The modest harvest of a square-foot garden

Patti Edgar reports on her first urban garden, which provided fresh vegetables for her family's table — and some valuable lessons for next year.

Small plots brought some bounty — and ideas for next year

The spinach and lettuce squares provided fresh salads for weeks. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

Getting my almost two-year-old daughter to eat vegetables is tough. So, when she refused to eat snap peas, then changed her mind after I explained they came from our garden, it felt like a small victory for square-foot gardening.

In the spring, we built and planted a so-called square-foot garden here in Calgary, faithfully following the instructions in an updated version of Mel Bartholomew's 1970s book, Square Foot Gardening.

Bartholomew encourages backyard vegetable growers to build simple shallow boxes; mark off each square foot with twine or strips of wood; fill the boxes with a mix of compost, vermiculite and peat moss; and follow the rules for how many seeds go in each square.

By summer, you should be hauling in the organic produce.

As a novice gardener, I was drawn to square-foot gardening by the promise that it was easier than growing vegetables in traditional rows. No fertilizer or pH level testing needed.

My confidence grew once my seedlings had sprouted. My biggest concern became squirrels or jackrabbits munching up my efforts. But while I could protect my garden with wire cages, the problem that cropped up later in the summer was harder to solve.

Some learning required

Through late May and early June, several squares turned lush with dark green spinach. The lettuce and swiss chard, while slower growing, also started to fill up the garden. We ate fresh salad every night for weeks. We pulled very few weeds, just as Bartholomew had promised.

But something was wrong.

What the zucchini lacked in yield, it made up for in flavour. ((Patti Edgar/CBC))

The carrots and radishes were lush on top, but as thin as a pencil tip underneath the soil. The onion sets I had planted also sprouted nice green tops, but even as they started to fall over in July, the actual bulbs themselves hadn't grown any bigger.

Suddenly, I found myself having to learn the things about gardening I had wanted to avoid in the first place. I picked up other gardening books, surfed the internet for answers and talked to other gardeners, as well as to staff at my local nursery.

I bought a soil test kit to check the pH levels. Then I "top dressed" my plants with bone meal because I was worried that the zucchini and snap peas would blossom but never fruit.

I don't know if the extra work made a difference, but we did have lots of tasty snap peas before some kind of blight hit. My zucchini plant grew to an impressive size but only produced a small crop.

Five months after I planted my first carrot seeds, I pulled them up to discover the baby and Thumbelina carrots had almost grown to full size. They just grew very slowly.

Mel's advice makes it possible

We supplemented my modest harvest with shopping trips to a weekly farmer's market, where I learned what else grows well in our climate. Next spring, I'll try some new plants, like tomatoes, winter squash and broccoli. With the exception of spinach and lettuce, I won't bother planting in two-week intervals because the growing season is so short in Calgary.

I know Mel is on to something with his square-foot gardening technique, and not only because he makes growing your own fresh, organic food seem possible for someone with a brown thumb like me.

I planted a second zucchini seedling in my home's original garden plot, right next to my new square foot garden, and gave it lots of water.

At first, the two plants grew at the same rate, but after a few weeks, the plant in my old garden slowed down. It flowered but never produced any zucchini.

I know if I had tried to grow vegetables without Bartholomew's advice, it would have ended with a heap of puny plants in my compost.

Patti Edgar is a writer based in Calgary.