Square-foot gardens and smaller seed packages produce bountiful harvests
Portland, Maine — The small square beds, surrounded by broad paths of neatly trimmed lawn, contain a mixture of vigorously growing vegetables and flowers.
The result is a garden that is both visually attractive and productive in terms of the food that comes from it.
The beds are based on the square-foot gardening concept taking hold among gardeners around the country and a natural extension of the ''small is beautiful'' concept that got Richard Meiners to found his garden seed company.
A few years ago, Mr. Meiners, an avid gardener who sold insurance for a living, held a packet of lettuce seed in his hand. It contained about 2,000 seeds with the potential to produce more lettuce than his family could eat in a decade.
''I'm a gardener, not a farmer,'' he said to himself. Then came the idea: Surely there would be a market among homeowners for packets containing fewer seeds and sold at a lower price.
Apparently he was right. In the four years since he launched Pinetree Garden Seeds here in Portland, it has changed from a part-time business to one needing his full attention.
The first year he mailed out less than 3,500 catalogs; this year he sent out 6,500 and has a steady clientele of 3,500 gardeners.
Many seeds can be saved from one year to the next, but most gardeners have improper storage facilities and end up throwing away more seeds in any one year than they plant.
So Meiners' approach is to offer small packets of vegetable, flower, and herb seeds at reduced prices in the hope that the vast majority of seeds will be sown in the year they are bought. The minimum number of seeds is printed on each packet.
Meiners reasons that the smaller number of seeds in each packet makes it possible for a backyard gardener to experiment with more varieties.
Take the tomato as an example. Ideally, most gardeners would like to grow an early and a late variety and possibly some cherry tomatoes for summer salads. But no one family needs more than a few plants of each.
Even Pinetree packets contain more seeds than the average gardener needs, ''but at least fewer of mine will go to waste,'' says Meiners.
Going hand in hand with small seed packets is the square-foot gardening concept developed by Mel Bartholomew and detailed in his book ''Square Foot Gardening'' (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press).
Mr. Bartholomew suggests beds 4 by 4 feet divided into a grid of 1-by-1-foot squares.
The idea is to fertilize and plant one square foot of garden at a time. One lettuce plant is set out in the middle of a square foot but something like 100 carrot seeds are sown at carefully spaced intervals in one square foot.
As the carrots grow they are steadily thinned and eaten when the roots are the thickness of a pencil until the remaining carrots, at 3-inch intervals, are left to grow to full size.
You grow onion sets the same way, harvesting the thinnings as green onions, and finally harvesting about 12 mature onions from the same spot.
Bigger plants such as Brussels sprouts are set out in the center of 4 square feet, but surrounded by quick-maturing crops, such as lettuce and kohlrabi, that make use of the empty space before it is all needed by the bigger plant. Climbers (pole beans, cucumbers, and the like) are grown up trellises at the north end of the beds.
The idea is to replant each square-foot space as the previous crop is removed. It takes only about 10 minutes to harvest, fertilize, and replant a square foot of garden space.
Meiners sees the system as ideal for space-short and time-short gardeners. In turn, he sees his small-packet seeds concept as ideally matched to the square-foot concept.