Square Foot Gardening
There are a fair number of people who are no stranger to caring for large gardens, particularly if they grew up in a large family. Unfortunately, this memory is often what discourages folks to shy away from growing their own vegetables despite the myriad of benefits.
Thankfully, there are ways to grow produce “inside the box,” so to speak. Instead of growing vegetables in the traditional single rows, many gardeners follow Mel Bartholomew’s innovative concept in his book, All New Square Foot Gardening, and follow his method to the letter.
Square foot gardening is a way to raise a surprisingly high number of vegetables in a small space with very little maintenance. Weeding is practically non-existent, very few tools are needed, and the method is easier on the water bill since you’re not soaking pathways as well as the vegetables.
With Square Foot Gardening a special soil mix provides adequate nutrition while eliminating the weeds. And all it takes is filling up the wooden frames with 6 inches of a planting mix consisting of equal parts of compost, peat moss and course vermiculite. This provides a light medium that is ideal for most crops.
And instead of scattering seeds, gardeners plant a certain amount within the one-foot grid system that she placed on top of the wooden beds. Many people like the fact that they’re not scattering the entire packet of seeds, particularly when seeds are becoming more expensive. Depending on the variety, you plant 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per square making the most efficient use of seeds and space.
Bartholomew’s first book on square foot gardening, published by Rodale Press in 1981, turned traditional gardening on its ear. “Everything about square foot gardening is the opposite of single row gardening,” says Bartholomew.
Despite being on the cutting edge of home gardening, Bartholomew’s first career was far removed from growing fruits and vegetables. He started out as a civil engineer, and owned a successful consulting company. When his business reached the point where the next logical step was to grow in size, Bartholomew took a different path. “I retired when I was forty two. I sold the company, and took up gardening as a hobby,” he says.
Bartholomew managed a community garden for awhile, and learned the basics of single row gardening from the local county agent. The more he learned, the more he questioned. Rototilling to loosen the soil, only to walk on it, didn’t make sense.
Bartholomew says a packet of lettuce will often hold 1000 seeds. “I don’t care if you’re a family of rabbits. You’re not going to eat that much lettuce,” he laughs.
Bartholomew notes, “As an efficiency expert, anything out of the ordinary attracts my attention.” And, to him, the traditional single row method was a puzzlement. To satisfy his curiosity he traveled from Maine to California visiting gardeners and asking questions. The answer to everything was: “’Cause that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“I went home and invented a new way to garden,” he says. This new method turned into his first book and a PBS series that ran for 5 years, as well as a lifelong passion to teach home gardeners a better way.
Square foot gardening creates a gardening space that can be reached by any side without having to trample the soil, which is why the boxes are typically 4×4 ft. for adults, and 3×3 ft. for kids. (Advanced gardeners often build 4×8 ft. boxes with the knowledge that they can still reach the middle from either side.)
This makes planting and caring for the vegetables extremely easy. If you can reach everything from the side, there’s no need for hoes or large hand tools. And rototillers are functionally obsolete in Square Foot Gardening.
Below the bed, if it’s placed on the ground, many gardeners use weed barrier fabric or cardboard underneath to smother out weeds. These beds can also be elevated to provide a handy place for those with bad knees or an aching back to garden.
The soil is critically important. In his first book, Bartholomew advocated mixing his compost, vermiculite, peat moss mix with six inches of turned garden soil to create 12 inches of improved planting medium. Bartholomew said as he talked to gardeners throughout the country, they agreed the results were great, but digging the 6 inches of garden soil was a lot of work.
Never to rest on his laurels, he went back to the drawing board. He visited commercial greenhouses that grew entire crops in boxes, and asked them how they did it. “We start with the perfect soil,” was the reply.
Bartholomew went home to experiment, and discovered growing in 6 inches of “perfect soil” was just as effective as in 12 inches of the garden soil combination. He incorporated this new feature in his 2006 book, All New Square Foot Gardening. “That was a major advantage,” he says. It doesn’t take nearly as much material, yet produces the same results.
This blend makes it possible to grow anywhere, regardless of how awful the local soil. It also makes weeds virtually non-existent.
The astounding part of square foot gardening is growing an impressive amount of produce in a fraction of the space. Most gardeners start with a sixteen square grid out of wood lathing set over the top of a 4×4 ft. box to keep vegetables properly spaced giving them ample room to grow, as well as providing a simple way to rotate crops throughout the season.
Vegetables are planted according to Bartholomew’s recommendations, such as a single tomato or 16 radishes per square, and gardeners are happy with their harvests. There are already plenty of tomatoes, zucchini and other vegetables to bring home for dinner.
Even vining crops that tend to take up a lot of space have their place in a square foot garden with the use of trellises. This allows the cucumbers, squash or beans to grow vertically saving space, as well as making the vegetables easy to find for harvesting. There is no tripping over vines or searching for submarine-sized zucchini that are lost under the leaves.
And once a crop, such as early peas or radishes, is finished, Bartholomew strongly recommends planting a new one in the vacant square. It can’t be much easier than that to keep the garden growing throughout the season.
“The fall crop is the best of the year,” says Bartholomew. “The plants start quickly, grow rapidly, and then slow down.”
For late season crops, plant the varieties most gardeners put in during the spring like lettuce, radishes, beets, carrots, and other fast maturing options. As long as you give them enough time between planting, and the first heavy freeze you’ll enjoy a flush of fresh greens and other vegetables after the first one is finished.
Square Foot Gardening is a super easy way for any gardener, regardless of his or her experience level, to start growing vegetables.
For more information visit the Square Foot Gardening Foundation at www.squarefootgardening.com