How to build your own Grow Box and mix great soil in central Florida - By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA

Growing your own food can be a lot of fun and is a good exercise for those participating in this national pastime. Unfortunately, many of us think gardening takes too much time, or it’s easier to go to the grocery store and buy the food you need instead of growing your own. I believe this attitude comes from people that either never really took the time to grow their own fruits and vegetables, or they were discouraged with gardening because their plants died or were eaten by pests. Let’s be honest. Gardening is work but the enjoyment and other benefits you get from growing a bountiful garden can be greatly fulfilling. The one thing you needed was instructions on building a raised vegetable garden and the proper soil mix to grow plants like the professionals. This week I am going to give you a few pointers, which will help you do just that. Let’s get started.

Whenever someone asks me why their garden failed, the first thing that comes to mind for me is to find out where the plants were grown, in containers or in the ground. The next fact I need to know is the kind of soil you were using. Once these two questions have been answered, then I can tell you just about everything you need to know to help turn your garden around. A good healthy soil can give you the fresh start you need to grow an impressive crop of vegetables. Poor soil will ultimately lead to pitiful growth, weak plants, and death of the garden. Let’s go over the typical soil we have here in central Florida.

About one and a half- million acres of Florida are covered with a fine gray colored soil which is composed of mostly sand. This soil has actually been named our State soil and is called Myakka. Myakka soils are only found in Florida and while the entire peninsula consists of this type of soil, North and South Florida contain additional amounts of peat or clay depending upon your location. For this article, I will concentrate my focus on central Florida.    

Myakka soils are not recommended for growing healthy vegetable crops. This is one of the most frequent problems’ homeowners run into when planting vegetables in the backyard and why people do not continue gardening. Healthy soils are necessary for growing a garden, and they must contain plenty of organic matter and micro-organisms. Soils should be loose, so they can hold water and allow the exchange of air and nutrients to plants root systems. Consistent foot traffic, vehicle parking, or heavy equipment can cause any soil to become compacted. Compaction causes water to runoff instead of soaking in and decreases the particle size of soil around a plant’s roots system, making garden plants unable to take up the necessary moisture and plant nutrients. Myakka soils need to be amended with organic matter before you consider planting. I prefer to start fresh and build my own soil.

Once you have decided to plant your garden, you have to determine whether you will be planting in a raised bed or into containers. As you have probably figured out by now, planting in our native soil is not an option I want to go over here. Building a raised bed can help you get off the ground and make tending the garden much easier. I suggest you start small if this is what you want to do. A simple four-foot by five-foot garden built out of cedar or pressure-treated wood is easy to maintain. You can also add to this structure each year as your gardening skills improve. I am including a parts list for you to purchase if you want to build your own raised bed. Please order the following pressure treated or cedar wood: You will need 1- 2x12x8 cut into (2) 2x12x4 foot sections. Next: 1- 2x12x10 cut into (2) 2x12x5 foot sections. Next: 1- 2x2x8 cut into (4) 2x2x2 foot sections. Any garden center will be able to box cut the wood for you! You will also need 24 – 2 ½ inch wood screws.

Find a place in the full sun to build your raised bed. Take a regular shovel and turn over the grass one shovel length deep over the area you plan to place your new raised bed. Doing this prior to building the bed, will save you time and energy afterward. Gently level out the area then place the four-foot sections of wood inside of the ends of the two five-foot sections to form your box. Use four wood screws in each end to hold them together. Once the box is built use the two-foot support sections, the 2x2x2’s, and pound them into the ground alongside the middle of each board on the inside of the box. Each of these will need to be pounded into the ground twelve inches. Now use two screws and attach each of the four support beams to the inside walls of the box. This will help keep the box from moving over time and give the box a little extra support. I like a twelve-inch deep box because vegetable roots can reach a depth of eight to twelve inches.

If you plant in containers, then make sure you purchase at least a seven-gallon container, a five-gallon bucket with drain holes in the bottom, or an Earthbox to plant your garden. You can grow a great vegetable garden using any of the containers or raised beds I mentioned above. The key is the soil you use in them. Before we go forward, I have to tell you that my suggestions are by no means the absolute only mixes available to you or are the best types of soils you will ever be able to put together. However, the soil compositions I will go over here have served me well through the years, and I hope they can help you to grow your garden a little better than you have had in the past.

I use a wheel borough to mix all my soil in. This gives me enough soil to fill multiple containers or a raised bed. Add three cubic feet of peat and one and a quarter cubic feet of perlite into the wheel borough. I do not care what type of peat you use, but I use a product called Fafard #4. Perlite is a standard soil amendment found at most garden centers. Do not mix perlite inside the home as it produces a dust cloud. Add two cups of an 8-10-10 fertilizer with micro-nutrients. If you do not have micro-nutrients in the fertilizer you purchased, then you can buy a granular micro-nutritional package from most garden centers to add to the mixture. I also like to add at least two cups of dolomite. Dolomite is widely available so you should not have a problem finding it.

Mix all of these ingredients together with a shovel and take your time. You need all the ingredients to be evenly dispersed. Once you are finished, use this mixture to fill your raised bed or containers for planting. Raised beds will need to be filled to within two inches of the top so plan on mixing several wheel boroughs full of soil. Make sure you do not compact the soil once you place it in your garden. Plants love loose mixes and they will grow much faster in soils that are not compacted.

Other soil amendments such as mushroom composts, organic earthworm castings, bone, blood, and fish meals, Black Kow are all very helpful, and I am sure many of you have used them in the past and swear by them. If so, go ahead and add them. However, I have found the mix that I have mentioned here to be more than adequate. Now you are ready to install the plants you have decided to use. This is the fun part. Do not push them into the soil too far and make sure you water them in and space them properly.

Growing your own plants can be challenging, but once you follow my instructions above, you will not have to worry about weed seeds, nematodes, or fungal problems injuring your new plants. When your plants start to grow you will be amazed at how well they do. Yes, you will still have to add fertilizer, including liquid fertilizer mixed at one-half strength every two weeks, and you will have to monitor for plant diseases and insects. However, this is part of gardening and so is reaping the benefits of your hard work…a bounty in about ninety days after planting. Good luck and remember, without plants we would not be here.

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