square foot gardening
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.
I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but I’m guessing that for many of you it feels like gardening season is a long way off. I have good news and bad: It’s really not. It will get warmer and the snow will change to rain and plants will come back to life…sooner than you think…but perhaps not as soon as you’d like. The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s going to be planting season sooner than you’re ready for it if you don’t begin planning for it now.
Seems like a perfect time for a series about making gardening easier. If you’re a regular reader of The Approaching Day Prepper, you know that we are novice preppers. We come from a totally unprepared background. So the bottom line is we’re just learning, folks. Last year was our first foray into gardening. Even with our late start we enjoyed fresh green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers with many meals. Our other plants didn’t like the late start so much, so we didn’t get a lot of action from them – a few squash, onions, carrots, and beets.
But that was last year. We intentionally started small so as to not become so overwhelmed that we didn’t want to try it again. That worked – this year we’re raring to go and looking forward to expanding upon what we learned from last year. We’ve been researching many topics and plan for this to be a year of experimentation with many different types of gardening techniques.
This blog is the first in a six-part series on ways to make gardening easier:
Part 1 – This introduction — Were introducing the upcoming blogs and sharing some tips for starting out the right foot.
Part 2 – Introducing the RowMaker – This blog will be directed toward traditional gardeners — folks who have the space to plant a medium to large garden with farm-style rows. We’ll be reviewing a great new gardening tool called the RowMaker. It will significantly – and I mean significantly – cut your garden prep time. More on that tomorrow. If you want a preview, head over to their site, but here’s a spoiler alert – don’t buy from their site unless you want to pay the full introductory price. They’ve given us a special discounted price that is even lower than their introductory price, and it will be available in our next blog.
Part 3 – Raised bed/Square foot gardening – “Square foot gardening” is really just a refinement of raised bed gardening principles, so we’ll talk about both in this blog. This was how we did most of our gardening last year. Loved it. Now we’re ready for some modifications to it and to try new things.
Part 4 – Container gardening – Phil’s sister gardens extensively year-round in Florida and she does more and more of it in containers. Container gardening is a great approach for apartment dwellers, but Phil’s sister has a big yard and has simply found container gardening easier than traditional gardening.
Part 5 – Straw bale gardening – Gardening without dirt in bales of straw! Using bales of straw as your growing medium, you can plant a garden with no soil at all. We recently attended a seminar on this and are looking forward to trying it this year. Initial start-up costs are minimal, it’s flexible, portable (how many gardens can say that?), and very low-maintenance. We’ll be doing at least a few bales of straw bale gardening this year.
Part 6 – Vertical gardening – Another favorite of city dwellers, vertical gardening allows you to grow a lot of plants in a small space. You can train many plants to grow vertically instead of spread out over the ground. We incorporated a bit of it into our square foot garden last year, but we want to learn more. Now’s the time.
Who knew there were so many approaches to gardening? And this is by no means a comprehensive list. But it’s probably more than anyone can start with – although I think we’ll be doing a nice combination of most of them.
We have some recommendations for getting started, and it all starts with having a plan. Yes, this is part of making gardening easier, because establishing a good plan ahead of time will get you off to a good start and keep you on track through the growing season. Planning as you go isn’t really planning at all. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction, and it often leads to re-doing work you’ve already done because halfway through you realize that you didn’t think through the potential pitfalls.
- Start small – Especially if you are a novice gardener. Starting with a large garden is a recipe for failure regardless of the approach you take. You will find that it is more work the first year than subsequent years and you may quickly become overwhelmed. That leads to a neglected garden, a lot of effort put in for little results, and quite possibly a negative attitude towards gardening that keeps you from enjoying food picked from your own garden for years to come.
- Decide what plants you want in your garden – Think first about the food you eat and/or would like to eat. If you’re a novice gardener, you’ll want to start with plants that are easy to grow. Tomatoes and beans are great vegetables for beginners. Cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, squash, and peppers work well for most folks, too. OK, we’ve had no luck the two whole years we’ve planted peppers, but they grow like weeds for other people. I think the rabbits have always gotten ours.
- Consider what gardening method(s) most appeal to you – Traditional, square foot, vertical, container, etc.? We’ll discuss each of these in upcoming blogs.
- Create a planting layout:
- Consider the best area of your yard for direct sunlight and for ease of watering. (Lots of people forget the ease of watering part and get really frustrated dragging a hose across the yard every day.)
- Consider how tall your plants will grow as they will provide shade for things planted near them. Shade may be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s usually a bad thing in vegetable gardens.
- You can download a grid here to use in developing your layout.
- Create a schedule for preparing your soil and planting your garden. Timing is an essential element in gardening. It’s why we’re doing this series while it’s still winter.
- The easiest way to create your schedule is to start with your desired planting date and work your way backwards. The best way to determine your planting date is to ask other gardeners in your area. They’ll have the best answers for you. Bear in mind that different vegetables like different starting dates. Some are cold weather crops and others need the soil to be warm before they will grow well. We’ve provided a scheduling assistant with the grid layout. Download it here.
- Whether you start your plants from seeds or you buy starter plants from a nursery, you don’t want to get a late start (like we did last year). A late start will mean a smaller harvest or perhaps no harvest at all because you’ve run out of growing season.
- If you are using starter plants and wait too long to buy them, it’ll be slim pickins. The best plants will be gone and all that will be left will be the less popular and less healthy ones.
- Allow enough time in your schedule to prepare your garden plot, containers, raised beds, or whatever other method you choose.
