A BOX OF DIRT – How Does My Square Foot Garden Grow?

Jun 11, 2011 | Food Adventures, Spirit of Adventure

I’m growing a box of dirt. This was not my intention. I was hoping for vegetables. A tomato plant is growing at the back of the box, but I can’t take credit for that. My friend Kelli gave it to me, informing me, “It’s called The Mortgage Lifter because it’s so easy to grow that the guy who created it sold enough plants to pay off his mortgage.”

I was hoping for vegetables.

For my birthday, I asked my husband to help me build a square foot garden. Dale’s a handy guy, and I think he enjoyed the idea almost as much as I did. He looked so cheerful walking amid the lumber, tools, and bags of soil at Home Depot.

His cheeriness dissipated a bit at the seed packet carousel, where I began to extol our future as represented by little square photos of zucchini, brocolli, carrots, and chili peppers. The red and yellow peppers excited me most. They looked almost as pretty as flowers, the only thing I’m confident I know how to grow.

For my birthday, I asked my husband to help me build a square foot garden.

But after ingesting years of news on climate change and bee declines, economic recession and population growth, I got tired of hearing myself say, “Someday I’m going to learn to grow food.” I’d recently looked into square foot gardening, with its promise that someone inexperienced like me could learn to grow a variety of vegetables in minimal space with minimal labor. If I turned out to be good at it, I could expand later.

Square foot gardening promised that someone inexperienced like me could learn to grow a variety of vegetables in minimal space with minimal labor.

The basic idea is to build a raised 4-by-4-foot wooden planter and divide it into a grid of 16 individual square-foot plots. The spot we picked didn’t have quite enough space, so we shrank our plan to 3-by-4. Dale spent a couple of hours building and waterproofing the planter, which resembled a sandbox for a tiny, antisocial only-child.

The spot we picked didn’t have quite enough space, so we shrank our plan to 3-by-4.

I then spent several hours making Mel’s Mix, the planting mix recommended by Mel Bartholomew, king of square foot gardening. I shoveled vermiculite, peat, and compost onto a plastic sheet and mixed it with bare hands. This mix is lightweight and nutritious, theoretically making it easy for seedlings to burst through and thrive, yet difficult for weeds to get a purchase. Meanwhile, transferring the mix from plastic sheet to box is the perfect activity to achieve a stiff back.

I shoveled vermiculite, peat, and compost onto a plastic sheet and mixed it with bare hands.

While my back was still conveniently bent, Dale and I laid out a 12-square grid using nails and twine. Then I planted the seeds in their tiny plots, leaving two empty plots on either side of The Mortgage Lifter, since greedy tomato plants need room to spread. To protect the seeds from birds, we covered the whole thing with a simple contraption of bird netting draped over bamboo stakes.

To protect the seeds from birds, we covered the whole thing with a simple contraption of bird netting draped over bamboo stakes.

That was eleven days ago. According to seed-packet predictions, something besides dirt should be living in our planter by now. But not one green thing has popped its head out, except The Mortgage Lifter. To me, The Mortgage Lifter’s leaves look like little jutting elbows, as she puts her hands on her hips and mocks my pitiful sandbox.

To me, The Mortgage Lifter’s leaves look like little jutting elbows, as she puts her hands on her hips and mocks my pitiful sandbox.

So, what happened? It’s possible I drowned the seeds. I dampened the soil before planting and then sprayed it lightly again after. The next day, I fertilized it with our Miracle-Gro sprayer, after Dale watered the lawn. He said he didn’t think the sprinklers hit the box much, but we never actually watched the sprinkler pattern to verify this theory. Since the planter is self-contained, it doesn’t take much water to fill it. Still, tomatoes are sensitive to overwatering, and The Mortgage Lifter looks suspiciously healthy.

So, what else could have happened? I thought I only put two or three seeds in each hole, but the carrot seeds are so tiny I might have overdone it. Maybe the competition was too stiff. Still, that wouldn’t account for the absent zucchinis, broccoli, and peppers.

Any other ideas? Maybe I planted the seeds too deep. Some of the packets said 1/2 inch, others 1/4 inch, and I think one said 1/8 inch. But I couldn’t figure out how to measure all these teeny tiny holes. So I just made divots with the tip of a pen, a touch shallower here, a tad deeper there, and hoped for the best. Maybe the poor seeds suffocated, pitifully gasping for sun and air.

Or, maybe the evil Mortgage Lifter snuck out of her cell and murdered them all while I wasn’t looking.

Maybe the evil Mortgage Lifter snuck out of her cell and murdered them all while I wasn’t looking.

I suspect I’ll be staring at my box of dirt a lot over the next few days. Sometimes it can take two weeks for seeds to germinate, and I haven’t given up hope yet. If nothing happens by next week, Dale and I will break down and buy seedlings from a nursery. “We should do it in the middle of the night, when our neighbors aren’t looking,” Dale said. “Then the next time they come out back…”

It will be The Miracle of the Dead Seeds. Maybe I’ll roast the vegetables later and burn a face-like pattern into one, just for fun. “Look! Our Lady of the Resurrected Zucchini!”

For now, I’m enjoying my low-pressure box of dirt. It’s low maintenance, requires no weeding, and so long as nothing grows, there’s nothing to kill. Though when the food apocalypse comes, I don’t think we can count on the tomatoes for our survival.

Let’s face it: I don’t trust The Mortgage Lifter.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

Sign up for blog posts and to get my newsletter!