I’ve always had small gardens, determined by the size of my backyard and the amount of sunlight it received. Some years ago, I discovered Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening, which I’ve used ever since.
In square foot gardening, you divide your garden space into 12-inch squares, and then cram as many vegetables as you possibly can into those squares. Measuring precisely, you place seeds into a grid instead of rows. Using this method, in one square foot you can grow:
- 9 onions, beets, bush beans, bush peas, garlic or spinach
- 16 carrots or radishes
- 4 lettuce, chard, marigolds or kohlrabi
- 1 tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage or corn
What does this have to do with poetry?
The wisdom of square foot gardening, which is to break your growing space into small, manageable portions, easily translates to writing projects. If the blank white page is your word-garden, it can seem like a pretty scary place, simultaneously empty and full of possible word-weeds. But if, as in gardening, you divide it into small parts, the prospect of filling that space is much less intimidating.
This approach is the opposite of freewriting, which instructs the writer to scribble as fast as possible for, say, five minutes. While useful in getting past a writing block, this approach would be disastrous in gardening, the equivalent of wildly scattering untold numbers of seeds all over your carefully prepared garden bed. Not just a bad idea, but one you’ll most likely regret for a long time to come.
With square foot poetry, I use 3×3-inch Post-it notes (you can also draw squares on your sheet of paper or in your journal). My favorite color is yellow, because it’s cheerful and reminds me of the sun shining on my garden (and hopefully, on my words). Now, just like in gardening, I try to fit as much as I can inside those squares, substituting words for plants. When I write on my Post-it notes, I take my time, since every word takes up proportionally more room than on a larger piece of paper.
An advantage of using Post-it notes is that you can easily move them around, rearranging the piece of writing you’re working on (yes, I know there are programs that do this, but for now, I’m using paper). When I plan my garden, I use the same method, taking into consideration how tall the plant is, how much sun it needs, and whether I grew it there previously.
I like to think of grammar as the “carrots” of writing: articles, punctuation, pronouns, syntax, semantics, etc. Placed with care, as with planting carrots, these help guide and structure sentences in order to convey the most meaning. On the other hand, gorgeous, tasty, impressive nouns, verbs and adjectives remind me of tomatoes, which take up at least one whole square foot and amaze everyone with their beauty.
Since I started using the square foot method for gardening, I’ve had bumper crops of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Transferring the same principles to writing has paid off as well: small, non-scary yellow squares filled with words seem almost playful, and are just as good at turning into sentences, stanzas and paragraphs as fully-filled sheets of paper.
I hope you’ll give the square foot method a try. Let me know how it goes!