As the spruces that line the south side of our property grew, they increasingly shaded and gradually shortened the growing season of the vegetable garden until the time that no tomato would ever ripen again in that spot. The trees must stay, as they’ve always sheltered pairs of cardinals and mourning doves. I relocated the garden this year.

The Breakthrough

The original beds were built of concrete blocks, 3 slightly-raised rectangles each 4 feet wide but of varying orientations and lengths of 4, 12 and 16 feet. After growing everything from corn to squash in them for 10 years, I knew exactly what I liked about those beds but mostly what I didn’t. Low beds kept me on my knees. Four feet was too wide for the arms of a 5’2″ gardener. Rabbits could be discouraged with chicken wire, but this meant stepping over it and onto the garden soil, which compacts it. If we dared vacation in July, the weeds won.

With a book bought for 25 cents at a church fundraiser plus a couple of winter afternoons spent online, I solved all of these problems and more. The book is a 1981 edition of Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. Bartholomew, who used to raise vegetables for restaurants, had a show on PBS back then. He has refined his methods in 25-plus years but his basic challenge to home gardeners remains the same:

Why do you need rows?

Customizing the Garden

Large-scale farming requires planting in rows with ample spaces in between to accomodate machinery. Most home gardens simply don’t require anything more than pathways between planted areas. Once you realize that you don’t need rows, the objective is to grow as much produce in as little space as you reasonably can. Bartholomew’s planting method is to divide each planting space into a grid and then figuring out how much of whatever to put in each square-foot section. For example, one section would hold one pepper, 4 head lettuce, 9 bush bean or 16 onion plants.

Grid Planting System

Other ideas of Bartholomew’s that I’ve adopted include:

  • installing 6-foot trellises along the north side of each planting space for crops capable of climbing
  • rotating crops in and out of the same square all season; for example, in one square I grew 4 bok choy, then 25 baby ball-shaped carrots; now 9 lima bean plants occupy it
  • storing seeds in the fridge, which Bartholomew says will help them remain viable for 4-5 years
  • Some of his methods don’t work for me (hence the more generic term “space intensive”). Bartholomew uses 4’x4′ planting boxes, but as I’ve mentioned before that’s too much of a stretch. He currently uses boxes that are 6″ deep–he must not like carrots!–but I had my heart set on something taller. Instead of soil, he’s formulated what he calls “Mel’s mix” made of equal parts peat, coarse vermiculite and compost but in view of the taller boxes and cost involved, I opted to keep my dirt (a hard, hard clay) and amend it heavily with the mix. Using much of the original soil also ensured that earthworms were introduced into the boxes.

    I dug out a 20’x6′ area against the south wall of the house, 4-6″ deep (to keep the slope) and lined the hole with landscape fabric. Then I placed three 4’x2′ boxes made with cut, stacked 2’x8′ lumber in the hole, careful to space the boxes 18 inches from the wall and two feet from each other. My husband and son built the boxes and painted them with boiled linseed oil. Behind each box I installed the trellises and in between the boxes I placed two round, flexible 29-inch-tall composters fixed at a 1-foot diameter. I filled my containers with amended soil, then filled what was left of the dug-out path area with wood mulch.

    Stackable Hinges for Grow Boxes
    The stackable corners are from Lee Valley Tools. I don’t believe I’ve seen them anywhere else, and I did a lot of looking.

    Composter
    Customers who bought this composter discovered that it’s a great raised-bed planter for potatoes and strawberries. Mine hold strawberries.

    Mel's
    “Mel’s Tomato Tower” trellises use galvanized electrical conduit pipe and a 7-inch nylon mesh.

