The second step in my community garden site preparation was to figure out a way to increase water retention — this may be the ONLY place you ever see water retention listed as a positive. Garden boxes apparently have a tendency to dry out more quickly than fully in-ground gardens. Blend that with the fact that we have to lug our water to the garden in buckets from a hose across the street, and you have significant incentive to find ways to limit water loss.
One of the fellows in the 16 Oaks Community Garden showed me what he’d done, mixing in a bunch of peat moss with the soil. His test showed that it did help keep the area damp and the area below the peat mixture was totally dry. On my next trip out to the nursery I was checking out the peat moss options when I noticed a peat alternative, made of coconut husks (coir). Cool! I’d read that peat moss is a diminishing resource so finding an alternative was a pleasant surprise. I mean, coconuts just keep growing, right? (Though there are no perfect answers, as you’ll recognize if you think about the carbon miles required to bring coconut coir to your local gardening shop.)
I picked up a couple of packages of Beats Peat, which are highly compressed bricks of the stuff which have to be soaked before being blended in with your soil. My first attempt consisted of dropping the bricks into my still-void-of-compost box and pouring copious amounts of water over them in order to soak them. It took a lot of lugging of water (see water source note, above) and, after a couple of hours, not much result.
I poked and prodded them with a rake in order to break them up as they became saturated, but it was slow going and I didn’t get far before I decided to soak them in a large plastic bucket overnight. Next day I took each brick out, and raked it apart. It was yet another prison-labour-camp exercise in back breaking work.
Right about the time I was finishing up the last of the 8 total bricks, a fellow garden I’ve seen around stopped by.
“Hey, I used that stuff too, it’s great. Yup, just soaked it in a barrel until it was soup, then poured it over the soil.” What?! I’d soaked and raked and soaked and raked. Dang! If I’d just done some research I’d have doubtless come across the watching-paint-dry-video that showed the quick(er) way to do it.
There’s lots more info on coconut coir and how it use it in the garden, with a quick Internet search.