by guest blogger Julie Malone, assistant buyer at Rodale’s and urban garden & food blogger
One day, I’ll have my dream garden. It will be lush with edible flowers, a tea garden, perfectly staked tomatoes flanked by hearty-stemmed peppers, endless grids of greens, berry bushes tucked in the peripheries, and an orchard in the background (after all, if we’re dreaming here, let’s dream big). I have no idea where this frame of reference came from, as I grew up with just a modest (but plentiful) veggie garden in the suburbs of Atlanta.
I have lived in Philadelphia for almost nine years now, with varying amounts of outdoor space. An earlier attempt at a container garden was short-lived, as my neighbors informed me that I was not, in fact, planting on my deck but on the roof of their house. Another year was a disaster as I tried (and failed) to grow peppers and tomatoes in small containers on a shady front stoop. These small disappointments made me abandon all efforts for several seasons, thinking I would never garden again until I moved out of the city. For a long time, I let the idea of my dream garden keep me from having a real garden, succumbing to a “go big or go home” mentality.
Fortunately, about four years ago, I moved into a house with a yard that is in reality limited yet by south Philly standards “HUGE” in terms of green space. It was around this time that I stumbled upon square-foot gardening, Mel Bartholomew’s method for getting the highest yields out of small spaces. His ideas were an epiphany for me, and I couldn’t wait to try it.
I soon built a raised garden bed, subscribed to a variety of wonderful non-GMO, heirloom, and USDA-certified organic seed catalogs and bought enough seeds to start a modest-size farm. Did I mention I only had a 4-by-8-foot bed to work with? That’s 32 square feet, or 32 potential varieties of plants (if you’re feeling especially adventurous!).
Square-foot gardening, or SFG, breaks your growing area into squares, with suggested max plantings per square foot (e.g. 1 tomato per square, 9 carrots per square). This method is extremely effective, as it’s bio-intensive in maximizing active growing space, holds in moisture, naturally reduces weeds, and mimics natural ecosystems (messy clusters rather than fixed rows).
Over the past four growing seasons, using the SFG method, I’ve made mistakes that in the past would have made me rip everything up and give up. However, with SFG, mistakes are contained to a single square. Better yet, the intensive-but-staggered planting techniques ensure you’ll always have something yielding enough to keep you feeling successful.
Around the same time, a friend with only a cement patio used similar theories to plant in containers around the front of her property. Her efforts have been just as successful, and we’ve both helped our friends set up gardens of their own in whatever space they have available. This past season, my fourth summer with the garden, I thought myself an expert and planted my trusty favorites (tomatoes, lots of garlic, plentiful greens and herbs, and great climbing beans), but was taught by Mother Nature not to get TOO cocky when my new crops of Malabar spinach overtook half of the garden and my teeny okra sprouts didn’t produce more than two pods.
Despite these blunders, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’ve grown braver and more efficient with each season. I might not have my dream garden yet, but I’ve continued to have success with SFG and have learned that anyone can have a beautiful, fruitful garden, no matter where he or she lives.
Tips for beginning small-space or urban gardeners:
1. Familiarize yourself with the square-foot gardening method. There’s Mel’s book, of course, but also many helpful books on container gardening (like Edible Spots & Pots and The Edible Balcony) for small spaces or urban areas. Books can be basically life changing in helping you visualize and execute the most “profitable” garden… Which brings me to…
2. Embrace staking methods. A more compact, full garden means everything must be trained to stay in its place. Try the “Florida weave” trellis method for keeping up larger top-heavy plants, such as tomatoes. Smaller stakes and twine will work for eggplant and peppers, which tend to tilt toward their fruits. Vertically strung jute is great for climbing beans.
3. Embrace mistakes. You’ll learn a lot more this way, and it’s more fun to laugh off failed efforts than to get frustrated. Plus, it’s rare that even the worst blunders will yield absolutely nothing (so munch while you laugh!).
4. Embrace your favorites. Keep planting these year after year so that while you may or may not have success with experimental new plants, you’ll always have your efforts rewarded.
Julie Malone buys home and garden goods for Rodale’s. She lives in South Philly with her Internet-famous cat, crooked-tailed dog, and too many plants to count. She believes in laughing hard, taking it easy, and treating the earth with a gentle hand. Her blog can be found at juliepeach.com, and her Instagram, at instagram.com/julieamalone.