Going BRO-K

It’s a mystery to me why anyone who actually knows something about gardening would bother following my misadventures here, but there is nevertheless evidence that I have an extremely well-informed readership. When I posted about testing my soil, the Starving commentariat weighed in with suggestions about raised beds, soil amendments, and no-dig techniques – complete with links to references.

And that’s where the trouble started.

Kate, who writes about, among other things, gardening at Living the Frugal Life, pointed me in the direction of the USDA website that maps our nation’s soil. After I got over my astonishment that I could ask the government what kind of dirt was in my backyard, I checked the map to find out what kind of dirt was in my backyard.

The answer is that there isn’t dirt in my backyard. What there is instead is something called Carver Coarse Sand. From the name, it didn’t sound promising, but I looked up its characteristics, hoping to find some obscure silver lining.

Carver Coarse Sand, I discovered, is made from two things: sandy glaciofluvial deposits and, for a change of pace, loose sandy glaciofluvial deposits. That translates to “what glaciers leave behind when they melt.” Glaciers, apparently, don’t contain gobs of cryonically preserved nutrients, just waiting to be released by the warmth of the sun. What they contain is sand. Carver Coarse Sand.

But maybe, I thought, that was just the top layer. Perhaps underneath there was something more valuable. I scanned down the page listing the characteristics of Carver Coarse Sand.

Here’s what it said:

Typical Profile:
0 – 7 inches: Coarse sand
7 – 17 inches: Coarse sand
17 – 64 inches: Coarse sand

And then it added, “Ha ha!”

Okay, not that last part, because the government is circumspect about laughing at the agronomical plight of taxpayers. But I can read between the lines.

My first impulse, when I read about Carver Coarse Sand, was to put the house up for sale and start looking at real estate in, say, the Willamette Valley. But then I reasoned that other people on Cape Cod manage to have gardens, and I didn’t think their soil could be so much different from mine.

To test this theory, I went back to the soil map and looked in the backyard of my friends Al and Christl, who have the best garden I’ve ever seen. I felt like a voyeur doing this, as though if I zoomed in far enough I’d catch them cavorting in the gazebo, so I quickly got the information I needed and zoomed out again.

It turned out that Christl built her garden on something called Hinesburg Sandy Loam, a substance made of “ loose sandy glaciofluvial deposits over hard loamy glaciolacustrine deposits.” I could figure out that “glaciolacustrine” meant that the stuff came from glacial water that hung around long enough to form a lake but, embarrassingly, I had to look up exactly what loam is. I discovered that it is a mix of the small particles that form clay, the large particles that form sand, and the medium-size particles that form silt.

I hadn’t known that there were so many fine distinctions among what are basically teeny little rocks, but it turns out that those distinctions are important. When your soil is too sandy like, say, Carver Coarse Sand, it is, according to the USDA spec sheet, “Excessively drained.” When it’s loamier, like Hinesburg Sandy Loam, it’s “Well drained.”

So Christl definitely had a leg up, but not enough of one that I should give up and move to Oregon. Nowhere in her soil description were words like “verdant” or “fecund.” There were still lots of teeny little rocks.

So I was back to square one, figuring out what kinds of amendments and techniques might make for a better harvest.

That’s where astute commenter Kingsley comes in. Replying to other commenters who suggested raised beds, Kingsley brought up the issue of money:

The thing that stops me with raised beds is the initial cost. I once had a discussion with my father (who dug the hole for his swimming pool by hand), it went something like this:

Me: “I’m planning to hire a rotary hoe for the weekend to start some garden beds”
Him: “Oh. How much is that”
Me: “About 150 dollars”
Him: “150 dollars is an awful lot of vegetables!”

So since then I now think about the cost of everything added to the garden in terms of kilograms of broccoli. Raised bed “systems” can cost many many broccoli-kilograms (BRO-K).

That hit me where I live. I’m constantly weighing the value of what we grow, catch, shoot, and forage against what we build, furnish, maintain, and insure, and it generally doesn’t end well. I’ve taken some comfort in the chickens (a winner) and the lobsters (also a winner, if you don’t count the boat), but I’m afraid the losers outnumber the winners by a wide margin.

Ice-fishing, for example, has yielded a grand total of five trout. It’s cost us at least $150, and that’s not counting the beer. You’d think the sea salt would be in the plus column, what with seawater being free and all, but the gas we use to drive to the beach actually exceeds the value of the salt. I can’t tell about hunting because calculating the value of nothing – our hunting harvest thus far – is notoriously difficult.

