A bumper crop growing in a confined space
Nicole Guida overlooks her wondrous garden and lets out a moan.
"Other people have red tomatoes," she said. "I don't have red tomatoes."
She's alternately thrilled and insecure about her "square foot garden," grown from a book of the same title by Mel Bartholomew.
"Truly this is my gardening bible here," she said, displaying her well-thumbed copy of the book.
She's tried traditional gardening at her rural Hubbard County home. With seven kids that she home schools, Nicole didn't have much time to catch her breath.
Then she discovered the book's simple principles.
Unless you're growing potatoes or carrots, you need only about 4 inches of a mix of compost, vermiculite and peat moss.
"He guarantees success," Nicole effuses.
So her raised bed garden snakes through her lawn, bolstered by planks of lumber. She can add to it, which she has. This is her third and most successful year.
The theory is starting the seeds and the plants will choke out weeds.
Her garden is indeed weed free. The growth goes upward so there's more you can cram into a small plot. Every part of the garden is planned in tiny squares, square by square. Then, Nicole maintains, the task of gardening doesn't seem so insurmountable.
"Even a child can decide how to organize a square," she said. Her own kids are living proof - each has his or her own mini-garden.
The author has included maps of where things go. As Nicole grows more confident, she breaks more of those rules and adapts things to what works for her.
"It's a very easy method," she said. "You start with the perfect soil and add compost."
Because she started her project with existing soil, there were immediate problems, which a friend and gardener helped her remedy.
Dewane and Anne Morgan run a community supported agriculture project south of Park Rapids that sells weekly boxes of produce to subscribers.
Nicole said they were her mentors. Dewane gave her a homeopathic remedy for the earlier soil that she sprinkled over the first plots. Now those plots produce the same bounty as the later plots with the correct growing mix.
This year she added soaker hoses that wind through the garden. They can all be turned on at the house spigot. It got hard for the kids, who do the watering, to determine whether they'd over-or under-watered the crops. This way the moisture doesn't dissipate and stays at soil level.
But aside from the compactness and efficiency of the system, it's become a learning lab for the children.
Each has developed an eclectic taste for various veggies that they can enhance in their own plots.]
They can walk outside and pick up a few snow peas to munch on for a midday snack.
Four-year-old Tabitha loves picking carrots. Each of the kids shows off his or her plot, chock full of stuff kids aren't supposed to like.
Katrielle, 13, planted beets, turnips, carrots, cantaloupe, lettuce, strawberries and flowers for an aesthetic appeal.
"I have pumpkins!" piped up 8-year-old Madeline.
Sophia, 6, planted potatoes, carrots, peas, strawberries and kohlrabi.
There are herbs mixed in. Nicole uses curtain rods to section off the squares.
"A big garden would be prohibitive," she says, oblivious to the fact that the square feet would fill a huge plot if placed next to each other, not end to end.
Another attraction for Nicole is that she's an organic gardener at heart. She doesn't want to "poison" her soil and plants with fertilizers.
The square foot gardening concept doesn't require fertilizer. All the nutrients are in those 4 inches of soil so most plants don't need root growth, she maintains. Carrots and potatoes do need deeper growing room.
"We've been eating off it since June," Nicole said, "As a beginner when everyone else had their produce, I did too!"
They compost what they don't eat or feed it to the bantam chickens in a coop near the garden.
Nicole has also been preserving veggies in a salt brine that doesn't require the old canning and freezing methods. You can do it one jar at a time instead of spending the day canning. It naturally turns to vinegar, so pickles come out tart.
"This is all amazing to me because I don't have the experience to have a real garden." Nicole said,
"There's nothing in here I don't want. Theoretically it shouldn't have happened but it did. I'm too busy to take care of a garden and this works just fine."
Nicole's day picks up when 10-year-old Isaiah points out a softball-sized tomato turning yellowish-red.