Another take on urban gardening

Square foot gardening promised to be much easier than the usual way city folks try to grow veggies in their backyard. I don't want to figure out the pH balance of my soil, nor do I want to spend evenings weeding and fertilizing.

Finding your green thumb, 1 square of veggies at a time

Green shoots are seen popping up through the author's square foot garden this year. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

Before I planted my "square foot" vegetable garden, I didn't understand my neighbour's glee when a squirrel zapped itself on the power lines, plummeting to its death and plunging my block into darkness.

At the time, squirrels were a playful ode to nature in the city. Now they are menaces, methodically digging holes in each of the 36 squares of my new garden.

I still don't think of myself as a gardener. The former owner of my house filled the yard with drought-hardy plants that require little work on my part. My contribution was to plant annuals in pots on my back deck. If I bought a basil or rosemary plant, it was dead by mid-July.

I admire the movement toward buying organic, locally grown produce. Once a week in the summer, I put my daughter in a stroller and walk to the farmers' market to pick up fresh beans or zucchini. But honestly, the rest of the year I just grab what's easy and affordable at the supermarket.

My stepmother — who encourages people in her hometown to grow their own food — told me about square foot gardening. The concept was tempting: a grid of tightly packed squares, each one just under one-tenth of a square metre in area, that's easier to tend than a regular vegetable garden.

Having free organic vegetables growing right outside my backdoor was appealing.

I checked out square foot gardening online and found that Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer who founded this technique in the 1970s, published a new book three years ago. Unlike other gardening books I've tried to read, All New Square Foot Gardening is written for the absolute beginner and explains every step of the process. Since I live in Calgary, I also picked up a second-hand copy of one of the late lieutenant-governor Lois Hole's books on growing vegetables in a northern climate.

Building the garden

Mel promised that square foot gardening is much easier than the usual way city folks try to grow veggies in their backyard. I don't want to figure out the pH balance of my soil, nor do I want to spend evenings weeding and fertilizing.

The foundations for the square foot garden. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

Mel also has his own website, complete with square foot gardeners ready to answer my questions in a forum. People from around the world have submitted photos of their square foot gardens, which look not only lush, but tidy and organized.

Mel recommended building raised beds out of untreated wood and marking each square foot off with strips of wood or old venetian blinds. Each square is planted with a single type of veggie.

My father-in-law and I built my square foot garden in an afternoon. We bought about $15 in untreated cedar at the local hardware store. My father-in-law built two boxes — each six by three feet in size (about 1.7 square metres each) — and stapled a weed barrier fabric to the bottom.

Meanwhile, I was at a greenhouse buying the ingredients for my "Mel's Mix." Instead of using existing soil, Mel recommends putting one-third each of vermiculite, peat moss and a variety of compost types in the raised beds. This cost about $130, which no longer made square foot gardening seem cheap.

We placed the boxes on the sunniest spot in my backyard. I mixed my Mel's Mix on a tarp and shovelled it into the boxes. Then I marked the squares with plastic twine.

Planting the seeds

My garden is small. I have only 36 squares to work with and I want my family to have homegrown vegetables all summer long. So before I began planting, I sketched out the garden and decided what I would plant in each square and when.

The garden of squares begins to take shape. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

I picked my seeds based on not only what my family likes to eat, but what seemed to be the easiest to grow in a slightly shady spot: radishes, carrots, spinach, lettuce, snap peas and swiss chard. I also bought onions in sets and found a woman living nearby who had a leftover zucchini seedling.

The counter-intuitive part of square foot gardening is that Mel insists you can grow almost everything in just six inches (15 centimetres) of soil. I didn't want to go to the extra effort of building the "highrise" Mel suggests for carrots, so I picked extra small varieties — golf-ball-sized thumbelinas and finger-length chantenay red cores.

For every vegetable Mel has already figured out how many seeds to plant in each square — from 16 carrots per square to a daunting nine squares required for just one zucchini plant. Lois Hole suggested planting most crops every two weeks in the spring for a continuous harvest. So twice a month I am crouched over my garden hoping the neighbours aren't watching as I carefully plant my pre-soaked seeds using a pair of tweezers.

Gardener vs. nature

Three weeks after I planted my first squares, most of the seedlings had popped out of the soil. The squirrels, or some other backyard threat, had probably gotten at some of the snap peas. Others likely just failed to sprout. So far, as Mel promised, I have only had to pull out a handful of weeds.

A springtime snowfall is just one of the many hazards facing the garden. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

I am proud of each struggling little plant in my garden, but I am also uncertain if any of these vegetables will make it onto our kitchen table. Since I planted the first seeds in May, Calgary has seen hail, frost warnings, and snow.

Not only could I kill my plants with my lack of gardening experience, but bugs, squirrels and birds could munch up my efforts.

Mel suggests wrestling chicken wire into protective cages to combat wildlife. For now, I have covered most of the plants with ready-made plastic row covers. That seems to have thrown off the digging squirrels, as well as my curious toddler. Jackrabbits also roam the streets of my neighbourhood.

I've never actually seen one in my backyard, but then again, I've never opened a salad bar.

Patti Edgar is a writer based in Calgary. She will update readers on her square foot garden later this summer.