In 2009, when the Obama family planted a kitchen garden at the White House, it re-ignited a trend that had been largely dormant for the past century. The simple act of tilling up the lawn and sowing seeds inspired thousands of families to dig up their own back yards and plant vegetable gardens. This return to our agricultural roots resonates with what Thomas Jefferson once declared, as "the noblest pursuit" and the Obamas set the stage for Americans to rediscover the simple pleasures of growing their own food.

For some, growing food is a welcome alternative to the high cost of packaged foods purchased in supermarkets. For others, it is a way of life that provides healthy exercise, and engages all of the senses through a rich tapestry of colors, fragrance, and flavors.

A ’Four Square’ kitchen garden
A 'Four Square' kitchen garden
When you cultivate a vegetable garden, you actively engage with your source of food, and integrate with your natural surroundings in a way that far surpasses the experience of purchasing food at the market. Growing your own food is truly the next logical step beyond "local."

When I planted my first vegetable garden, I began with the four square system, which is one of the oldest and most practical methods that goes back seven centuries. The design has evolved through the ages, and in its best form, combines classic design with the principles of organic gardening. A four square garden simplifies the process of figuring out where to place your plants every year, since you are grouping plants based on plant family, while naturally building the soil to improve productivity.


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When plants are grown in the same location year after year they can be weakened by soil borne diseases. In the four square garden, you are creating a garden that will be self sustaining as well as self improving every year. You are working with nature to constantly upgrade the natural balance in your vegetable garden. Start by dividing your garden into four equal squares, and designate each bed marked by the plant type and what they need nutritionally.

Lettuce and other leafy greens, are grown in the bed marked "Nitrogen".

Ellen Ogden at work in her "four square" garden.
Ellen Ogden at work in her "four square" garden. (Courtesy Photo)
Mark another bed "Potassium" for the root crops, to sow the carrots, beets, and onion family. Another bed will contain the "Phosphorus" loving crops, or anything that forms a fruit such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Finally, you will have "Soil Builders" which represent the legume family, including beans and peas, which release nitrogen back into the soil. At the end of the season, rotate the crops so the leafy greens will be planted where the legumes had grown, and the legumes where the root crops had grown, etc.

Growing food for your family and friends is one of the best ways we can effect positive change in our communities. When we bring our families together around the table to share our love for good homegrown food, we are cultivating a healthy choice that spreads beyond our own back yard. Teaching basic skills such as how to build a compost pile to keep waste out of landfills, how to encourage natural pollinators like honeybees, and how to cook with simple, whole foods harvested seasonally may seem like small steps, but when we learn to become responsible consumers, we also reclaim our health as a nation.

Grow a garden this year, and learn more about how this four square system works at my free workshop on Thursday, April 17th at 7PM, hosted by Alan Benoit's Sustainable Living series and held at The Northshire Bookstore. A detailed four-square plan can be found in my book, The Complete Kitchen Garden.

Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of The Complete Kitchen Garden and co-founder of The Cook's Garden seed catalog. She is a garden consultant, and will be teaching a four square garden design workshop at the Northshire Bookstore on April 17. For more information, please visit: http://www.ellenogden.com.