And so I’m faced with the harsh reality of the BRO-K. At the moment, prices being what they are, a BRO-K is about $3.30. That means that, simply by getting my soil tested, I’m already ten BRO-Ks in the hole. Each yard of compost is another ten. Lumber for raised beds? Stones for terracing? Soil amendments? As Kingsley’s father would say, that’s an awful lot of vegetables.

But who the hell gardens for the money, anyway? Just asking the question misses the essence of growing things. Gardening isn’t about getting vegetables for cheap. You garden to get the backache from constant stooping. You garden to watch the fruit of your labors be destroyed by the vicissitudes of weather. You garden, above all, to insure that your surroundings have a robust population of well-fed insects.

But that one beautiful Brandywine you coax out of your Carver Coarse Sand? That makes it all worth it.

At least until after lunch, when you figure out what it cost you.

31 people are having a conversation about “Going BRO-K

  1. Before you complete the BRO-K calculations, may I suggest you take a look at the Freecycle in your area (and maybe one or two others, nearby)? Freecycle, in case you/your readers don’t know (and if you do, pardon me!) is a Yahoogroup-based mailing list on which people post offers of things they have but don’t want, or requests for things they want but don’t have.

    I have personally acquired such diverse items as a small kiln (for a friend), many, many perennial plants, even a short ton of coal for my wood/coal stove, at no more cost than whatever gas it took me to go pick the items up. All manner of things come up. I’ve even seen chickens and rabbits offered. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit, if you put up requests for lumber, or stone, or what-have-you, if you got at least SOME of it.

    • Tamar, I agree completely with Stefka. Raised beds can be made entirely with found materials. Some of the most attractive I’ve seen were made with short walls of collected stone and rocks.

      You can also make fully mature and properly heated hot compost in as little 30 days, in the middle of the woods in the winter. If you have the room for it, you can start a nice pile of cold compost that you harvest over time. If there are farms in the area, you might be able to collect all the stable bedding you can collect and carry, for free, for example.

      If you’ve got any left over from the coop, there are also a surprising number of ways to use chicken wire or hardware cloth for container planting. In fact, this is how I will eventually grow potatoes, filling tubes of wire with hay (or straw) instead of ever putting them in soil.

      You have options. πŸ™‚

  2. Sand, huh? Weeeellll…. Could you play to your strengths here? I had fun growing and eating burdock, but not wrenching it from our soil. Supposed to grow well (nice ‘n straight) in sand. You might like it. I’m thinking maybe root cover crops could be a way to add some organic matter to your soil. Oil seed radish, forage radish/daikon, burdock, maybe some others. You could broadcast the seeds, let ’em grow, chop off the greens for the chickens, at least once, maybe twice. Or better yet, rotate them around and let them harvest the green bits, and add manure while they’re at it. And then let the roots rot in the ground. Bingo, more organic matter in the soil. A pound or two of seeds ought to cover a lot of area, and they’ll certainly be cheaper and less work than the raised bed idea if you can’t get free fill. Admittedly, slower. You might have to use the technique two years in a row, but it’d be a cheap experiment, maybe offset your chicken feed costs a bit.

    If it’s any consolation though, you now have serious standing when it comes to the who’s-got-the-worst-soil pissing contest that gardeners so love to engage in. Sorry ’bout that. On the other hand, it should make you feel mighty competent that you’ve been able to grow what you have.

  3. Funny you should choose the Willamette Valley. I live in the Willamette Valley, and let me tell you- it’s on the opposite end of the soil spectrum from your Carver Coarse Sand. It’s clay. Heavy, nasty clay that sticks to your shovel, builds up on your boots and makes gardening a bit of a hell. And I don’t need the USDA website to tell me (how the hell do you use that thing anyway?). I live 150 feet up, and a few hundred yards west of the Willamette River, and where the soil in my backyard isn’t clay soil, it’s straight clay. Sometimes it’s gray, sometimes it’s blue, but it’s clay. In the summer, when the soil dries out in the hot, dry weather we have, it turns to concrete. The only way in is with a pickaxe because you just. can’t. get. a. shovel. into. it.

    So I went with the planter boxes thing, but I was lucky. I had a boatload of plastic decking leftover from reducing the gargantuan deck that the previous owner built to half its size. What cost a bundle was the lovely blended soil that I had to order in to fill the boxes. That was about $350 last year, then it settled, so I had to order another $350 this year. I hope I’m done ordering soil.

    Other than that, the Willamette Valley is famous for growing just about anything you want to grow. Between the climate and the expensive soil, I had a pretty decent garden last year.

    Now if we could just manage to trade a couple dump trucks full of our soils, we both might have something.

  4. Love the thoughtful tackling of this issue. I live in northern California (the silicon valley) where we have comparatively few soil (or weather) woes, but we do pay for this blessing in land prices.

