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always things people are throwing out. I've done that in India, Haiti, Argentina, Nepal, Thailand, Ghana, and even in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York City, so don't be afraid to go, look, and ask—it's out there.


COFFEE GROUNDS AND FREE BUCKETS Anyplace people gather, there will be waste thrown out. Check out farmer's markets, local fairs or street carnivals, flea markets, even places like Starbucks (guess what they would have for you there?). In addition to compost material, many of these restaurant-type of places have big buckets used for pickles, mayonnaise, or oil that make great water buckets-all free for the asking.

The second ingredient in Mels Mix is peat moss. Its a natural material occurring on the earth that has been made after millions of years from decomposing plant material. You can usually determine how old peat moss is by measuring how deeply its buried. It is commonly used in agriculture to improve existing soils because it makes them lighter, more friable, and water retentive.

There are plenty of debates about the use of peat moss because its a nonrenewable resource. Because there is a limit to this valuable material I'd like to guide you in using it responsibly while maximizing its benefits.

Only a Little

The new SFG method uses only 20 percent of the space of traditional single-row gardens. Therefore, you automatically use only 20 percent—one-fifth—as much peat moss, an 80 percent reduction. In addition, with Square Foot Gardening, you add peat moss once and only once when you first create your Mels Mix. Thereafter, you 11 never need to add peat moss to the garden. (What you will add is compost, which is renewable.)

In the United States, most peat moss comes from the northern states and Canada where it is still readily available. Because its such a valuable resource, SFG says lets not waste it. Instead lets get rid of all single-row gardens that require five times as much nonrenewable materials to improve the soil year after year. Lets be conservative and sensible and use what we have, a beneficial, natural material, but make it longer lasting.

3 Vermiculite

Vermiculite, the third and final ingredient in Mels Mix, is also a natural material and is obtainable all over the world. Its mica rock mined out of the ground. Once the rock is collected, it is then ground up into small particles and heated until it explodes just like

The Backbone of the Square Foot Gardening Method popcorn, forming small pieces from as large as the tip of your little finger down to almost a powder. However, this material is filled with nooks and crannies, just like an English muffin. These nooks and crannies hold a tremendous amount of water and yet can breathe, making the soil extremely friable and loose. The moisture is always there for the roots to absorb. Remember that roots don't grow through soil; they grow around soil particles. That's why plants do better in a loose, friable soil because the roots have an easy time growing.


Vermiculite is graded into several sizes—fine, medium, and coarse— and is also tested and qualified for different types of uses. The coarse agricultural grade holds the most moisture while, at the same time, giving the most friability to the soil mix. You may find that some stores do not carry vermiculite. If you ask them why, you might hear a story that started many years ago when one mine in Montana was shut down because part of the mine was found to contain asbestos. Now, shutting down a mine because it contains asbestos makes sense.

However, some newspaper stories associated the problem with all of the products coming from the mine. Although the mine was shut down and the industry has produced a great deal of evidence that the contamination was not in the vermiculite, the story surfaces every few years as if it was new thereby getting everyone upset all over again. It was a serious situation, but as a result, the good news is that all the vermiculite mines around the world and products sold are now meticulously inspected by everyone; the bags we buy now even come with a "Certified Asbestos Free" sticker.

Locating it can be difficult. Let your fingers do the walking and call around. Call all the major nurseries, garden supply centers, and major home improvement stores and try to get the garden manager on the phone and ask them if they carry the large 4-cubic-foot bags of coarse vermiculite because you're building a Square Foot Garden. If that fails, look under "greenhouse supplies or suppliers' in the yellow pages for wholesale distributors. Some people have found it at farm feed stores or even on the Internet.

There is one caution when you mix it, and it is the same caution with peat moss. Both materials are dusty when dry right out of the bag so wear gloves and a painting mask. Mix only outdoors on a calm day.

Perlite Instead of Vermiculite?

Perlite is another natural material mined out of the earth and used in agriculture for the same purpose as vermiculite—to break up and loosen poor soils and to retain moisture. I personally don't like or use

perlite, and here's why. It is hard as a rock, rather coarse and gritty, and I don't like the feel of it in the soil mix. It doesn't hold moisture like vermiculite. In addition, it floats to the top of the soil mix as you water your garden and because it's white, it looks rather unsightly and unnatural. And it makes me sneeze! Many people do use perlite instead of vermiculite and, in fact, most of the commercial mixes are made with perlite. It's a matter of preference and availability, but I know which one I'm buying.

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