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Celt's Garden - Managing your small urban garden

In all gardening, start with your life. What do you like to eat? How much time can you devote to gardening, really? I always suggest that people start small, something between 32 and 150 square feet. In really tight spaces, you may have even less garden. Not to worry, the most challenging gardening is the first 10%.

The philosophy of square foot gardening is to maximize the value of small spaces. Square foot gardening is a very old idea. F.H. King wrote about small space intensive growing in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, about his travels through China, Japan and Korea. The farmers of those countries were feeding themselves and producing a surplus for sale on postage stamp sized plots. The market gardeners outside 19th century Paris fed the whole region from tiny, intensively managed farms. Mel Bartholmew, a laid off engineer, popularized the name square foot gardening in his book and PBS show.

The basics are no different from organic farming: feed the soil so that it feeds you, rotate crops, use cover crops, compost, plant in raised beds or wide rows. Small space gardening has some special quirks:

1. Use vertical space. Trellis everything that you can to minimize the footprint, including squashes and cucumbers.

2. Space plants using their "in row" spacing. On the back of an envelope of carrots, it says something like space 3" apart in row with rows 30" apart. You are going to plant a solid block of carrots spaced 3" apart each way, for a total carrot density of 16 carrots per square foot.

3. Plant continuously. Plant something every week until you finish the year with a little garlic patch in October. Growing your own starts will keep the cost down. Stagger plantings to give yourself a continuous harvest.

4. Plant when you harvest. As you go out and pull up a head of lettuce for dinner, plant something in the spot: a cabbage start, a few green onions, some spinach seed. I'm casual about this one, myself, as I am more inclined to harvest dinner and run back in the house to cook.

5. Your basic unit is the square foot rather than the row. A square foot holds 36 green onions, 16 carrots, 4 loose leaf lettuces or bush beans, one cabbage or broccoli, 36 radishes, etc. A tomato plant requires 4 square feet in a cage or 2 square feet if trellised. A square foot garden looks like a patchwork of different vegetables.

6. Plan for season extensions. Row covers will warm up the soil and let you plant your warm season crops in May, when the weather is generally not settled yet. A hot box will grow lettuce into December.

Some thought on the potential of a 4' by 8' raised bed reveals that you can grow a great deal of food in small spaces.

Searching youtube for "square foot gardening" will turn up 14 gazillion results and you'll be an expert in short order. For a great sophisticated low tech gardening solution, search youtube for the Lesotho keyhole garden.

By the way, F.H. King's book is available by interlibrary loan, or as a free download without the pictures. This last is of dubious utility, since the whole book is essentially a photo essay. If someone is feeling motivated to raise the funds to purchase a copy of the 1911 hardcover edition, it would make a useful addition to the library system here.

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Comment by Heather K on April 14, 2010 at 12:57pm
Would you consider writing a blog on the human 'poop scoop' ...we could compile our learning & thinking there...
Comment by Celt M. Schira on April 14, 2010 at 12:34pm
Heather, the Chinese used glazed jars to contain the effluent. Otherwise it does leak, as in the olla bottle principle for irrigating a garden. There is a whole craft area there. The night soil jars are bulky, heavy, sophisticated low tech. We have excellent potters in town who can crank out gorgeous mugs and salad bowls. Shaping, firing, glazing and refiring an earthenware 55 gallon jar is a whole different enterprise. My guess is that the jars were built with the coil method, probably building the top and bottom sections separately. Otherwise, it would be hard to pinch in the jar at the shoulders. The thickness has to be controlled or they would blow up during firing. Then the sections could be joined at the greenware stage and fired. Definitely a technology that takes practice.
Comment by Heather K on April 14, 2010 at 11:38am
wow, I'll never be able to look at a large earthenware jar the same way again! I can just imagine a couple of jars sunk into the garden with beautiful lids! I can imagine if the jars weren't glazed, then the nitrogen in the liquid would slowly move outwards providing fertility to the soil.

Each landscape on the earth is different...Learning about the balance between sanitation & soil fertility can be an art & science.
Comment by Celt M. Schira on April 14, 2010 at 8:46am
Heather, King's book is a bit short on the details of the process. He was a visitor, getting guided tours, rather than staying put to observe. However, one thing he said was that the farmers used huge earthenware jars sunk in the ground with the covered tops sticking out, to process the night soil. They keep several jars, filling one while others were in various stages of breakdown. That sounds like the septic tank process, where a floating mat of grey jello-like good bacteria anaerobically digests waste into the valuable liquids and a solid sludge that accumulates as particulates at the bottom. When the bacteria run out of food, the process stops and the jar is ready to be scooped out and used. King described the Chinese using big wooden dippers and covered buckets to unload the jars and transport the effluent.
I'm guessing that they used a piece of live mat to jump start the breakdown in a new jar, much like the sourdough process.
I wouldn't try it in the city, but there are places in the county where a person could run some short-term experiments with old water heaters. The giant earthenware jars were ideal for the purpose. They are inert, they don't rust out, and they last years if not decades.
Comment by Heather K on April 14, 2010 at 12:48am
I have a copy of 'Farmers of Forty Centuries'....I'll be looking for a library to pass on all my garden books as part of an estate when I complete the earth transition....

Two of my favorite book I used back in the late 70's for double digging were
'The Self Sufficient Gardener' by John Seymour, now republished in larger book called 'The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It'

Another classic is "How to Grow More Vegetables' by John Jeavons.

Celt, can you share some of the info on how the Farmers in China used night soil safely to fertilize their crops?

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