Plant a Square-Foot Garden

Even apartment dwellers can grow fresh vegetables with a little effort.

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Even klutzy, brown-thumbed apartment dwellers can cut their food bills, eat better, and reduce their carbon footprint. Just plant a "square-foot garden," says Mel Bartholomew, author of "All New Square Foot Gardening".

All it takes is some sort of wooden, plastic, or brick box or frame. (You may have to cut holes in the bottom for drainage.) Fill the frame with equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite, available at home and garden stores.

Put the box in any yard, or place it on a patio, deck, or stoop that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day.

Bartholomew recommends laying a 1-foot-by-1-foot wooden or plastic grid over the box to organize the miniature garden. Then, it's just a matter of planting—16 radish seeds, say, or one prestarted tomato plant per 1-foot square. Attaching a nylon net to climbing plants (like cucumbers and beans) will help increase harvests, as the plants grow up and leave room for other plants in the other squares. Because the clean compost probably won't be weedy, the only ongoing chore is watering carefully for the five or six weeks until the first radishes or lettuce leaves are ready to eat. Once you've harvested everything out of a square, just replenish the soil with a handful of compost and plant something else.

Bartholomew estimates one 4-foot square box will produce one meal's worth of vegetables a day for one adult through the growing season—typically about five months. Anyone who's priced fresh organic vegetables lately knows that's a savings of at least $15 a week.

A recent paper by a Rutgers nutritionist and others found that gardeners—especially children—became so enthusiastic about their crops that they ate more vegetables and less junk food. In addition, gardeners get more and better vitamins, since store-bought produce is often so old that it is less nutritious.

Some square-foot gardeners are even selling their extra organic, local produce to raise a little cash. In this economy, cash might be the most welcome crop of all.