Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Merits of Square Foot Gardening!

When Reed and I first started out, he was living in a tiny one-room efficiency apartment that was part of an old house in the small town of Athens, WV. He had no tv, no phone, no car, no stereo, and no computer. Which in my eyes, made him a kind of modern day ascetic. He did have a big country yard and a garden though, and now that I think about it, the veggie garden was about the size of the apartment.

That was circa 2005, and it is the last time I have worked in a conventional garden. Since then, Reed and I lived in many more tiny apartments, but in 2008, we took up residence in our first house. With it, came a terrific yard. We wanted to plant our garden within the safety of the fenced section to protect it from deer, but there wasn't the space in there for a huge - conventional garden. Around this time - Reed discovered a gardening method known as square foot gardening.

Developed by Mel Bartholomew around 1981, this method minimizes labor and maximizes efficiency of space. Rather than having a large rectangular space "way out back" that requires constant weeding and thinning, and overly huge harvests all at once, a square foot gardener has one or more 4' X 4' garden squares. Each garden square may be subdivided into squares that may be as small as 1'' X 1''. Assuming you give this method a shot, you will be amazed at the large harvests that can be attained in such a small space. Further advantages are:

  • Not having to step on your garden. Every gardener knows that stepping on garden soil is a major DON'T. It compacts soil making aeration and growth difficult. Still, you have to get in there to harvest and weed somehow. When standing outside a 4'X4' square, no stepping on precious soil is necessary.
  • When one square is harvested completely (like a lettuce or pea square), just harvest and plant anew. If you are already propagating seedlings in an indoor greenhouse - you have a head start.
  • A square foot garden can be planted closer to your house and takes up less yard space.
  • You're not planting a huge row of tons of seeds just have to thin out half of a 12' row in a few weeks! When direct sowing, say, lettuce - you plant only 2 lettuce seeds for every lettuce plant you want. That only leaves a single sprout to thin.
  • You're only growing as much as you need. Don't get me wrong, you can grow a lot of veggies. But you're not having tons of cucumbers rotting on the vine because you can't consume them as fast as they're growing.
  • Again, woman friendly. You're not wrestling with some giant tiller every year. Once Reed dug up the squares (with only a shovel!) all I have to do is hoe it in the Spring. (And yes, he does that too!)
So - how is it done? I can't give you the whole picture here, but I'll try to provide an overview of how we do it.

  1. Pick the location for your squares. They should be near each other, and near your house for easy access. You can use raise beds or dig up your soil and add amendments.
  2. Decide how many squares you want and what you want to grow. Obviously, the amount and diversity of plants that can go in the square will depend on the type of plant. You can only plant 1 zucchini plant in a 4X4 square, but you can plant up to 16 cabbages in a 4X4 square because they only need 1 square foot to grow. (Of course, you can companion plant. Unless you just really love cabbage, you could plant all sorts things in there as long as you follow the spacing requirements).
  3. Dig your 4' X 4' squares!
  4. We are budget gardeners, so we form our bed edging out of refuse materials. After Reed digs a 4X4 square, he walls them in with boards or bricks. We've also used decorative flower bed fencing, but it doesn't keep the weeds out as well.
  5. Divide up your squares. (Again, we're cheap - so I'm not even kidding, we use broken window blinds to mark off the individual squares). Again, how much you divide depends on the spacing requirements of what you want to plant there. Don't bother dividing for the zucchini square. This plant will produce all summer, but it needs the entire 4 foot space. For smaller plants, send 4 dividing lines horizontally across your square and 4 lines vertically across your square. This will give you 16 1-square foot squares. Don't think that's much? You can grow 16 carrots in only 1 square foot of soil. For realz!
  6. Plant your seeds according to the spacing chart in Mel's book. So, if you plant carrot seeds only 1" apart, you can plant carrot 16 seeds. (If you have doubts about your seed viability, you may plant more and thin later).
We have a great time with our square foot garden. It's neat, it's pretty - and it's easy to manage. Back in Reed's 2005 garden - I kid you not, we would find dried up peppers as late as November that we missed in all the mess. These little gardens are so neat and so tidy, that pretty much never happens to us anymore.

For more details about Square Foot Gardening, check out his book in the picture up there, or better yet, buy it!

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