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Growing Your Own Food . . . Square Foot Gardening With the Neighbors

My Mom, Maureen Morgan -- a musician of extraordinary creativity and an environmental advocate involved in a number of causes -- has always been at the forefront of new ideas and ways of living. Rather than simply talk about our concerns re the food system, she's actually doing something I've talked about for a long time -- growing a vegetable garden with her neighbors on her property. For decades, Mom has been a wonderful gardener of flowers, but not vegetables. So, when she and the band of neighbors followed the call to the gardening adventure, they were nervous: Would the little seeds actually produce something to eat after all their labors? Would mother nature do her part? What follows is her own account of what happened. Enjoy!

Growing Your Own Food With the Neighbors
by Maureen Morgan
July 3, 2010

In a tangle of depressing trends there is a positive trend that continues to show astounding power – the interest in eating food grown locally. Outdoor farmers markets have been around for awhile but they now can be found through the winter with vegetables grown in local greenhouses. Now the backyard vegetable garden is making a strong comeback, sometimes appearing in the front yard where the sun may be more abundant.

Having written extensively about the precarious nature of this nation’s food system I wanted to follow my own advice – and grow my own food. The Square Foot Gardening system had always intrigued me. Devised by Mel Bartholomew, the plan is based on a system of raised divided beds – square feet – instead of the traditional long rows of plantings that are much more arduous to maintain and frequently result in more vegetables than you can eat at one time. The SFG system uses small spaces and more variety resulting in far more output in less space with less potential for failure.

A side lawn formerly used as a soccer field by my grandchildren was available for my garden but it had only two or three hours of sun, not nearly enough to grow healthy vegetables. First step - cut down four trees, one maple big enough to require paying $50 to the Village of Ossining for a Tree Cutting Permit. Before making that move I spoke to my neighbors who needed more sun as well and invited them to participate in my experimental mini-farm. They were immediately intrigued with the project. One of my tenants also wanted to be included. After the trees were removed, the yard took on an entirely different character, more utilitarian, with logs piled up waiting for the wood stove to appear next year. I planted two apple trees in the newly available space,

We ordered four raised bed forms from The Homestead in Chatham, Massachusetts. They measured 4’wide x 8’long x 8” deep and made of cedar so they would last longer. I ordered four but only set up two, thinking we should start small. Next, we collected all the ingredients that make up “Mel’s Mix” -- 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost -- with at least five different kinds of compost. I always thought compost was compost but Mel’s Mix requires a variety of sources in order to get the full range of nutrients. One bag was composted lobster and blueberry waste (the nurseryman told me it was good enough to eat). Vermiculate adds lightness to the soil. Peat moss was readily available everywhere. To mix all this stuff together requires a large tarp, rake and shovel. By lifting up the sides of the tarp mixing the compost and vermiculite is easy. When you add the peat moss it becomes a bit heavy. The final mix is best done within the boxes. Lathes divide the boxes into the required spaces.

Then it was time to plant. At a nursery in Croton, we selected a variety of little plants from whatever was on the racks: lettuce, of course, yellow cherry tomatoes, peppers, bush beans, broccoli, cauliflower and cucumbers to start. My neighbors planted lots of tomatoes and basil. When all the plants were in I tied plastic ribbon on all the corner stakes in hopes that would distract any predators from our tender little farm. My neighbors planted marigolds for bug protection.

In less than a month we had the most lush little vegetable garden imaginable, the envy of everyone who saw it. Lettuce was soon available for daily salads, Swiss chard soon after. String beans are still small. Bell peppers are starting to form and the aroma of fresh basil wafting around the yard is quite heavenly. We are so encouraged by this first effort that we will be setting up the other two boxes right after the holiday in order to be able to produce a fall harvest.

Though we are still novices we have learned the basics of growing vegetables. Adequate sunshine is fundamental. Four of the tomato plants had an hour less sun and wound up three inches shorter even though quite healthy. The second must is fertile soil. In the absence of good soil in my yard, very hard to find in this area, Mel’s Mix is an excellent solution. First lesson learned – the broccoli leaves are so large they are interfering with my neighbor’s tomato plants.

Even though any garden will have its own selection of wildlife to contend with, there are always solutions to these issues. It is well worth the trouble to learn to live with nature in order to develop a home-grown food supply.

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