    I wonder if you’ve read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith? It’s a bit of a manifesto, but if you can stomach it makes some great points about the true costs of grains and monocropped commercial agriculture. I doubt your expensive (future) veggies would seem so pricey if we all had to shoulder the true costs of food purchased at the grocery store. (Or if vegetable prices weren’t all driven down by big agribusiness?)

    Good luck with your Carver Coarse Sand!

  5. You might check with horse stables in the area. Some use clay for bedding, or for stall foundations. Any discards of bedding or urine-soaked clay should be welcome amendments to your garden – the clay to hold moisture, the nitrogen and carbons to support vigorous plant growth.

    Your city/community might have aggregations of grass clippings or chipped wood trimmings that would make mulch now, and increase the carbon as it gets incorporated into the soil with every turning. Tree trimming services might have a lead or two, also, for chipped wood ready to use for mulching.

    Construction sites (if there are any, this last year or more) are famous for scraps of lumber – which can make some nice raised beds, cheap. It still costs, but you can trade some of your time looking for resources for the money you would pay at the convenient retail outlet.

    And do look into kitty litter (clay), vermiculite and perlite as soil amendments to hold moisture. And hardwood type mulch for long term carbon enrichment. And consider farming worms to generate high-quality soil enrichment.

  6. Now let me get this straight… You get to live by the ocean, you moved to the beach, and now you complain that it’s sandy at the beach. Some people are just hard to please!

    But seriously, and on a more positive and potentially constructive note… Some good ideas from Brad and others. Rather than importing soil in bags, maybe you can build up your own over the next couple years. Leaves, grass clippings, manure, straw, etc. I think you once mentioned kelp washing up now and then. Any significant quantities? And are there any fish processing places nearby that could provide scraps by the bucketful? Any of your neighbors who are are commercial fishermen ever have bycatch that’s past its expiration date?

    Maybe try using a tiller to force-feed your soil lots of this stuff, and then there you go. In the long run, that might be easier and less expensive than building raised beds and filling them with imported dirt.

    By the way, thanks for that great link to the USDA website. Just tried it, and was amazed at the kind of info they provide. They should publicize that more. Definitely a good use of our tax dollars. Confirmed that we, too, live in a glacial outwash area with lots excessively drained sand. Oh, well. At least fewer worries about flooded basements.

  7. I think I’ve been missing something and it’s finally dawning…You know when two people are saying different things but think they’re having the same conversation?

    I’ve built raised beds out of free stuff, but I haven’t just filled them with bought in topsoil. My clay (Paula has my sympathies) is slowly being improved- and the soil level raised- by cheap local manure, cheap bulk compost from a municipal composting scheme and free composted chicken manure, free garden compost and free bokashi (I use home fermented newspaper rather than the expensive inoculated bran).
    I was meaning that you should add to them as and when with whatever is available to improve fertility, water retention and nutrient levels. Loam is good, and eventually you will achieve sandy loam rather than just sand.
    I’ll probably spend $40-60 on compost this spring but that’ll benefit me for years, not just this year, which reduces my overall BRO-K as well as giving me vegetables I can be proud of.

    The benefit at the moment is that I concentrate the improvers only where I want them, as well as the fact I find it more manageable and I can get my head round crop rotation etc more easily in definite beds rather than the classic one big square you usually get on allotments here. That’s just me, but also I’m not walking on the soil I will want to plant, etc etc. So perhaps not raised beds as much as a defined bed system. Eventually my drainage will improve too, but I appreciate that- ahem!- that’s not exactly an issue for you…

    So I do agree with Al, I was just being a bit more prescriptive about where you should apply the fish guts and manure.

    • Hazel —

      Maybe I was the one who jumped to conclusions. I once knew someone who lived in a spot with just a few inches of soil on top of bedrock. The foundation of their house was literally bolted down. When they wanted a garden, their first step was to build raised beds and fill them with a couple truckloads of black dirt. So then when I saw “raised beds,” that’s immediately what I thought.

      I must do a search for bokashi and home-fermented newspaper. Now that sounds interesting.

      • No problem! I was happily wittering away knowing what I meant and I suddenly realised I sounded like the kind of gardener who feels the need to buy matching cream enamelled buckets labelled kindling/vegetables/ash/fresh apples like this http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&biw=1416&bih=757&tbs=isch:1&sa=1&q=enamel+buckets+vegetables,+kindling&btnG=Search&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq= (Although Tamar if you scroll down there is on labelled oysters should you feel the need?)

