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Start your garden from square one

Peter Swanson’s Square Foot Garden usually occupies about 600 square feet outside his home in Hingham.
Peter Swanson’s Square Foot Garden usually occupies about 600 square feet outside his home in Hingham. (Peter Swanson)

If you’re thinking about starting a garden this year, consider a method that works as well in a yard overlooking Hingham Bay as it does on the porch of a three-decker in Lawrence.

It’s called Square Foot Gardening.

The system, developed more than 30 years ago by Mel Bartholomew, a construction engineer who wrote the bestselling “Square Foot Gardening,” is based on the fact that a nutrient-rich soil increases the yield in a small space.

Bartholomew initially wrote the book for expert gardeners. But its simplicity eluded them. Instead, the method took hold with legions of gardening newbies — and its inspiration continues to spread.

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“I say to people, ‘Read the book,’ ” says Peter Swanson, a former Quincy High School biology teacher and department head, who learned about the method from the teacher who was taking over Swanson’s job after he retired eight years ago. “It made so much sense, especially with urban gardening.”

As a biology teacher, Swanson built gardens on the old high school’s rooftop and used horticulture to teach his students science. He also created a curriculum using STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — to teach horticulture.

In addition, he was involved in the design of a new science, math, and vocational education building, which included a greenhouse.

“Kids who didn’t like science loved horticulture,” Swanson says. “Horticulture is hands-on. They could be creative, grow what they wanted, have fun.”

Swanson uses the greenhouse attached to his Hingham home, built on a foundation of rocks, to grow and enjoy lettuce and other greens through the winter. He also seeds some of the plants that will go into his square foot gardens come spring.

The 73-year-old science educator has expanded his reach in retirement, building gardens in his neighborhood and traveling to Honduras several times a year with his wife, Kathy, 70, a retired Spanish teacher, to volunteer for Honduras Hope, a nonprofit that supports a gardening program for schoolchildren.

Swanson says you can build a Square Foot Garden almost anywhere. Raised beds, beds on legs, or a variation can be erected at the edge of a driveway, on a patio, in a yard — or in other small spaces that look like they couldn’t grow a hill of beans.

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He starts his gardens with a blueprint, and recommends the same to new gardeners.

Place tall-growing plants behind shorter ones to allow both to receive sunlight; plant cucumbers on the outside of the garden so their runners don’t choke off other plants; consider a plant’s growing season, factor in the hours of daily sunlight available; and find a source of clean water nearby.

Plants are easier to grow than seeds, Swanson observes, and he recommends purchasing them when they go on sale at the local garden shop. He also says investing in Mel’s Mix, a combination developed by Bartholomew that includes compost varieties, vermiculite, peat moss or coir (coconut fiber), will deliver in spades.

“If you haven’t done this before, start out small. Enjoy what you get,” Swanson says.

To begin, purchase lumber to build a grid that measures 3 feet by 3 feet. Divide the grid into nine squares, each a square foot, and deep enough to hold 6 inches of soil. Then, deferring to the calendar and the plant’s growing season, settle the plant into the ground.

You have plenty of work ahead of you. But take a moment now to close your eyes, breathe in the fresh air, and imagine what’s to come.

One square foot holds the potential for variety and abundance: Nine beet plants will fit here — so will 16 radishes, one tomato plant, or one head of Swiss chard. And you can use this same square foot to grow two or three more plants during the season.

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Invite children to get involved. Use the garden to teach them about science, responsibility, and caring for living things.

“If they grow it, they’re more likely to try it,” Swanson says.

A garden isn’t just a place for gathering the makings of a salad or stir fry, however. Nor should practical considerations override a garden’s visual and aesthetic appeal, Swanson adds.

To enhance his garden’s beauty and repel a variety of insects, Swanson plants flowers and herbs near his plants.

Nasturtiums, marigolds, and white geraniums are colorful bug repellants. Egyptian wandering onions and garlic keep the rabbits away. Basil, lavender, peppermint, lemon geranium, rosemary, and lemon balm repulse the mosquitoes.

Swanson says a Square Foot Garden, which uses only organic materials, absorbs water rapidly, and because chemical fertilizers aren’t applied, limits the spread and sprouting of weeds.

“This is something that’s not a farm. It’s a small space. Nice to look at,” Swanson says of the Square Foot Garden.

But there are also the intangibles, like the relationship that blooms between a gardener and his plot.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk on the first try.

Nor will any number of perks diminish the commitment that Square Foot Gardening demands, or the success that depends on effort rather than luck.

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“It’s persistence, not a green thumb,” Swanson says.


Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.