. Since we have free access to aged compost, we'll continue to add it to the garden to use as mulch and ground covering, but building raised beds would allow us to get started planting right away.
We used Mel Bartholomew's All New Square Foot Gardening book as a reference, and built two 4' x 4' raised beds out of wood. The beds will be only 6" deep, which Mel claims will be sufficient for all but long carrots. The potting mixture is equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. We used our free compost, but purchased the peat moss and vermiculite. Vermiculite, like Perlite, is a mineral used to improve soil drainage. It's more expensive, but not as lightweight, so it won't float away as easily as Perlite (which for a long time I thought was actually styrofoam!).
Here are some photos of our new raised beds, at around 1pm. They do get some sun in the hours surrounding noon, and we plan to prune back the tree branches soon to allow our future garden more sunlight.
Over Memorial Day weekend, we plan to add grids so that we can easily visualize each square foot. Mel recommends using thin strips of wood or even old venetian blind slats for durability, but we plan to scavenge plastic twine from our horses' hay bales.
We are also going to make a simple compost enclosure using chicken wire. Now I'll have three types of composting operations at home - Bokashi, vermicomposting, and traditional yard waste composting!
For our first planting, we plan to purchase seedlings. Meanwhile, we'll start the cooler season's plants from seed indoors.
I use Smartpak supplements for my horse*, and recently saw a neat idea for reusing the empty plastic wells to start seedlings. I wish I could find the photo!
*Since I have only one horse, it's actually not more economical to buy bulk containers of supplements, since they lose effectiveness after being exposed to air over time, and I can't use them up fast enough. Also, the Smartpaks are made of recycled plastic. I would prefer to reduce and reuse rather than simply recycling my empty containers, and now I have a good use for them!