Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. With my garden this seems to be true. The problem I faced was a strange one: the only good place for me to put my garden was over the septic tank drain field. The University of Minnesota Extension Service advises that doing so is a definite no-no. It seems that there is some potential for something nasty from the septic system to contaminate the vegetables. Mr. Potato Head didn't like the idea of contaminated vegetables, but the area over the drain field was still the only good place to put the garden. I needed to find some way to eliminate the potential contamination from the septic system. I also knew that sometimes septic systems needed work and that whatever I did might need to be moved. Also, Mr. Potato Head is a cheapskate; whatever I did needed to be reasonable in price.
So I had three important needs: it needed to protect the vegetables from the nasty septic system, it needed to be moveable, and it needed to be cheap. Anything made with cement was quickly ruled out as not very moveable and not very cheap. I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about building something out of wood. Wood might work, but it also had some problems. Wood rots when exposed to moisture unless it is treated. Some of the treatments that keep wood from rotting are very toxic. Food shouldn't be grown around things like old rail road ties. The treated lumber that is sold today no longer has arsenic in it, so it is generally safe to use in gardens. I decided that I could use treated lumber and started planning how to build nice raised beds for my garden. It was going to take a lot of lumber. Did I mention that I am a cheapskate? The lumber was going to be more than I wanted to spend.
Then I had my "ah ha" moment. I remembered the old wooden half barrels that garden centers sell for flower planters. I also remembered seeing a demonstration of someone making a rain barrel out of a recycled plastic 55 gallon barrel. Why couldn't I make planters out of recycled 55 gallon plastic barrels? They would protect the vegetables, be moveable and be cheap. Perfect!
I shopped around and found I could get food-grade plastic 55 gallon barrels from a plastics recycler in St. Cloud. They were $10 each, but I negotiated a volume discount. I brought 22 of these babies home and went to work. I cut them in half with a circular saw and organized them into three rows right over the top of my drain field. I made a mixture of equal parts of peat moss, composted cow manure and garden soil and filled them up. Knowing this would make a slightly acid soil, I added a little lime. The last thing I did was to add some drainage to the containers by drilling holes along the bottom part of the sides. The idea was to let the excess moisture out without letting anything bad from the septic system in. Then I planted.
How is it working? I think it is going pretty well, but it is too soon to say for sure. Some things are off to a great start. I am enjoying my first planting of radishes, spinach and lettuce. My cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes look great. My peas, beans and carrots are up, but they seem to be growing slowly. The containers dry out more quickly, so I think I need to watch them carefully if there isn't much rain. I have had fewer weeds and those that I do have are much easier to pull because I don't have so far to bend over! I guess the best way to summarize my experiment is to say that it is different, but it is working. I also have a "regular" garden on a space I borrowed from my neighbors, so I have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.
Next week: What to do with all of the lettuce growing in your garden? Make a salad with your own salad dressing. It is healthier, cheaper and tastes better than anything you can buy.
If you have gardening questions or suggestions for Mr. Potato Head please e-mail him at
Mr. Potato Head is Stearns County Master Gardener and Kimball resident Rick Ellis.