Article and photo by Donna Iverson
Last weekend, I headed out to my community garden veggie bed. Even though it was chilly for April, I carried seed packets of a variety of lettuces and wooden stakes to set up for square foot gardening.
Square foot gardening is where you divide your garden beds into squares, measuring approximately 12" by 12." That is what is recommended by Mel Bartholomew, the man who invented square foot gardening back in 1981 when his book of the same name was published. As the years have gone by, I have drifted a bit from that specification, making squares and rectangles that approximate that size.
Gardening can be a daunting undertaking. By dividing the bed into squares, it breaks down the task into manageable sized spaces. I take it one square at a time. Every few days, I plant another square. As spring and summer progresses, if one square isn't doing well, I replant. But most squares sprout and produce veggies just fine giving me a feeling of success. Troublesome squares get extra attention and are coaxed along.
So if you are a gardener who fears she doesn't have a green thumb, or a new gardener, or a gardener who wants to try a new approach, square foot gardening may fit the bill.
The advantages of a raised bed are many. A raised bed warms up earlier in the spring helping with the sprouting process and stays warmer in late fall, extending your harvest. Because the veggies are packed close together in the squares, it deters weeds and pests. It also spares your back, if that is an issue.
Among the plants that thrive in a square foot garden are onions, lettuce, radishes, carrots, and tomatoes. Twelve radishes fit in one square while a tomato plant requires a square of its own.
While square foot gardening is usually done in a raised bed, it can also be done with in-ground beds. There are a number of ways to mark out the squares, including using string anchored at the edges of the bed. Or use stones or even small tree branches to create the squares.
On the down side, raised beds often need extra watering especially in mid-summer when they tend to dry out. And while a large variety of vegetables can be grown in a raised bed, it is not ideal for crops that take up a lot of room, like squash or sweet corn. However, you could easily put a trellis at the north end of the bed, and grow vining plants like beans and peas.
Square foot gardening is a way to create a small but intensity planted vegetable bed, and is ideal for gardeners without a lot of space. It's great for gardeners who just want a small veggie bed that is easy to start and can be placed outside your back door.
You can learn many garden techniques with a square foot garden, like crop rotation, soil regeneration, composting, and companion planting. Subjects for future gardening articles. For more information, check out Bartholomew's books at your public library or visit the Square Foot Gardening Foundation: https://squarefootgardening.org
Hands in the Dirt: Rhubarb
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
In these dark days, sometimes it's the little things that keep our spirits up... watching a robin pull a worm out of the dirt, daffodils opening their yellow faces in the morning sun, rhubarb stalks pushing up through the garden soil. Each spring, rhubarb offers reassurance, a reliable perennial that performs year after year with little effort on your part.
If you are a rhubarb fan, spring is the time to plant. Most people buy crowns or divisions at their local nursery or garden shop. But you can grow rhubarb from seed. Rhubarb seeds can be purchased from catalogs such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co in Missouri ( email: email@example.com. ) Seeds need to be started indoors or in a nursery bed.
When transplanting to the garden. rhubarb needs a lot of space, about a square foot minimum for each plant. It is a heavy feeder, doesn't tolerate drought, and requires regular watering. Deer, sheep, cows and sheep will eat the leaves which are toxic to humans, as they contain oxalic acid. The plant also produces small inedible flowers. Rhubarb is best planted at the edge of a garden bed so as not to interfere with other vegetable plants.
Rhubarb is one of the first food plants harvested in spring, often as early as May in Michigan. Come June, it is in full production and ready to combine with fresh-picked strawberries in a Rhubarb-Strawberry pie. Because rhubarb is so tart, it needs the sweetness of strawberries to provide the perfect sweet-sour balance that our taste buds love. Rhubarb is also used in crumbles, jams, sauces, muffins and cakes. The Finns use it to make mead wine.
Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but back in 1947, a New York court legally declared it a fruit, because that is how it is cooked and eaten.
Historically, the rhubarb is an Asian native, dating back thousands of years when it was used by the Chinese for medicine. They used it as a laxative, although there is no scientific evidence of its efficacy. During the Middle Ages, traders carried it along the Silk Road and it made its way to Europe. It was considered a luxury item along with satin, diamonds, pearls and rubies.
In 1730, rhubarb seeds appeared in America, where it was first planted by the famous botanist and horticulturist John Bartram in his Philadelphia garden. It was during the 1700s that rhubarb made the switch from medicine to the food table. By 1809, President Thomas Jefferson was growing rhubarb at Monticello.
Somehow, just the sight of a rhubarb plant in spring, renews my faith that we will make it through this. And gardening can be a helpful tonic to our troubles.
Article and photo by Donna Iverson
Like sprouts? There's a good chance you have nature's wild version in your garden or lawn. It's called chickweed. It's edible, delicious and nutritious. And all you have to do is go outside with a kitchen scissors and clip the top inch off. Rinse it in a colander and pop it on your next sandwich. It doesn't keep well in the refrigerator so the sooner the better.
Chickweed is plentiful right now, as I found out when I walked over to the community garden where I have a raised bed. As if by magic, there was a mat of common chickweed growing. I welcomed it as a sign of fertile soil and also as an early-spring snack of free locally-grown greens.
As an apartment dweller, I definitely love having my own garden bed, to grow lettuce, tomatoes, kale, arugula, and beans. But at heart, I'm a forager. In fact, like a forager, I often find myself nibbling the veggies I grow in my garden bed right there on the spot. It's my own version of farm to table, but in my case, the veggies never make it to the table.
Identification is easy. According to Lisa Rose, who wrote a book about identifying, harvesting and using wild herbs, chickweed is a "low-growing, mat-forming Spring annual. It's small leaves are arranged oppositely on slender stems." The flowers are white with five deeply notched petals. To be sure of identification, a single line of hairs runs along the stem. A magnifying glass may be needed if you need proof positive.
All its parts are edible, including its flowers, leaves and stems. It can be eaten raw or cooked like adding it to soup, for example. While many consider it a weed to eradicate, wild-crafters are contrarians and often deliberately sow the chickweed seeds in the garden, where they will appear year after year. It tends to die back in the summer, but will reappear in the fall as it likes cooler weather.
Medicinally, chickweed is used to treat skin abrasions and wounds. While not an herbalist myself, I have bought salve containing chickweed at my local farmers market and highly recommend it,
While chickweed is not native to North America, it has been naturalized around the world for centuries. Chickweed attracts bees and butterflies, both of which are endangered. It is also food for birds and chickens. Plus you can enjoy a nibble yourself if you are so inclined.