November 3, 2008
Some years ago, when I was dealing with some health issues, I received a gift from my daughter, the book Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. She was sending me the message that she wanted me to be well, and that I could do something about that myself: I could grow my own organic vegetables, without toxic pesticides or herbicides. At the time, organic produce was extremely limited, usually tucked into a corner of the produce department, neglected and wormy.
Our then suburban garden had a front yard and a back yard, neither of which lent themselves to rows of produce. But we had a small side yard, close to the kitchen, that received afternoon sun and was about the right size, not more than 10 by 15 feet, with access from the neighbor’s driveway and a narrow side-yard path. I plunged in, not quite knowing what I was doing. Of enormous help was my new book, Square Foot Gardening, recently revised and published by Cool Springs Press (2006).Until we moved five years later, I used this small garden as a classroom from which I learned what worked, what didn’t, and what was spectacularly successful. I learned, for example, that vegetables that take a fair amount of space like tomatoes, beans, squashes, and melons wouldn’t work in my small space. They took up too much room and limited my crop diversity. Conversely, I learned that this space and the sun it received was perfect for lettuces, herbs and a small group of green vegetables that I used for salads. I called this side-yard garden my “saladier,” the French word for salad bowl. In the early evening, after I returned home from work, I put a medium-sized basket on my arm, grabbed my red-handled snippers, and headed for my saladier, pulling and snipping a basket full of greens (sometimes flowers) for our dinner salad. Nothing could have been more refreshing or satisfying, or tasty.How to begin: I took seriously Mel Bartholomew’s advice to think in square feet, in small spaces that are easy to manage, easy to change. First I had to remove the ancient lawn and add a concrete paver path through the middle of the space, connecting it with a gate and the front walk. After installing a soaking hose about a foot deep and amending the soil, I consulted a local nursery and sent for a vegetable seed catalog. Numerous seed catalogs are available now. Some nurseries regularly carry organic seeds and starts.After some experimenting, I found that I could plant three foot rows of different lettuces in the sunnier spaces, saving the shady bed for more tender parsley, basil, mint, chives. My most successful crops included radishes, various looseleaf lettuces including oakleaf and red oakleaf, romaine, and mizuna (a favorite from the mustard family), arugula, and celery. Celery starts came from the nursery. I snipped the leaves almost daily. A row of nasturtiums separated my garden from the neighbor’s driveway, adding a border, color, and tasty flowers. Mostly I planted seeds, and found that as I usually overplanted the seeds, I had to thin the baby seedlings, which are perfect for salads. As one row (or square foot) matured beyond the eating stage, I cleaned it up and started another one, and just kept the garden going, more slowly in winter, but still producing all year.Growing one’s own produce does not have to be a major production with raised boxes (though my little garden would likely have been more productive had I used raised beds), or long rows of corn, beets and chard. Even a small space tucked into a side yard can produce a very satisfactory, healthy, garden crop. My saladier worked beautifully for me and my family.