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.