- Properly prepare your soil. We’re not going into detail about that here, but suffice it to say that it can make you or break you. In some of the options we’re going to talk about, local soil conditions aren’t a factor at all, specifically raised bed, straw bale, and container gardening. This can be a huge factor in making gardening easier. Stay tuned for more.
As we said at the start of this blog, we’re still newbie preppers, as are most of you. We spent a lifetime avoiding prepper-type things like gardening, but now we see the need for it so clearly that we can’t stay on the path of blissful ignorance that we once enjoyed. Storing food is good and necessary. We hope you have a ton of it, but it will eventually run out. You need sustainability, and that means being able to grow your own food. That’s what’s got us out there digging in the dirt. We’re looking forward to this growing season. Check out the coming blogs in this series and you’ll find ways to make gardening easier.
Sandy and I are city kids, through and through. Despite our urban upbringing and having spent the first ten years of our post-college life in Los Angeles and Chicago, we feel well prepared for life in a small town. I mean, hey! We’ve seen every episode of Green Acres. If ever there was a real-life Lisa and Oliver, it’s Sandy and me. But now that we’ve decided to start to prep, we’re really glad for God’s provision in moving out of the city to a small town several years ago. That’s God’s plan and wisdom, not ours. And like Oliver from Green Acres, we feel a need to get in touch with the land and grow some of our own food. (This coming from a guy who only strays into his yard to cut the grass once a week.)
A big part of prepping is learning useful skills, things that will help make us less reliant on outside sources. How long can I last if (when) the grocery stores get picked clean? The canned food I have in the house won’t last forever. I have to find a means of producing more of it. That’s where planting a garden comes in. In all fairness, we did plant a small garden once before, and we were stunned at how much food we were able to grow from it, but we’re just not “yard work” kinds of people, so any time the urge to plant another garden reared it’s head, we laid down until the feeling went away.
Not this time. We no longer view gardening as a “take it or leave it” pastime. It’s become more of a life-or-death necessity. So we’re going to take the plunge again this year, but we don’t want to over-extend ourselves until we get a better handle on it. We want to expand as we learn, so we’re starting small. And when it comes to small gardens, there are two very viable approaches that are wildly popular right now — container gardening and “square foot” gardening. We may do a little container gardening this year, but we’re going to focus our efforts on square foot gardening.
What Is “Square Foot” Gardening?
Square foot gardening is an efficient method of growing vegetables and herbs in small, organized spaces. So-called “square foot gardens” are raised beds divided into individual sections that are (wait for it…) a square foot each. So what’s wrong with conventional “row” gardening? Mel Bartholomew, the creator of the Square Foot Gardening Method, says it’s all wrong:
After looking at other people’s gardens, it was usually very predictable. Here’s what I found out about single row gardening: Too big an area, too much time, too much work, too much effort, too many seeds, too many weeds, too many plants, too many problems, too costly, too much harvest, too many tools. IT’S JUST TOO MUCH OF EVERYTHING!
People can grow 100% of the crops they used to grow in large plots in just 20% of the space. These smaller, more organized gardens are easy for beginner gardeners, can be located close to the house, and are easy to protect from pests and frost.
What You Can Grow
Herbs and bulbs are great for square foot gardens, as are beans and most vegetables. (You can grow flowers, too, but I don’t think you’ll want to eat them.) The only things that don’t work well are bulky vegetables like artichokes, ground spreaders like melons, and root spreaders like blueberries. Good picks are:
- Cherry Tomatoes
Picking a Location
- 6 – 8 hours of sun a day
- Away from trees where shade and roots can interfere
- Close to house for convenience
- Good drainage
Making the Raised Beds
Raised beds are made from frames or boxes that should be 6 inches deep and 4 feet x 4 feet square with no bottom. (We’re framing ours with concrete cinder blocks.) Actually, your beds can be as long as you like, but they shouldn’t ever be more than 4 feet deep. You need to be able to reach into the raised beds to tend the plants. If you have access to all sides of a bed, making it 4 feet deep will mean that you only need to reach in 2 feet from either side. If you are placing your bed against a wall or other barrier, make it only 2 feet deep so you can reach all the way into it.
Square foot gardening doesn’t require to you till the soil before you plant. Instead, you fill the boxes with new potting soil, ideally a mix of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. So even if you live in an area with crummy dirt like hard clay or light sandy soil, no problem! You’re not using the dirt from your yard. Your plants will grow great in this “potting soil” mixture. Each box should have a permanent grid on top that divides it into 1 foot x 1 foot squares. Don’t skip this step or you’ll miss out on many of the benefits of square foot gardening!
Planting and Care
You plant a different “crop” in each square foot. Some crops grow one plant per square foot — others 4, 9, or even 16. If you’re growing from seed, plant seeds sparingly. Water the entire bed gently by hand with tepid water (never cold). As you harvest each square foot you can add a little potting mix, then replant it.
Of course, you’ll have to deal with insects and critters just like you would in any garden, but it’s much easier in a square foot garden. To keep hungry critters like deer and rabbits out of your garden, it’s easy to build a removable wire mesh cap. If you end up with garden pests, use organic pest control methods so your food stays safe to eat.
For more information on Square Foot Gardening, check out Mel’s excellent website at www.SquareFootGardening.org. Other great resources for small format gardening are RaisedBeds.com and Eartheasy.com. EarthEasy is very slow to load, but it’s a great site. Your patience will be rewarded.