And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

I built my first garden box two years ago, which coincided with the onset of the first summer in our new home. Having settled in September, there was little that we could do with the property save for putting down a thin layer of mushroom soil and reseeding with better-than-contractor quality grass seed. When the warm weather finally returned, I was itching to test my newfound freedom to plant, grow, and harvest to my heart’s desire.

There was only one small problem – I had never tried my hand at gardening before. Having grown up in the inner city, where the only grass in sight was either contained in a small park, or growing between cracks in the sidewalk, I never had the opportunity to put spade to soil when I was young. When we were young, poor, married, and renting, I once planted one of those hydroponic basil plants from the grocery store in a pot on our front porch – and, to my surprise, it grew as high as my hip, bestowing upon us a wealth of pesto that summer. That gave me the reassurance that yes, I could grow things successfully, if only I had the space and resources.

So, when it came time for us to become older, slightly less poor, married homeowners, it was an imperative that I at least try my hand at gardening. I didn’t want to rip up large tracts of our backyard, though, which is already quite modest. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, and it showed me the light.

Square Foot Gardening is a great solution when space is at a premium. Using inexpensive materials, you build a box, fill it with soil, then plant a different crop in each square foot. The first year I did this, I learned quite a few useful lessons about seed spacing, soil amendments, pest management, and growth rates. The thyme, sage, and chives that we planted two years ago have survived through two winters – so much so that the sage plant, once a resident of a single square foot of territory, now has grown to tower over five neighboring square feet. The chives, well-behaved at the beginning of spring, now bend under their own weight. These crops are performing too well for me to consider the risk of moving them, so this year I decided to build a second square foot garden, which, as a side benefit, gives me the opportunity to document the details here.

Ingredients

4 planks of cheap wood, 4 feet long
Screws
Weed blanket

Helpful: A drill

2 big bags of organic garden soil
1 bag of manure/humus (not hummus)
1 bale/bag of sphaghum peat moss
Maybe some more soil

I’ll begin with the raw materials. I started with four planks of wood, bought from the local big box hardware chain, which will run you about $5 per piece (you don’t need to get the good stuff). I chose 4 foot long pieces, which will yield a 16 square foot garden. Since I couldn’t remember where I put the screws that I had used two years ago, I had to pick up a box of deck screws for $7. The third and last piece of this puzzle is a weed blanket, which is a roll of dark fabric which will cost $15 to $25 depending on how much you buy.

Using three screws per corner, and preferably with the aid of a power drill fitted with a Phillips head screwdriver bit, join the four planks of wood together to form a square.

Take your square out to the site of your future garden (or, if it’s a nice day, just do your screwing, um, outside). Cut enough weed fabric to act as a “floor” for your square foot garden, and place the wooden frame over it. Alternatively, you can also put the frame down first, then tuck the weed blanket under the edges and corners. It’s okay if you need to cut more squares and overlap them. The purpose of the weed blanket is to serve as a barrier between your good soil and crops and the various grasses and weeds that are presently growing in your yard.

Now comes the fun part, adding the soil. Since the square foot garden is going to become a source of food, you want to select the best quality soil that’s available. I chose organic soil as my primary component, then added a bag of manure and a bag of sphagnum peat moss. The organic soil will serve as a home for your seeds and plants, but the manure will feed, fertilize and provide essential nitrogen to your growing plantlings, and the moss will help to retain moisture in your new garden so your fragile plants don’t dry out if you get a heat wave in the early days of your garden.

Empty all of the bags into your square foot garden frame, and use either your gloved hands or a spade to mix and fold until everything is evenly distributed. If you’re not planting or seeding immediately, this would be a good time to take a hose and spray down the box until the soil is saturated. If you’re a stickler for perfection, you can drill screws into your wooden box at one-foot intervals and tie twine or kitchen string to delineate each square foot plot.

Now comes the really fun part. Go to the nursery, buy some seeds and herb plants, and get down with your bad garden box building self. Take note of what you are planting – vegetables that need a lot of growing space, such as zucchini, won’t do well in a box environment. Pay close attention to seed spacing – you want to plant one (at most, two) seeds every inch in your chosen square foot plot. For my first square foot garden, I planted carrots, and did not heed the “one seed per hole” rule, and ended up with spindly carrots that looked like little orange mechanical pencil leads.

If this is your first garden box, here are some helpful hints. Plant things that you know that you’re going to welcome and use in the kitchen – so thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary are good “universal” herbs, and then branch out by choosing some seeds or plants that you’d like to try. Definitely include leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which offer a sustainable crop of salad ingredients throughout the summer. Generally, it’s better just to buy herb plants at a nursery or garden center and replant them, since they’ve gotten a head start on growing in a greenhouse for a few weeks. The basil, especially, will be a source of pride for your green thumb, since the warm weather makes new growth on basil plants an almost daily occurrence.

And lastly, don’t ever, ever plant mint in your garden. Even though I thought I had pulled every inch of mint root from my first box, I’m still finding it cropping up in the strangest places, and nowhere near where I had initially planted it.

You can find Square Foot Gardening at Amazon, and if you pick up a copy using this link, a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will go to support The Best Food Blog Ever. Thanks!