Square Foot Gardening

How much space does it take to practice what many are calling "urban homesteading?" According to Bryan and Nikki Messing, beginning gardeners, not much at all.

The young couple, who live right off of Sand Hill Road, own a home on a quarter-acre that they share with several chickens and a 110-pound bull mastiff named Toby.

Shortly after moving into their West Asheville property, the couple puzzled over what to do with the old concrete foundation — likely remnants of a torn-down outbuilding — taking up a corner of their land.

"Our plan initially was just to figure out how to cover the old foundation that was here," says Brian. "We were both also interested in learning how to garden, so we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do that." So, the Messings simply picked up a handful of books, logged some study time, and came up with a plan for raising food in their small space by building raised vegetable beds on top of the slab — and eventually adding a chicken coop.

"Square Foot Gardening (by Mel Bartholomew) was the most helpful for cramming as much as you can into a small space," says Nikki. Indeed, the small beds built into the 400-square-foot garden space are brimming with vegetables.

"With square foot gardening, you can plant a certain amount of crops per square foot,” says Bryan. For example, he says, one head of broccoli or a pepper plant can fit in one square foot. Most strawberry plants can be planted four to a square foot and lettuce plants can be crammed four or more to a square foot.

"We try to be as efficient as we can and consolidate as much as possible," says Bryan. "We don't have a huge piece of land, but we wanted to be able to grow what we eat."

Bryan says that planning the garden was a bit of a "fun challenge.”

“Definitely a little bit of planning on the front end helps things on the back end," he says. "Watching the progress of it is my favorite part."

According to Bryan, when planting a garden in a small space, it’s important to remember that some things can be grown vertically. Most people tend to think of vegetables like squash and cucumbers as crowding the garden, but they can easily be trained to a trellis.

The most surprising thing about growing vegetables, says Nikki, is seeing how different garden-grown vegetables look than what is found in the grocery store. "Even the broccoli looks different — to see it with all of the little leaves attached is cool."

The couple admits that, even though gardening can seem intimidating, especially when starting from scratch, it's really quite simple. "If you provide the soil, the sunlight and the water, (the plants) will pretty much just go on autopilot," says Nikki.

The Messings were so encouraged by their gardening success that they decided to build a small — but still roomy — 15-by-15-foot chicken coop next to their vegetable beds. The birds' home base consists of a hand-built chicken "hut" with a fenced-in area for pecking and rolling in the dirt — apparently favorite chicken pastimes, according to the Messings.

"This is all a new experience — not only the garden, but also the chickens," says Bryan as he scoops up one of the birds, who are surprisingly docile.

"They are the funniest things to watch, I swear," says Nikki as her rambunctious young leghorn hops up on the roof of the hut. "They have way more personality than I ever would have thought."

Nikki says that she and her sister became interested in the "urban homesteading thing" together, and have both been surprised by just how easy it is to raise chickens. "They're pretty content with a small amount of space — plus, you can have fertilizer, eggs and a funny little pet, all at the same time," she says.

Once they are mature enough, each chicken will lay one egg a day, say the Messings. Bryan admits that he wasn't initially sure that the work put into keeping the birds would justify the yield — especially when eggs are fairly cheap at the grocery store. The Messings both, however, have found raising the flock to be a great learning experience.

The best part of raising chickens? "Really understanding where your food comes from," says Nikki. "Seeing the whole cycle of them growing up from chick to hen has been pretty cool. They've changed a lot from when they were just tiny little fuzz balls."

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