The first time Dean Hale tried to grow broccoli, he kept getting flowers instead.
"I thought I must have had a defective plant," he said with a laugh.
Turns out, he was trying to plant the staple vegetable too late in the year. The warm Ontario weather was causing the plant to flower, making it inedible and bitter.
These days, Hale knows the prime season to plant broccoli. He also can tell you how to coax cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and dozens of other crops from a plot in your very own backyard using a simple concept called square-foot gardening.
The concept of square-foot gardening has been around for decades. Rather than wrestling with an unruly backyard that is often full of clay, compacted soil and other impediments to growing crops, novice gardeners can build a raised bed filled with ideal soil.
Using wire to make a grid on the bed, the first-time farmer then plants a different crop in each square, according to pre-determined specifications. For example, in a one-foot square you can grow either a single broccoli plant or 16 carrots.
Hale's business, Growing Green Hamilton, launched this year. For a fee — a 4 foot by 4 foot plot costs $200 until April 10 — he'll build you a square-foot garden box of your own, complete with his no-brainer soil blend and a wealth of knowledge from his many years of experience. Hale ran a hobby farm before moving to Hamilton with his wife so she could study at McMaster University.
"I was trying a lot of different methods on the hobby farm, like row gardening, but I found that with square-foot gardening, once you get it set up, it really takes a lot of guesswork out of growing food," he said.
Despite the small size of the gardens, they can yield a high volume of crops.
Hale recommends rotating crops for different times of year. In the spring and fall, while it's cool, veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and carrots thrive. During the summer, it's better to switch them out for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and artichokes.
"One four-by-four garden is definitely going to provide you with enough produce to have a salad for the entire family every day of the summer," Hale said, and once it's in, a square-foot garden can last up to six years before you need to replenish the soil.
"A lot of it you can freeze — peas, spinach — and use it throughout the year."
Growing in Hamilton
Despite being a square-foot gardener for years, Hale only really embraced the idea of marketing the service when he came to Hamilton. He said it's the perfect community for this type of gardening, because so many people in the area are interested in local, organic food and being able to trace where their meal came from.
"I haven't been here that long, but from what I've witnessed, Hamilton is very supportive of entrepreneurs. I've already had a huge outpouring of support for this idea."
With food prices steadily increasing — they're expected to rise as much as four per cent in 2013 — Hale thinks his backyard gardening concept could help ease some of the pressure on household budgets. He's also aiming to connect with local community groups and churches who could set up gardens and either sell the produce or donate it directly to those in need.
It's a concept already embraced by Good Shepherd, whose Victory Gardens project produced nearly 6,000 kilograms of food in five inner city sites last year. Their crops are all donated to local food banks. Hale would like to help establish more sites like these.
"With all the space we have here [in Hamilton], I don't think there's any reason for anyone to go hungry when we can grow completely sustainable food right in our backyard."