        Re: newspaper bokashi. I wanted to have a couple of bokashi buckets for food waste that can’t go in the regular compost heap or to the chickens or dogs for whatever reason. The bokashied food speeds up the composting process when added to a compost bin, and I also use the bokashi ‘juice’ to feed plants and my dog bin…
        They’re pretty pricey though, and I didn’t want the regular cost of the ‘special’ lacto-bacteria inoculated bran you sprinkle on each layer. I found directions for how to make a newspaper alternative using yoghurt whey here http://newspaperbokashi.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/starting-a-newspaper-bokashi-bucket/ Look at the next 2 posts as well for directions on the actual newspaper bit. Some people shred the newspaper, but I’ve found it works fine with smallish squares though, which are easier to handle and store.

        We don’t have that much waste food that doesn’t go in the compost bins, chickens/ducks, dogs or children, but it’s useful for what we do have. You can bokashi (I assume it’s a verb and a noun) anything, but we’d fill up a bucket far too quickly with peelings and veg waste.

        Hope that’s useful!

  8. So, I’ve got this great idea for a reality TV show. Garden Makeover Extreme (GME, pronouned ‘gimme’), and I’m the first subject. All you guys descend on my house and figure out all the things that are wrong and how to fix them. Then you and your minions do all the work implementing the solutions, and I beam and hold back tears when I see the result — rows of unblemished vegetables growing in dark, rich soil. I think it’s a winner!

    I think there are lots of changes we can make for relatively little money. We’ve had a lot of practice raiding the dump, getting these cheap at yard sales, and making do with what we already have.

    Our dump has a composting program, and we’ve used it quite a bit. Last year, it was full of plastic bits and we were a little hesitant — what else might be in it if you find a working Bic pen? — but we’ll probably go back this year. We have some freebie lumber leftover from the hoophouse foundation, and we may put that to use in a raised bed. We have access to seagrass for mulch, and fish guts for compost. (And Al, your point about moving to the beach and then complaining about the sand is well-taken. But I’m still reserving the right to complain about it.)

    Kate, your point about the burdock is a good one. I think I’ve only had burdock once (it was when I was hired, years ago, to write food descriptions for http://www.freshdirect.com, and to my lot fell the root vegetables), but I can imagine many uses for it.

    I very much appreciate the suggestions, one and all. I was about to go research Hazel’s fermented newspaper, but then I saw that Al was going to check into it and I don’t want to duplicate our labor. Al, let us know what you find, will you? Or, better yet – Hazel, what’s up with that? I’ve fermented many things, both deliberatey and accidentally, but never newspaper.

    • pickled burdock may be 2-3% of heaven. just saying. Also? brewster has an excess of awesome compost, and plastic is AWESOME in compost! (retains heat). Why… some people add it on purpose!

  9. Hell Ya! That end bit reminded me a lot of the President’s speech in Independence Day! God I’m cultured!

    Keep diggin’ girl.

  10. Don’t forget that BRO-Ks are much cheaper when you’re talking about Local, Organic, Fresh-picked produce.

    Our soil is clay + bedrock. Paula has my sympathies.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this all morning.

    Why do I slave away in the vegetable garden for so little reward? It’s cheaper/easier/faster to just go and buy the stuff from the supermarket. I don’t really have an answer. Although foods like corn-on-the-cob and tomatoes are completely craptastic from the supermarkets.

    What I was aiming for in this gardening year (soon passing into Autumn) was to create some kind of abundance. I had great plans of growing enough basil and oregano such that I could dry it. I dreamed of 20 metre long rows of giant corn stalks, buckets of tomatoes, bright red chillies, and enough capsicums to roast and bottle.

    The only thing that really didn’t suck were my potatoes. A few buckets full of Kipflers(sp?) were all that elevated my efforts from “utter failure” to “partial minor success”. The kids actually seemed to enjoy being sent down for potato digging duty too. I didn’t expect that.

    This was my first year on virgin soil. I now know I need more compost, water and better fences. I might have a go at some winter cabbages, and perhaps broccoli.

    I wonder if I could make mud bricks to use these for raised beds πŸ˜‰

  12. At gardening college we learned there’s no such thing as the perfect growing soil. If it holds nutrients, it gets waterlogged and stays cold. If it’s free draining, it warms up quick but it’s hungry all the time. I hope that’s some small consolation.

    I’ll spare you my gardening advice as you have lots already from more knowledgeable sources than me. Except to say, if I were you, I would be pestering Al & Crystl as they’re in the same gardening boat (or should it be wheelbarrow), and hey they grow great stuff – we’ve seen the photographs!

