Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gardening the square-foot way

One of the essential elements of our voluntary simplicity practice has been growing some of our own food. Sometimes new gardeners ask me what book or gardening method is best for a beginning gardener. To answer this, I’ll look at three different books and the gardening methods each advocates in this and the next few posts. I’ve tried each system and will let you know what I think are the pros and cons of each and under what circumstances each method works best.

The first method that I was successful with was the square foot gardening method developed by Mel Bartholomew and described in his book Square Foot Gardening, first published in 1981. Here's a photo of one of my square foot gardens, taken in 1998.

A square foot garden is planted in a framed, raised bed no more than 4 feet wide and as long as one cares to make it. A beginning gardener should keep it small, say 4 by 4 feet, while learning the skills of the gardener's trade. One foot by one foot sections are marked off on the surface of the soil in the bed and a crop of the gardener’s choosing is planted within each of the one foot by one foot squares, hence the name square foot gardening. The number of plants used within each square foot depends on the crop to be planted there. For a crop that is planted one to a square foot, that crop is planted in the center of the square. A one foot square can be divided into 4, 9, or 16 equal-area divisions. Smaller crops are planted one to each of these divisions. Large crops like broccoli or zucchini require more than one square foot per plant. Mel’s books (the latest edition was published in 2006) include tables giving the number of each kind of crop that can fit into a square foot. As examples, one pepper plant is planted in one square foot; each square foot can be planted with four lettuce plants, nine bean plants, or sixteen radish plants. The books include information on how to make the framed, raised bed and the soil mix that it is filled with, instructions on starting seeds, and other basic information needed by beginning gardeners.

A major advantage of the square foot gardening method is that it is very easy to design and plant such a garden. All you need to do is look up the crop you want to plant and draw a reasonably straight line in the dirt to section off a square foot into smaller units if needed. Mel’s seed-starting instructions are clear; I had good success with them. (A beginner could buy seedlings if desired rather than take a chance on seeds.) The recommended spacings work for most varieties of each kind of crop. The 4 foot width of the bed means all parts of the bed can be reached easily for planting and weeding. As the plants grow they begin to shade out weeds (assuming you’ve weeded reasonably well while the intended plants were still small), reducing weeding work. It’s easy to water a square foot garden because it’s a small space. For a gardener with limited space or who wants to raise only small amounts of certain kinds of vegetables (say salad vegetables or herbs, perhaps mixed with a few flowers), this may be the best method because it is economical on space and easy to do. It’s also excellent for those of you who want a tidy looking garden. You can buy the frames, soil mix, and other things you need at http://www.squarefootgardening.com/ (you can also make the bed and the soil mix yourself using directions in the books) and learn more about the method from Mel's books and at http://www.squarefootgardening.org/.

The major disadvantage to the square foot garden, in my opinion, is the insistence that it be done as a raised bed with framed sides. Granted, you avoid the hard work of digging a garden as the other methods require, and the framed, raised bed garden with its special soil mix will probably have fewer weeds than a dug garden. But it is much more costly to buy the supplies for the box and the soil mix than to purchase the shovel needed to prepare a garden by either of the next two methods. If you decide later to expand the garden, you’ll need to build more frames and buy more soil mix, incurring more expense. You can buy cheaper wood than the cedar recommended, but it will rot after a few years and need to be replaced.

Another disadvantage is that my square foot gardens usually didn't look quite as neat as claimed because the plants I chose often outgrew their alloted space. Beans seemed to be especially problematic in this regard; once past a certain size, they flopped over into surrounding square feet. I also had some difficulty figuring out how to allocate crops spatially across the raised bed so that taller crops didn’t shade out shorter ones and temporally so I could have food for longer during the gardening season. This is not a good method for crops that need a lot of space, like vining squashes and corn.

Another disadvantage to the square foot garden is the low depth of prepared soil. Some crops, such as carrots, need a larger depth of loosened soil than the shallow box can provide. The shallow soil in the frames will dry out faster than will a deeply dug garden.

For those of you who have only a small space for a garden or who need or want a very neat garden (this method is ideal for edible landscaping because you can easily include herbs and flowers among the vegetables and the crops can be arranged in a pleasing way), square foot gardening is likely the best method for you. If you are gardening in a community garden, your plot will probably be a framed, raised bed, ideal for this method. If you only want to grow some salad crops or herbs, or a mix of these, this method will be a good fit for your situation, especially if you have more money than time for gardening.

If you want a larger garden to start or expect you will expand it later, you might want to try digging a bed rather than making a framed, raised bed but use the crop spacings recommended for square foot gardening. Because the spacing is very geometric, it is easy to understand and do. You can learn how to dig a bed from either of the next two methods.

The next post will discuss the biointensive method developed by John Jeavons and the Ecology Action folks.

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying your posts so far! Thanks for putting this up. Thinking about planting in terms of square feet rather than rows and spacing does seem quite a bit easier for the beginner, but I can imagine that one would run in to problems with taller plants and big things like you mentioned. It does seem great for an attractive leafy green bed though!