In our last blog, we talked about raised bed gardening. Square Foot Gardening is a refinement of raised bed gardening. It uses high-intensity gardening methods to get the most production out of a modestly-sized raised bed garden plot.
Square Foot Gardening is the brainchild of Mel Bartholomew. Mel is an engineer by training. After retiring, he started gardening the traditional way. Here’s how he described his experience with planting a small garden in rows: “To an engineer [it] was so obviously inefficient, wasteful, and just too much work.” His search for an easier and more efficient way to garden blossomed into a new career. He founded the Square Foot Gardening Foundation to share his methods with the world in the goal of ending world hunger by enabling everyone to grow their own vegetables. His book, All New Square Foot Gardening is both interesting and informative. The book gives you all the details, but his website www.MelBartholomew.com, provides a summary of the process, which can be broken down to into four main steps:
- Build a frame to contain your garden
- Fill the frame with Mel’s recommended mix of soil components
- Overlay the frame with a grid of one-foot squares
- Plant each square foot with its own crop
Traditional farming plants in rows, allowing space between rows for walking. This wastes space – lots of it. In square foot gardening, you plant in the raised beds, allowing space for walking between the beds. You will save space – being able to grow the same amount of produce in about 20% of the space. You will save water – because you won’t water all that space between the beds where you’ll be walking. You’ll save time and effort by not needing to weed all the area that you walk on to prevent the weeds from taking over your planted rows. And you’ll experience all the benefits of raised bed gardening.
The Square Foot Gardening Mindset
If you’ve gardened before, moving to square foot gardening will require some change in your thinking, but you’ll quickly adapt. Gardeners typically think in terms of rows of plants and they lay out their gardens accordingly. In square foot gardening, you’ll be thinking in terms of square foot sections in a 4′ by 4′ grids. Generally, each 4 x 4 grid is broken into sixteen one-square-foot sections for planting (like the one in the picture above). Within each square foot section, you’ll place one type of plant (either seeds or transplants) and you’ll plant 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants in it. Yep, you read that right, you’ll plant as many as 16 plants in some of your squares! For some larger plants such as tomatoes, you’ll use multiple squares for a single plant.
Building Your Raised Beds
In your first year of square foot gardening, you’ll find that less work is required than preparing a traditional garden, but you’ll incur more expense. Instead of spending your springtime preparing your soil by weeding and roto-tilling the dirt, you’ll build raised bed frames and fill them with a custom soil mixture, at least some of which you’ll have to buy. After the initial start-up costs associated with building these beds, you’ll find subsequent years to be easier and less expensive than traditional gardening.
One of the great things about raised bed gardens is that you can place the beds anywhere. Don’t feel limited to the spot in the back corner of your yard that had previously been your garden plot. Of course you’ll want to put it in a sunny place, but because the garden will be in beds, you can put it nearer the house and it’ll look great. Putting it closer to your house will also be an encouragement to go outside and grab some fresh produce to add to your meal! And it usually puts it closer to your water source which – you guessed it – makes your gardening easier and more likely to be done!
Mel recommends creating your beds from wood, but you can use anything that will create the squares – bricks, decorative garden edging, or concrete blocks. Last year was the first year we did any square foot gardening and we opted for concrete blocks. They’re not as pretty as the other alternatives, but we wanted the flexibility of creating some beds that were 4′ x 8′ last year, but changing it up to being 4′ x 4′ this year if that made more sense when 2014 planting season came around. (As it turns out, we’re sticking with the 4′ x 8′ bed.) Also, we knew that we wanted our beds to be two blocks high instead of just one high. While this increased the cost of creating the beds, it was kinder to our backs and we were more comfortable growing root vegetables in it. We’ve always been fans of function trumping form so the concrete blocks won out. But we readily admit that wood beds look much better.
Filling the Raised Beds: Mel’s Mix, a Grid, and Some Plants or Seeds
Once you’ve got your raised bed frames made, you’ll want to fill them with soil. Mel recommends a mixture of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite – equal parts of each, measured by volume, not by weight. You can find all of these ingredients at your local plant nursery. Our nursery delivered everything to us just hours after placing the call to them.
Once your frame is made and you’ve filled it with Mel’s mix (or your own custom soil recipe), an important step remains – you must add the grid to it. It’s not square foot gardening if you don’t have the actual grid in place. You can use furring strips or heavy twine or anything you like, but don’t skip this step. You can’t rely on your ability to eyeball a grid that isn’t actually marked out. Take the time to create the grid and place it in or on your raised bed frame. We used wooden furring strips that cost almost nothing at our local hardware store.
Then comes the planting. The trick is in knowing how many plants each square can accommodate, and that depends on what you’re growing. Mel’s book [INCLUDE LINK] gives tons of details about many vegetables – including info about starting, growing, harvesting, and the all-important number of plants per square foot. If you’re not buying the book, check out this link: [http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net/plant-spacing/].
Here’s the number of plants in each square foot for the plants we planted last year:
- Pole beans – 8 plants per square
- Carrots – 16 plants per square
- Cucumbers – 2 plants per square
- Bell peppers – 1 plant per square
- Potatoes – 1 plant per square
- Tomatoes – 1 plant in 4 squares with a cage
We loved it. The truth is that we don’t really enjoy traditional gardening. If we had more space, that might be the best way to go, but for our in-town backyard, it just doesn’t make much sense. Yet we thoroughly enjoyed our first foray into square foot gardening. The only down side was that we got a late start. Where we live, gardens should be planted in the last two weeks of May. We got our garden planted in mid-June. It severely impacted our harvest because we ran out of growing season before all of our plants were ready to pick, but we still did pretty well. We planted Roma, cherry, and slicing tomatoes, beets, pole beans, cucumbers, carrots, onions, bell peppers, and lettuce. We had lots of tomatoes (many that we picked green and allowed to ripen after we brought them at the end of the season), lots of pole beans, some beets and cucumbers (they were really good). We also had a few carrots and onions. We have absolutely never been successful with peppers and we weren’t successful with them in our raised bed garden. But we’ll try again because I like peppers but they are so expensive in the store. Also, our lettuce didn’t work at all. We had an extremely rainy season, so that may have hurt our lettuce.
We are definitely going to do more square foot gardening this year. Every gardener continues to learn something every season, and we’re eager to put what we learned last year into place for this coming summer. Growing some of your own food is tremendously rewarding. In our predominantly urban culture, vegetable gardening has become a lost art. The time may come when we need to rely upon it as a primary source of food for our families. Don’t wait until you have to know something to start to learn it. We encourage you to start a garden this year, even if you’ve never done it before.