    Re. the BRO-K – I don’t know how you quantify and assign a value to quality of life aspects of gardening. Improved health and mental well-being must have financial worth as well as its more esoteric value. If only you had, say, a husband with experience of assigning monetary value to commodities…

    There is a book, something like “The $150 Tomato” where the author added up his own costs of producing a homegrown crop of tomatoes.

    Thanks too for my new favorite word of the week: glaciolacustrine.

  13. I’m about to begin building our new raised bed garden at our new house. I’ll keep a spreadsheet of the cost and share it with the group.

  14. When i was younger we visited a woman’s farm in Brisbane that was amazing. One of the tricks they used to create beds was to lay organic matter (the stuff you might find in your compost bin) into piles, then cover with black plastic for a few weeks, to let the heat generate and create something you can grow veg in. It was extremely exciting to see how simple the system was an then to see what she grew. I wonder if this system could work for you, and think if it could it would be a cheap way of starting.

    • I use this method to kill weeds.

      A few metres of black plastic and the summer sun has all the weeds composting in a matter of weeks. It’s much a more comprehensive result than digging + hand weeding.

  15. Interesting post – I’ve also been thinking about Bro-K recently (though I didn’t use such an excellent name) as I make my own stuff quite a lot (bread, soap, shower gel, cheese) and people invariably ask if its cheaper. It is a very good question but i think one that is almost impossible to answer as far too many variables are involved. Take your salt for instance, you say that the petrol money is more than the salt. But where you going to the beach anyway, or you solely go for the purpose of getting the salt, and straight back? What salt did you compare it to? I assume supermarket salt, which cannot be as good as your own. Did you consider the petrol of getting to the supermarket?

    I recently was asked about breadmaking at home. When compared to horrible, long life, cheap stuff you get in a supermarket, mine is far more expensive, but when you compare it to bread made with organic flour and extra virgin olive oil, mine is far cheaper when you look at price for ingredinets. Then you get into time, price for the electric oven, which is just silly as no-one factors in petrol to the supermarket and the time spent getting past idiots that seem to enjoy placing their trolley sideways to block the largest amount of space in the aisle.

    And lets no forget that if we took Bro-K to its extreme we could end up thinking things like “How much for a kitchen? That is a lot of ready meals/take aways…”

    • Javier — We’ve asked most of those questions ourselves. What exactly goes into the BRO-K calculation (and we can thank Kingsley for that coinage)? It gets especially difficult when we do things that involve a boat — once you start trying to amortize that, you’re sunk (so to speak) in the BRO-K department, even for expensive items like lobsters and striped bass.

      But the salt earns its keep as a conversation piece, and the lobsters get us exercise. The chickens are charming and the tomatoes are very, very good (even if there are bloody few of them). And, as Kingsley pointed out in an earlier comment, doing things like this gives us occasional abundance, which is very luxurious.

  16. This is a great post Tamar and the comments are fascinating too. I agree with you, the outgoings and labour can be horrendous. BUT once you have things in place and the right tools etc these capital costs are small if you think of them as a ten year investment.

    The most important thing to remember is that you are learning to survive, becoming less dependant on supermarkets and gradually more self sufficient. Each year I learn more – generally through my mistakes.

    Last year, like you I realised that a lot the soil in our growing space was of a poor quality. Until then I just sowed my seeds and hoped that magically they would thrive. Now finally I’m concentrating more on the soil than the plants, looking at how to make better compost with what I find lying around. I had no idea that adding straw to a compost heap almost guarantees great compost until this morning πŸ™‚

    With the appalling economic climate, each step that we make towards a more rounded sustainable life is significant.

  17. I’m assuming you bury all your fish racks in garden areas, or you can make a fish gurry(old fish heads and racks in water) in a 50 g barrel for fertilizer, although this usally doesn’t smell too good while marinating

  18. Ah, nothing tastes better then home grown veggies. We made some raised beds at our old house in AZ. The soil was so poor it was ridiculous. We live in the Willamette valley and have soil that my mom drools over. There is a river very close to us. The bad side of our sandy loamy soil is it drains water pretty fast so in the hot summers you have to water more. My mom lives about 30 minutes from us and she has clay soil. In her designated veggie garden area you wouldn’t know that as she has spent the last 30 years putting horse manure in the ground. Her garden looks like a jungle on steroids every summer.

  19. Interesting post. With sandy coastal soils, your cost/benefit will improve annually (to a point) if you keep returning more organic material to the soil. I started a new garden plot last year and had the opposite (so to speak) poor soil – stony clay. With the cost of the raised beds and compost, I barely broke even.

    This year, output will probably double the expenses. Year 3 may be even better.

    Coastal alluvial sands are quite arable but not exactly fertile soils. Give it time, and give it manure.

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