Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
For most gardeners, especially beginners, much consideration is given to many things, from what to grow to where to grow, but not much is given to how to grow or how best to grow. Many gardeners still engage in traditional bed gardening, and those considering new methods, like raised gardening, may still plant in rows.
Square foot gardening is an ideal method with many benefits if done appropriately. From saving space to increasing yield, square-foot gardening will help gardeners reap good harvests in small spaces.
This post will take you through the pros and cons of square-foot gardening and some steps to note when planning your garden. It’s a convenient method to use, so make sure to follow this post and make the choice yourself.
What is square-foot gardening?
Backyard gardener Mel Bartholomew invented a better way to grow a vegetable garden. It became widely accepted when he introduced the idea to the gardening public in 1981 in his book Square Foot Gardening.
To understand what square-foot gardening is, we should know what raised gardens are.
A raised-bed garden is a planting area higher than the surrounding ground’s level. They keep pathway weeds from your garden soil, prevent soil compaction, provide good drainage, and serve as a barrier to pests such as slugs and snails.
You may have come across those highly organized raised beds divided into perfect squares, each producing a variety of plants. Those are square-foot gardens. It is simply a raised bed that is divided into squares.
It is a simple method of creating small, orderly, and highly productive kitchen gardens. The beds can be 2 feet x 2 feet or 4 x 12, but the most common is a bed that is 4 feet by 4 feet.
Effectively, this means 16 squares. Dividing the planting area into squares makes it more efficient than row planting. This allows plants to be situated more closely together, benefitting from one another.
Planning and Spacing a Square Foot Garden
Getting the ideal square foot spacing is important. You can buy many square-foot garden kits on the market to make the frame of your raised beds, but you could also create your own. You can consider building a bed with bricks, old concrete blocks, stones or even logs from your garden.
Once you have assembled your frame, create a grid to demarcate each square foot. You could do this by using string. The grid is purely a visual tool, and there is no need to divide the soil to ensure you allocate exactly one square foot to each crop you grow. You could also consider bamboo canes, straight branches pruned from garden trees.
Benefits of Square Foot Gardening
Square foot gardens, when densely planted, need less weeding. Since most of the garden is dedicated to crops, there is little room for weeds to start coming up.
Also, you’re not using soil with existing weed seeds, so the likelihood of weeds is low. You also reduce space as each area of the square foot garden is made for a specific use, so you can expect to increase the volume of your yield.
Raised gardens warm faster, allowing for earlier planting and harvest. A square-foot bed will enable you to have a continuous succession of plantings.
As one square has finished producing, you can immediately plant another crop. Hence, there is a continuous pool of products to select from, lengthening the growing season for as long as possible.
Intensive planting minimizes bare soil and acts as a cover crop to protect the below-important soil ecosystem.
Square-foot gardening can give high yields in small spaces. This is because you maximize the space for gardening in each square. Moreover, you don’t allow weeds to grow, so you can use the space to plant more. A lot more food can be grown in this way than can be grown in a comparable space given over to traditional rows.
Growing various crops close together is a form of companion planting, which increases biodiversity and helps reduce the threat posed by pests and disease. Some of these plants also increase the nutrient levels in the soil.
Square gardening also makes gardening easier for most gardeners. First, the neat, raised beds or square-foot gardening makes it easier to garden if you are getting on in years or have mobility problems.to move and garden without having to bend too much.
Then the square makes it easier to keep track of the plants. The orderly nature of the system also makes it easier to create a good plan for the gardening year. The garden system is easy to set up, even for beginners.
Since the garden is small and you have only a few specific tasks on any given day, you only need to invest a few minutes in planting, maintaining, and harvesting at any time.
With square-foot gardening, the raised beds are placed above the ground, right on top of your existing soil, and a special soil mix is used for the garden, so there is no need to worry about improving your existing soil.
Square foot gardens are highly adaptable. Your square-foot garden can be made to almost any dimension according to what will work best in your yard and your available space. It is recommended, however, that you keep your garden at a maximum of 4 ft. deep so that you can always have easy access and reach each square.
Disadvantages of Square Foot Gardening
Although many vegetables can be grown in square-foot gardens, they struggle to accommodate larger plants. Some crops may require a lot of space, and the small beds may not be convenient for crops such as pumpkins and squash, sweet corn or perennials like asparagus.
(Though these can be grown elsewhere in your garden, leaving the square foot garden beds for annual vegetables with a more compact growing habit.)
Square-foot beds (like all raised beds) require more water, as they will dry out more quickly than in-ground growing areas.
Finding weeds in square-foot gardens may be rare, but those that do establish are difficult and more time-consuming. You will have to weed, little and often, using your hands rather than going between traditional rows with a hoe.
