ABSAROKEE - Wayne Burleson describes himself as a lazy gardener. But the Absarokee entrepreneur isn't ready to give his green thumb a rest.
By this time of year, most gardens have withered into a tangled mat of decay. Not so for Burleson's plots on his Sloping Acre Ranch west of Absarokee. Amid the seasonal palette of rusts, browns and golds, the verdant greens of his miniature gardens suggest an oasis. Even better, the presence of chlorophyll reflects an ongoing harvest.
"Last year we made it through Thanksgiving," Burleson said. "This year, we hope to make it to Christmas. Who knows? It might go all winter."
Extending the harvest season, however, is not Burleson's primary goal. Instead, he promotes a simple formula for growing "fast food" in very limited space.
"A garden means work," Burleson said. "I don't like to call it a garden. I like to call it fast food."
The technique he uses involves no digging, no fertilizer and no tilling. Compared to conventional gardening, he said, the system requires 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water, 95 percent less seed and 98 percent less work - but produces 100 percent of the crops.
"It's so simple everybody can do it," he said. "You can learn about it in about an hour, and you can build one in about an hour."
Burleson, a former Forest Service employee, likes to think outside the box. Now a consultant and author, he hands out business cards describing his expertise as "how to regenerate land, people and profit." Not one to waste space, he uses the back of his business card to list a series of questions to ask oneself when making decisions.
He was inspired by a trip to South Africa this past spring, when he and wife, Connie, traveled as part of the Farmer-to-Farmer Program sponsored by Florida A&M University. The Burlesons' task was to assist locals with technology and best-management practices. But the suggestions they offered were routinely rejected by the shanty-town residents.
"When you go to Africa, they end up teaching you," he said.
The Burlesons soon learned that the residents not only lacked money and space, but they faced a constant security problem. With poverty high and theft common, locals saw little point in increasing production if there was no way to protect their bounty, he said.
That's when the cogs in his head began turning. Burleson measured the size of the doorways into the shanty-town homes and on the flight back home he sketched a picture of a cart.
"They could put wheels on their gardens so they could fit through their doors," he said. "That way, they could wheel them inside and make them secure."
But the novel idea presented a secondary problem: How to grow food in a cart-sized space?
Back in Absarokee, Burleson's research led him to Mel Bartholomew's Web site, www.squarefootgardening.com. Bartholomew, a civil engineer and nationally recognized innovator, had devised a plan for tiny, productive gardens based on a grid system. Each square foot garden is divided into equal 1-foot squares, with each square designated for a different crop.
"He (Mel) says, if you don't grid it, you won't be disciplined," Burleson said. "And he says 1 cup of water per square."
All told, Burleson's 4-foot-by-4-foot minigardens - built using 2-by-6 boards, and lined on the bottom with weed cloth - can yield up to 100 pounds of produce, he said.
"Put the box by the house, so you're walking by it all the time," he suggests.
The secret to success, however, is not so much the size of the garden as the loose, dark, soil that supports it. By combining equal parts peat moss, coarse vermiculite and mixed compost, Burleson creates a fertile mixture that can produce a bounty of potatoes, full-size cabbages, a variety of lettuces and just about any type of garden produce. At only 4 inches deep - that's the depth of soil Bartholomew advises - even carrots, beets and radishes flourish.
According to Burleson, the compost is the "magic" ingredient of the soil. Created from a variety of organic matter, it is the one component that provides nutrients for plant growth.
It's easy to keep a bucket for vegetable kitchen waste by the back door, he said. To cut down on flies and odor, he drops a second bucket into the first.
Outside, he dumps the contents of the bucket into a heap with grass clippings, manure, straw and other vegetable waste. Turned frequently, it will heat to 150 degrees in its core. That's the sign of active bacteria breaking down the natural constituents, he said.
As Burleson perfects his soils and his garden, he continued tinkering on what he refers to as his "goofy invention" - a heated bucket garden on wheels, enclosed under a thermostatically controlled glass lid. As the temperature rises, the lid automatically opens. As the temperature falls, not only does the lid close, but the wheeled garden can be rolled into the garage.
"It had three feet of snow on it in October," he said. "And I missed a hailstorm, a windstorm and the animals couldn't get into it because I moved it inside."
The square-foot garden concept translates well to all ages and abilities, he said. Small tabletop plots can be made for nursing-home residents and even the wheelchair bound. The minigardens are also a great way to reconnect children to the source of their food.
"Teach your kids to plant, grow, harvest, cook and eat right out of the garden," he said, smiling at his double-play on the word "right."
But why is Burleson talking gardens in November?
Now is the perfect time to start making "fast food" soil, he said. And if you plan your layout and build your boxes now, you'll be eating gourmet lettuce when most of the neighbors are just planting their seeds.
Burleson recently compiled his ideas into a manual that was taken to Tanzania, and he and Connie have been invited to share their expertise at an orphanage in Ethiopia. But he's also eager to spread the word locally.
"This method is way too simple. It eliminates expensive transportation, and it's naturally organic," he said, then pauses to smile. "And I find myself eating better, too."