Friday, March 18, 2016

Square Foot Gardening 101

Our gardens, bursting with potential. (So far I've only planted the peas, but I'm going to plant a bunch more stuff this week!)

Last year, while perusing through the library’s gardening section, I came across a book called Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. It looked interesting, so I checked it out, and soon afterward, I was hooked. This book focuses on a specific way of gardening: a 4x4’ raised bed filled with a particular kind of soil and divided by a grid. You plant seeds in the grid pattern, keep them well-watered, and voila! A massive crop of homegrown produce in 16 square feet.

The idea immediately appealed to me, since most gardening books had scary-sounding words like “pH levels” and “soil amendments,” and advocated tearing up huge chunks of yard to grow crops. Since last year I’ve learned a ton about gardening (at least in theory) so I’m ready to tackle some more traditional methods, but at the time, Square Foot Gardening was a clear set of instructions for a very inexperienced gardener.

Last summer, in the height of St. Louis’s sweltering swamp-like heat, Zach and I nailed together the boards and assembled the garden, then planted a few crops (most of which you’re really not supposed to plant mid-summer): spinach, peas, carrots, and parsley. I had some other seeds (salad mix, cabbages) but never got around to planting them because I was very disorganized.
I own a copy now and refer to it often.

Despite my total ineptness in planting times, several of the seeds sprouted. The peas turned into little clusters of bushy vines, sprouting with tasty little pods; the carrots grew willy-nilly, some of them so long they punched through the weed cloth and others so small that I could eat them in one bite. The spinach, despite being a cool-weather crop, sent up two plants (from the 18 seeds I sowed), which promptly bolted in a head of seeds (I pulled the whole plants and froze the leaves— they were totally fine in smoothies). The parsley turned into a monster crop, taking over its square and encroaching into others. I harvested it continually, and at the end of the season filled three gallon freezer bags with the last of the crop (I’m still working through it!).

So, despite my incompetence, the garden did pretty well. I’m excited to plant a lot more this year (hopefully at the correct seasons this time), and Zach and I just built a second square-foot garden.

The basics of a Square Foot Garden:

1. Build a raised bed out of lumber, four feet square.
2. Fill it with one part peat moss, one part vermiculite, and one part compost.
3. Nail a grid of some kind over the top so the garden is divided into 16 squares.
4. Plant crops according to the instructions in the book (or this site).

I highly recommend checking out the book— it’s fun, conversational, and detailed, walking you through the process. It also has helpful information for building trellises, keeping critters away, and extending the growing season.

Like any gardening method, this has some pros and cons. These are the cons:

It’s expensive. Although all the expense is one-time, an initial investment, it’s pretty pricey. Zach and I didn’t bother “foraging” for lumber, so that contributed to the cost. Also, vermiculite is not cheap. You can make compost yourself, but it’s hard to amass enough compost with our limited supply of organic material, so we just bought some. This made the total come out to about fifty dollars. So if you’re planting a garden to save money, this isn’t the way to go— although it’s worth mentioning that this was a one-time investment, and theoretically the only thing we’ll have to buy from here on out are seeds. Since gardening is our hobby, we were happy to make the investment.

It relies on nonrenewable materials. Peat moss is a limited resource, and vermiculite needs to be mined— these aren’t the most eco-friendly materials ever. However, if you factor in how much fossil fuel will be saved by growing your own food in these beds for years to come, I think it evens out. Still, this is a choice you have to make.

Now, the pros:

It is accessible and step-by-step. I was very intimidated by most gardening books— I got the feeling that if I did something wrong, all my plants would die. I know this is silly, but having a book that told me exactly what to do was very comforting. It’s a great method for a beginning gardener or someone who’s intimidated by too much information.

Veggies from last year's harvest
It’s pretty foolproof. Like I said, I did pretty much everything wrong last summer, and still raked in a great harvest. This gave me greater confidence to plant more this year!

It grows a lot in a very small space. Although I didn’t plant much last year, I plan to cram the beds full of edibles this year. Look for pictures in upcoming months as the harvest grows!

It’s tidy-looking. Our square foot gardens are in our front yard, and although we don’t live in a neighborhood that’s uptight about veggies in the front yard, we want to be as considerate of the neighbors as possible. A Square Foot Garden looks neat, even when bursting with produce. (Of course, we’re planting a bunch of peppers this year, so I’m not sure how that’s going to look. But at least we start with a tidy-looking structure!)

It’s part of a larger plan for our yard. Zach and I hope to eventually rip up the whole lawn in the front yard— I generally consider front lawns to be a useless waste of space and lawnmower energy. Our goal is to fill our front lawn with square foot gardens and other raised beds (and maybe some fruit trees and/or berry bushes). As mentioned in the previous point, we can do this while still maintaining a tidy appearance. We don’t want the neighbors to think our yard looks like a brush pile. 

If you’re new to gardening, like me, I highly recommend Square Foot Gardening. It helped me overcome the paralysis I felt by being bombarded with too much information. After gaining confidence that gardening wasn’t as hard as it sounded, I’ve been learning about different kinds of gardening, and hoping to integrate some permaculture techniques into my yard. Square Foot Gardening was my “gateway drug” into the wonderful world of growing food!


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