Planning your square foot garden
If you decide to get a square-foot garden, you must care for it appropriately. You have the consider some of the following.
A good Location
The first thing to decide is where to locate your new garden bed. Most fruit and vegetables grow best in a sunny position sheltered from the wind, but you can also grow where it is shady; it just depends on the plant. Some plants, such as chard and spinach, do well in the shade, while plants, such as potatoes and carrots, tend to do better in sunlight.
Try to locate your square foot garden as close to a water supply as possible. The reason for this is simple – you are much more likely to take good care of your crops if you see them every day,
If you decide to plant climbing trees such as peas and runner beans, locating your square footbed backing onto a vertical structure such as a wall or fence is best. Generally, no matter where you put your garden or what you decide to plant, three basic things must be well thought out if you want your vegetable garden to yield the best: sun, water, and soil.
One of the best things s about gardening is that you can plant what you want to grow. If you aren’t sure whether to start with fruit and vegetables, I recommend you grow things you enjoy eating and produce that isn’t readily available in the supermarket.
Grow taller crops at the back of the bed and smaller ones at the front so that the larger ones don’t create too much shade for the smaller ones. If you want to grow climbing vegetables, put them at the back of the bed near the vertical supporting structure.
You should avoid growing vegetables from the same family in the same bed year after year to reduce the risk of certain pests and diseases. Also, crop yields decrease when plants are repeatedly sown in the same square/beds. Plan to rotate plant families to new beds each season to keep pests on the run.
Plants are delicate and require as much care as possible, but you won’t always be around to give them just that so that you can grow plants among other plants. Plants can be perfect for one another and create mutually beneficial relationships.
For example, some plants can help reduce the incidence of pests or diseases in their neighbors. For instance, marigolds in a square-foot garden will attract ladybirds and hoverflies, which will help pollinate your crops.
Planting strong-scented chives beside your carrots will help to deter the carrot fly. Some plants can help those in neighboring squares by gathering nutrients.
Plants such as peas and beans fix nitrogen from the air, while deep-rooted plants like borage or yarrow can reach deep into the soil below your raised bed and bring nutrients back up.
If you would like to delve deeper into companion planting, I wrote an article on it, and you can view it here.
Fill Your Square Foot Garden Bed
After creating your square-foot garden frames and accessories, the next step is to fill them with your soil. Mel’s Mix is the recommended soil for use in your square-foot garden. It combines ⅓ peat moss, ⅓ vermiculite, and ⅓ compost so that it may be the most expensive but likely the most valuable.
Mel’s Mix absorbs and holds the moisture, so you don’t have to water as often or as much as typical soils. It’s also naturally very loose, making weeding a breeze and saving time and effort.
Planting and harvesting are also simple because of the looseness of the soil. However, peat is not a sustainable material source, and its use in composts and plants is now being rejected.
A more eco-friendly and sustainable suggestion is mixing 50% peat-free compost, 25% potting grit or fine gravel, and 25% chipped wood bark. The gravel and bark help improve the mix’s drainage and water retention.
Planting Your Square Foot Garden
The next thing is to know the varieties you want to grow. Depending on the kind of plant you decide to grow, square beds help you measure how many you may grow in one square.
Whether planting seeds or seedlings, the key is to ensure you place the right number of each crop into each square foot of the garden.
One Plant Per Square Foot
One square foot each might be required of the largest plants that can easily be included in a square-foot gardening system. These include brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, brussels sprouts & cauliflower, and herbs such as coriander, oregano, sage, rosemary, and mint.
Four Plants Per Square Foot
Some plants in this category could grow to full size if planted one per square foot but can be more intensively planted if you harvest them as they grow, keeping them in check. These plants include Swiss chard, parsley, basil, and other leafy greens.
Nine Plants Per Square Foot
This category’s crop includes peas, beetroot, large turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi, and spinach. Each of your seeds or seedlings will be placed four inches apart.
Sixteen Plants Per Square Foot
Carrots, radishes, onions, garlic, and spring onions are all examples of plants that can be grown intensively at a spacing of 3 inches in blocks of four by four.
Here are examples of what you can plant in each square foot:
- One tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage or corn
- One squash, cucumber or melon per 2 square feet
- 4 lettuce, chard, marigolds or kohlrabi
- Six vining plants, such as beans or peas, on trellises
- Nine onions, beets, bush beans, bush peas, garlic or spinach
- 16 carrots or radishes
Don’t forget to make sure to have companion plants.
Square foot gardening is a highly beneficial method to use when gardening. Its benefits outweigh its negatives. It’s also easy to set up.
As highlighted in this post, not much goes into the preparation for a square foot, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be done properly. Once you set it up, you can expect a higher crop yield, better organization, and more time saved, among other things, so yes, I believe square-foot gardening is worth it.
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