    My Results

    garden side view

  • Parts of my garden were a little over-crowded, due in some cases to my deliberately pushing the envelope, in others because I grew some crops and flowers that were new to me and I didn’t fully realize their space requirements. One of the latter were nasturtiums. I tried them as a novelty because their flowers are edible (they taste radish-y and add color to salads). Mine were labeled “cherry red” but are actually a very deep pink. They are easy to grow, will climb a trellis if encouraged and/or spill over the box dramatically by mid-summer, so I like them just to look at, too.
  • nasturtiums

  • To my surprise, the rabbits will in fact rear up onto the box to ravage the tops of the carrots. They only did that once and the carrots were ready so it did not affect that harvest.
  • The bane were the bean leaf beetles, which not only took me by surprise but also at least 20% of my bean yield. Luckily, the president of the local garden club introduced himself at our garage sale last week and after a quick look, graciously offered a bit of advice that’s in tune with organic standards. I’ll be ready for them next year (hint: think Jerry Baker.)
  • garden box

  • Speaking of beans, planting the pole beans on the trellises is brilliant and I will probably never plant a bush green bean again. As I understand it from Mel, pole beans were the original and bush beans were developed for tractor farming. That’s why the bush beans are ready almost all at the same time. The pole beans, however, bloom and grow over the whole span of the season. On one 6-foot trellis at peak I pick a couple handsful every day or two for thin-young-n-fresh, a couple times a week for a colander full of mature-but-not-dead beans. They are never stringy, but must be sorted (this year anyway) to remove the badly beetled ones.
  • I have pulled maybe two weeds from the boxes during the past month. There were a lot in the spring but they were easy to spot in the raised beds, then easily and completely removed from the amended soil.
  • Environmental Implications

    After I gave up growing veggies on the “back 40” but before the major space-intensive venture, I began growing tomatoes and peppers in oversized pots on the deck. I still do. Container gardening is super-easy because you have very little area to weed and water, and it only takes a few steps and a few minutes outside to check on the plants. The grow-boxes are just an expansion on the theme.

    Besides the ease of maintenance there’s a degree of frugality and conservation that really appeals to me. I not only compost my own kitchen and yard waste, but have taken on that of a friend who lives in an apartment. And the watering! Mel Bartholomew recommends watering with “a cup and a bucket of sun-warmed water.” My water gets plenty warm in my 60-gallon rain barrel. I also use the water from my basement de-humidifier.

    Rain Barrels
    The Great American Rain Barrel Company recycles food-grade barrels that were once used to ship olives.

    Another moisture-saving measure is mulching around each plant as it gets big enough not to get lost. I used grass clippings mostly, but the same friend who brings over her kitchen scraps for composting also contributed to the mulching effort with a leftover bag of cat litter made entirely from dried orange peels. (She hadn’t liked using it with her cats because it doesn’t clump.) It breaks down a little faster than the clippings and it smells nice.

    The inherent frugality of space-intensive growing–and especially of the Square Foot method–lends itself well to export. Bartholomew’s current mission is to eliminate hunger through his Global Gardening Program, a project of the non-profit Square Foot Gardening Foundation:

    A garden of one square meter utilizing compost as an inexpensive and natural growing soil, planted intensively and continually with a variety of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, can provide better nutrition as well as a potential source of income. Based on the Square Foot Method, the system is easily converted to Square Meters and works in all parts of the world.

    How to build boxes from available materials.
    Square foot (or square meter) boxes can be built with whatever materials are on hand, including bamboo.

    What’s Next

    wildflowers out back

    Because of the relatively tiny time commitment to the vegetables, I was able to maintain a halfway-decent looking wildflower garden in the old raised beds in the shade. Fate kept me from a rain garden seminar last spring, but I’m going to try again to attend one and put in a low-maintenance, shade perennial rain garden ASAP. I have yard space for up to three more of the veggie planting boxes against the house and hope to put all three in next spring but did I mention that I do all this digging by hand? It’s just me and my [unreadable]-year-old body, a shovel and my Garden Claw Gold (R) so I have to be realistic (although the Claw (R), which I got for Mother’s Day two years ago, is really really handy).

    the claw

    Happy Gardening!