Twenty-four years ago this October, I decided to try to be something I was not. In fairness, it was an easy mistake for a kid, just a couple of years out of college, to make. I purchased a small farmhouse on an acre of land in rural Wood County, Ohio. My intent was to live “close to the land.” Ultimately, I envisioned a thriving mini-farm with fruits and vegetables I could sell in a small stand on the highway. This idea was fueled by reading John Irving’s amazing book (and still one of my favorites) Cider House Rules and, subsequently, several issues of the now-defunct “Country Journal” magazine. Eventually, I thought I might raise goats. This whole scheme is not nearly as ridiculous as it might sound. While it might sound a little bit like Green Acres, I was no Oliver Wendell Douglass. I grew up in a rural part of Ohio and helped tend our large family garden. What I came to understand is that two things which might look similar on the surface are often very,very different on the inside. By the time I was old enough to help my Dad in the family garden, for instance, it was well-established, with soil that had been tilled for several years and enhanced with a rudimentary form of composting (we dug holes and buried our kitchen scraps) which kept the soil rich and productive. The soil in the backyard of the “Little House on the Highway” had never been tilled and had a much higher clay content than our family garden. My family’s house, although it was relatively rural, also had the advantage of water and sewer. If you’ve never lived in a house with a well, you don’t know what a pain in the backside it can be. Shortly after I put in my first garden at the LHOTH, I was watering it when the fellow next door, who had lived there for a couple of decades, came over and gave me some neighborly advice. “You might want to watch how much water you put on that garden. You don’t want to run your well dry.” Honestly, this is something I’d never considered. I just assumed that there was a huge reservoir of water beneath the surface and that one person could never possibly use it all up. Of course, I then cut back on my watering… during the hottest, driest summer that part of Ohio had seen since the 40’s. Needless to say, I did not have a bumper crop. A couple more years of similar frustration led me to scrap the whole idea of planting and growing and move into a condo where my annual planting consisted of placing a half-dozen begonias into a clay pot on my front porch.
When I moved to Charlotte in 1995, I bought a house in the suburbs with a small yard and lots of natural areas and got back to planting a few annuals in flower beds, but it really wasn’t until 2010 that I started growing food plants again. I started small with a couple of tomato plants and some herbs in pots on my deck, and when those worked out pretty well, I graduated to a grander form of container planting called Square Foot Gardening, based on the writings of Mel Bartholomew.
Square Foot Gardening appeals to me because it is essentially the application of Lean Manufacturing techniques to gardening. Mel notes, correctly, that traditional row gardening is a scaled-down version of farming, but that in scaling the process tremendous inefficiencies were created. The square foot concept seeks to eliminate these inefficiencies by reducing the growing area to one foot squares of a special soil mix. For more information, visit the Square Foot Gardening website or buy Square Foot Gardening at your local bookstore.