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Square foot gardening

By: STUART MERELIE

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Stuart Merelie, owner of QM Crazy Golf, Garden and Leisure Centre, shares his passion for correct and sustainable landscaping in the Algarve and is The Resident’s permanent garden and landscaping correspondent. This week is the fifth in a series of six entitled Stunning gardens without water.

WE ARE today born into an industrial growth economy in which we manufacture garbage and destroy nature. Everything is for sale and nothing lasts. Most of us survive enslaved to jobs and can only watch as nature is developed into goods that we consume and then is sent via our overflowing green communal bins to the landfill so the economy can grow.

Relationships thus are reduced to money, an extreme and somewhat twisted simplification of life’s beautiful complexity. Instead of

The square foot garden is divided into a size and shape that gardeners can cope with easily.
The square foot garden is divided into a size and shape that gardeners can cope with easily.

reality, we get reality TV.

The vegetable farmer must pay cash for his seeds, compost, rent, electricity, gas and the diesel to bring his vegetables to market, not to mention meat for his table. Bang – that kilo of carrots seems cheap at two euros. But money is not a value: it’s a means of exchange. Vegetable growers, bakers and other artisans will attest that price doesn’t equal value. Its not money that makes the flavour or beauty – its hands, knowledge, love and art!

So if you want real food, become your own farmer! Make a little more than you need and give it away. People love real food.

Most of us have tried to grow our own vegetables. We start out each year with high hopes, great ambition and energy

This frame is a mix of vegetables and flowers
This frame is a mix of vegetables and flowers

and a desire for a wonderful big well-kept garden. But other activities seem to get in the way: trips back to blighty, weekend long BBQs, must see TV and it soon becomes neglected, overrun with weeds and pests.

By the end of the season, there may be enough tomatoes, squash and cucumbers to make the whole effort seem worthwhile but all the other crops that couldn’t survive the neglect will have been strangled by weeds or bolted to seed.

One of the biggest pitfalls of modern DIY vegetable gardening is the actual packet of seeds. Armed with an average of 400 radish seeds, the intrepid veg jock (yes that was me…) then plants two long rows and the rest is obvious.

Enter square foot gardening. Pioneered by American Mel Bartholomew in the 1970s, he realised that most people don’t have the time or expertise to grow and maintain a vegetable plot. The square foot garden is divided into a size and shape that gardeners of all ages and

Here is a sample layout of vegetable planting
Here is a sample layout of vegetable planting

sizes can understand and cope with easily.

Four by four

Construct a basic frame using an outer frame of wooden planks about six inches deep – used builders planks are fine as long as they are scraped free of cement and rusty nails.

Using thin strips of wood, create sixteen one foot by one foot squares. (The frame can be 120cm by 120cm and each square 30cm by 30cm for metric ease!)

Find a patch of spare space in your garden. Ideally it should be in full sun and be close to the house for convenience. The existing soil is not really important other than to loosen a little for drainage.

If you are doing more than one square, leave a two or three foot gap (60 to 90cms) to form walking isles.

Fill the frame with a good organic compost mix and pat down a little. It is important to never walk on the growing soil – always tend from the isles.

Now the best bit. After growing vegetables for a year or two, I learned the best way to know when to plant beans, tomatoes or whatever was to visit the local market (São Brás on a Saturday morning is good and see what seedlings are for sale).

Also spy on your neighbours! If you buy seed, remember modern seed keeps for a year or two if stored in a dry place. My fava (broad) beans and peas came from the market and cost very little.

Water gently by hand, ideally using sun warmed water, stand back and admire. In only a few weeks you should be able to harvest some vegetables. As a square is emptied, add a little organic fertiliser and plant with another type of vegetable. Ideally, do not repeat the same crop and also you will find that vegetables benefit from planting a few flowers with them – sow some petunias and add some herbs.

One box this size will supply one person all salad foods for the whole summer – simply add another box for each person. If you get the odd failure, don’t get despaired, life asks us to participate – to watch, to learn and to create. It would be a sad world if we didn’t try.

Reward for not too much work!

With 23 years experience in garden design and construction, Stuart is available for design, consultation and construction of all types of landscaping. He lives near Estoi and is developing a low energy farm which will soon be open as a hostel for like minded souls with residential courses in low carbon construction and lifestyle. For inquiries, please contact Stuart on 917 814 261.