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Lately there’s been a tremendous surge in interest in eating locally. There are Slow Food groups popping up all over the globe, books about eating food sourced within 100 miles from your home, and farmers markets becoming more common and trendy.

But what’s better than going to a farmers market and filling your cloth bags with your local farmer’s latest and greatest veggie? Well, how about stepping out on your porch or into your yard and picking some bright, juicy, delicious, home-grown tomatoes or some fragrant basil?

Too much work, you say? Ever heard of square-foot gardening?

Two years ago, I was introduced to square-foot gardening at a class at my local “green living” store, IndigoGreen. We promptly went home and gathered the materials to put together our garden and several weeks later, we had our first crop!

Square-foot gardening can be done anywhere you have six to eight hours of sun daily — so even a fire escape with 1-square-foot area will do if that’s what you’ve got to work with.

The ideal situation is a 4×4 foot space where you can place a garden box. The garden box consists of just four boards, some nails, and a barrier at the bottom to keep the weeds and grass from growing through. The quality of your soil doesn’t matter because you mix up your own with supplies from a local garden or farm and feed store.

If you compost your kitchen waste, even better: You can use this in place of the recommended cow manure compost that makes up 1/3 of the soil mixture. The other 2/3 is made of equal parts vermiculite and peat moss.

Once you divide up your 1-foot-square plots with string or other material, you are ready to start planting your very own organic garden.

Our square-foot garden has become a great family project that my 3-year-old has been involved in ever since he could grab a handful of dirt. Now he has his own square foot to plant whatever he likes. The box design reduces work because weeding and thinning becomes unnecessary.

And it is incredibly productive. Just one 4×4 box can produce up to five times the produce that a traditional garden of the same size would yield, while using 90 percent less water and 95 percent fewer seeds. And the best benefit? It’s free of pesticides and fertilizers that harm sensitive environments.

Why do I, a marine biologist, care about pesticides and fertilizers? Well, putting aside the potential ill effects on human health, they also cause harm to waterways and ocean environments.

After being applied to your yard or garden, these chemicals make their way to local streams and rivers, eventually finding their way to the sea. Adding both toxins and excess nutrients (i.e., fertilizers) creates problems in the sensitive ocean environments, causing events such as red tides, which is a type of harmful algal bloom being seen more and more frequently these days.

When these algal blooms occur, oxygen gets sucked up by the tiny algae, making the water unlivable for resident sea life — thus causing massive die-offs of fish, shrimp, crabs and numerous other small creatures.

So planting your own backyard garden not only gives you food that’s as local as it gets, it also reduces your impact on the ocean.

It doesn’t matter where you live: As a famous fish cartoon character says: “all drains lead to the ocean.” So next time you start to sprinkle that fertilizer, remember where it is likely to end up.

And learn more about other ways you can green your gardening to help protect our waterways in my previous post on green lawn care.

Text by Stephanie Wear, Cool Green Science Blog

See also:

Square Foot Gardening Plans, Layouts, & Tips: a Metaguide (via

Help oceans: Go chemical-free with a square-foot garden
Want to help make oceans healthy? Try square-foot gardening. Marine scientist Stephanie Wear tells you how to start.