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by Laurisa White Reyes

Each year as leaves begin to bud on barren branches and the color green subdues the muted grays of winter, my kids and I pick ourselves up off the sofa and head outdoors. An activity that has managed to wind its way up to the top of our “Favorite Things To Do” list is planting a vegetable garden.

We live in the high desert of Southern California, about an hour North of Los Angeles. Here the winters are mild but the summer heat can often be unbearable. As a result, we are able to plant early in the season without too much fear of frost, and we can enjoy harvesting the fruit of our labors well into July. By early August, the planting season is over and the verdant green of our garden turns to brown.

The benefits of this ritual are threefold: First, the vegetables we harvest add variety to our usual fare. Sautéed green beans with toasted almonds, vine-ripened tomatoes sliced and generously sprinkled with garlic salt, and spiced quick-breads made with freshly grated zucchini are some of our favorite treats.

Second, my children learn the value and necessity of physical labor. Daily watering, weeding, removing pests, and harvesting are all equally vital in maintaining a healthy garden. If someone fails to do his part, the garden dies.

Finally, the entire process from preparing the soil to eating the food cultivates a sense of pride in one’s accomplishments and that pride is translated into self-confidence and capability. I don’t know what is more exciting, seeing those first seedlings pop through the soil or the satisfaction in my kids’ faces.

For some people, planting a garden may seem too overwhelming a task. They assume that such a project should be left to those with a serious green thumb. I used to be one of those people. Four years ago I wouldn’t be caught dead kneeling in the dirt and pulling weeds. I’m a writer, an in-doorsy kind of gal. I’m the one who, as a teenager, laid on my bed all day reading while the rest of my family was outside planting fruit trees and mowing the lawn. I’ll admit my first efforts at gardening were pretty pathetic. That first year I successfully grew an abundance of weeds and discovered several new species of garden pests. The following year I tried my hand at something I thought no one could fail at: Tomatoes. I just gloated with pride when those first buds began to swell. I dreamed of tossing a salad with my very own red, ripe tomatoes and serving it in a crystal bowl and silver tongs. But I wasn’t the only one who wanted those ruby gems. Each time a fruit ripened, something ate it before I could. We found entire tomatoes gnawed right down to the stem. It turned out that rats from an abandoned house down the street had a thing for tomatoes. The only way we could get rid of them was to get rid of the plants. We did, and planted some nice flowers in their place.

For several years, my gardening resulted in . . . well . . . nothing. But then my mother told me of a system of gardening that suited my (lack of) ability very well. It is called “square-foot gardening” and was first popularized in the book by the same title, originally published in 1981. Though the author is very serious about the art of gardening, his already straightforward method can be further simplified and is practical for even the most inept gardener. In other words, if I can do it, you can do it, too!

The square-foot gardening method is particularly useful for children. It is easy to prepare and even easier to maintain. Best of all, the mess of soil, water and weeds are contained in one small area and even a four or five-year-old child can grow his very own garden this way. The book goes to great lengths describing just the right combination of soils to produce the best results. However, for an amateur gardener there is no need to overdo it. Investing in the special items he recommends is expensive. Instead, follow the procedure below to create a wonderful garden that you and your kids can enjoy together. And when harvest time comes and you sit around your table to partake of the fruits of your labors, you’ll be glad you did.


Items needed for one garden:

Wooden planks 6 inches wide and 3 feet long (4)
Three inch screws (12)
Nails (8)
Pieces of twine, 4 feet long (4)
Potting Soil, 4 ½ Square feet
Sheet of clear heavy plastic, 4 ft. x 4 ft.

Seeds Needed:

Tomato (1)
Carrot (16)
Radish (16)
Romaine Lettuce (4)
Red Leaf Lettuce (4)
Green Onion (16)
Bush Bean (9)
Red or Green Bell Pepper (1)
Cauliflower or Broccoli (1)


Use three screws and screwdriver to join two planks together at the ends in an L-shape. Do the same for the other two planks. Then attach the two “L”s together to form a square. Lay the square on a flat surface allowing two feet of walking/kneeling space around it on all sides. If you lay your planter on top of grass or dirt you will need to place several layers of newspaper in the bottom to prevent the growth of grass and weeds into your garden.

Fill the planter with potting soil and level it out. Using the hammer, drive two nails twelve inches apart on the top edge of the first side of the planter so that the side is evenly divided into three equal sections. Do the same for the remaining three sides. String a piece of twine from one nail across the garden to the nail directly opposite on the other side. Do this for each nail until you have a tic-tac-toe grid on top of your soil. You will have nine 12-inch squares, three down and three across. Each square will be used to plant a different type of seed. From this point forward a corresponding number will refer to each square. The top row left corner square is “1”, the top center is “2”, the top right corner is “3”, the middle left square is “4”, and so forth.

Using your finger, draw a cross in the soil in square one dividing the square into four smaller squares. Poke a hole approximately two inches deep in each of the smaller squares. Moisten the holes with some water, drop in a lettuce seed, and cover with soil. Do the same for each square dividing them into equal sections to accommodate the appropriate number of seeds.


Square #1: Red Leaf Lettuce (4)
Square #2: Green Onion (16)
Square #3: Carrot (16)
Square #4: Bell Pepper (1)
Square #5: Tomato (1)
Square #6: Broccoli or Cauliflower (1)
Square #7: Radish (16)
Square #8: Bush Bean (9)
Square #9: Romaine Lettuce (4)

With a light spray of water, moisten the garden so that the soil is damp several inches deep. Cover with plastic sheeting and secure. The plastic will act as a green house to trap in moisture and heat. This will help the seeds to sprout. Check the moisture daily and water as necessary. Once the seeds have sprouted and are about two – three inches tall, remove the plastic. Water daily by gently pouring a cupful of water directly at the base of each seedling. Continue this method of watering throughout the season to maintain a healthy garden.

Harvest your vegetables according to the directions on the seed packet. (For lettuce, cut off out leaves as the mature leaving the inner leaves to continue producing, or for an entire salad, cut the inner head leaving the four outer leaves. Doing this will allow the plant to produce a second head later in the season.)

As you harvest one crop, replace it with another, rotating crops to get the most out of your soil. Some additional possible crops include strawberries, corn, beets, cabbage, summer squash, spinach, peas, parsley and other herbs, eggplant, and cucumbers. For proper spacing for these crops please refer to the book Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. – L.R.

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