Two years ago we decided we wanted to test the greenness of our black thumbs by trying our hand at creating an organic square foot garden. Given our small lot and urban landscape, this required us to claim a bit of space from our tiny brick backyard and build a modestly sized raised bed

It was by no means a difficult project, and we had rather high hopes for the bounty of veggies this urban plot of land could yield, but we were somewhat disappointed. The sunlight for the yard is largely obscured by our large tree for the first half of the day, then the house blocks the sun in the early evening, which leaves us with just about four hours of direct sun for the area. Additionally, the soil seems to be somewhat overtaken by the tree and ivy roots from the surrounding growth, which limits the plants' ability to really thrive.

Both the first and second year we had some veggies that we were able to pick and eat (or feed to Lulu), but the yield was significantly lower than we had hoped due to various failures. I'm pretty sure we could buy the same amount of fruit and veggies from the store using about the same amount of money spent on watering our plants.

This year we decided to take a little bit more of a relaxed approach to our garden and focus on items with which we've had better success. Now that we have a few growing seasons under our belt, we're getting better at knowing which plants work, when they work, and where we should plant them.

Before we could jump into planting we needed to first clear out last year's plants. We had let the cabbage, broccoli, and other remaining vegetables continue to grow over the winter. This left a handful of large plants that were in no shape to produce any edible food. I pulled up these plants, with the exception of the chives and leeks, and discarded them making way for all of the new items we picked up over the weekend. 

Before we could place the plants in the soil, Alex had to loosen the dirt by breaking up the roots that had infiltrated the area since last year. This is where the tree and ivy roots come in. He worked at the area for about 30 minutes and twisted up a rather large ball of roots he was able to remove from the soil. Had we left those roots in place and just went ahead with planting, I'm pretty sure all of our plants would have been choked out.

The soil we have in the bed is still a good and rich organic soil. Once it was all turned over and freed up, all that was left to do was determine the placement of the plants, and pop all of the various plants in the ground.

As I mentioned, this year we're doing a less formal square foot garden. Whereas last year we had formal dividers and indicators of where the boundaries of each square foot resides, we had a real problem with the squirrels throwing the dividers around. Since knowing what a rough square foot is in our small garden, we went ahead and scrapped the dividers and just went ahead with planting.

This year I decided to plant things that didn't need quite as much of a root structure and did much of their growing above ground. I also opted for heartier vegetables that seem to thrive in our rather wild temperature fluctuations. There was nothing more demoralizing last year than seeing a promising plant wilt in the 100 degree days, completely unable to recover.

We also decided to plant more herbs in the raised bed this year, rather than solely in containers as we've done in previous years.

This year's selection includes:

  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Jalapeño Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Romaine
  • Radicchio
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli

I placed all of my plants in rough areas where I wanted them to go but didn't put them in the ground right away. I wanted to get everything set up and determine just where each plant should be placed. This way, if I had a change of heart, I'd be able to change the location without needing to dig things back up. This also allowed my outdoor inspector to approve of the locations.

After I had everything in place, I opened up the containers and began placement of the various fruits, veggies, and herbs.

Once all of the plants were in place I used some of the organic gardening soil we picked up at the store to fill in the low spots and build up the area around the plants to create a nice watering bowl around the bases. This will ensure the water goes to the plant rather than rolling away.

I also made sure to place the little tags from the plants in the soil to remind myself of exactly what I had planted and where it was planted. After not doing this the first year, we now make a point of doing this to keep ourselves sane.

After a few hours of effort, some dirt under my fingernails, and quite a bit of inspecting from Lulu, we had ourselves our 2013 garden. I hope it yields some delicious bounty and doesn't fall victim to the squirrels or bugs as it has in years past.

Are you planting a vegetable garden this year? Do you have any tips for us on how to have better results? This is far from our area of expertise, so any tips or tricks are greatly appreciated.

Comments 7


4/17/2013 at 12:05 PM
I've never done an edible garden before, but a woman who owns a local nursery near me suggests putting worm castings down around all plants (including veggies and herbs) as a natural fertilizer. I've also heard a landscape designer suggest mycorrhizae tablets for the soil around veggies. I've used both on shurbs with impressive results.
Worm castings is a good tip. We have a bag of it in the basement that we use just for this garden. It's mixed into the soil ahead of time and also sprinkled around the veggies before watering. Thanks for the reminder on this.
Tiffany Miller
4/17/2013 at 1:59 PM
I am also hoping to be successful and had the same lack of lighting problems last year on my balcony. We also had a bad white fly infestation on the tomatoes and I want to avoid that at all costs.
I would suggest food grade Diatomaceious Earth to keep on hand in case the bugs come:
If you start to see the bugs, also maybe order some live lady bugs online, they eat those bad guys :) I have also planted Marigolds near the garden, they may help but not entirely sure (still pretty). You can also put out regular old dishwashing soap (in cups/bowls)out to get some of those nasty bugs organically. If things get growing good you may have to put up some protective barrier from the squirrels...I may put up a net depending on the birds and how well the plants do. I am also taking a laid back approach, but I know I will be heartbroken if my bounty and hard work is wiped out by a heatwave or pest. Good luck!
6/9/2014 at 12:49 PM

Great discovery on the diatomaceous earth! I bought mine at here diatomaceous earth food grade 10 lb. This worked great in my garden. I haven't had an insect problem yet. Do you know if this harms the lady bugs though?

4/17/2013 at 2:25 PM
We are starting to ramp up our planting for the year. Our perennials have really gotten off to a good start this year, especially the berries. I have four figs in the ground and they are starting to leaf out ... and I still have one in a pot that I need to find a home.

My big(-ish) project is to get the next garden bed finished (I have been practicing my masonry skills on it) and then turned into our strawberry bed. My overall garden plans have been reduced because we decided to go with a CSA this year and if it turns out to be a good deal, I will be changing the refocusing my gardening efforts around the house.

4/17/2013 at 4:38 PM
Looks like you have a great start! I had problems last year with the heat and trying to keep plants hydrated.

Have you or your readers ever used "ollas" to keep plants watered? Ollas are a plant watering system which claims to save water. We live in a drought prone area and I wondered how efficient the olla is for keeping plants hydrated.

I think authentic ollas are on the expensive side but I saw a video where the woman used a clay pot and put a saucer over the opening.

4/18/2013 at 12:50 PM
My garden also doesn't get enough sun to grow tomatoes, etc., so I concentrate on the herbs, spinach, lettuce, and pole beans, which seem to do well with partial shade. We're still eating the pesto I made and froze last summer. Marigolds are good for repelling bugs. Deer, not so much! :-/
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