Square Foot Gardening

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

I wonder why it sometimes happens that a topic or thought I’ve been utilizing suddenly starts popping up in unrelated places?  Have you ever had this happen to you?

Last week I pulled out my copy of Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew while planning our 2010 potager.  A few days later, a woman in my knitting group, out of the blue, asked me whether I’d heard of the book and what I thought of it.  And a few days after that, I pick up a new magazine called Urban Farm, only to discover that there is an article on square foot gardening methods in it.  On the off chance I’m being told something, I thought I should post about what I think is a pretty fabulous method of growing food.

For those who aren’t familiar with this technique, square foot gardening is the process of planning and planting based on a square foot grid system.  It was created by Mel Bartholomew after observing gardeners in his community garden in the 70′s.  It seems that every gardener starts out with good intentions and high hopes in the spring (I know those emotions well) but very few remain diligent enough throughout the season to realize the dreams they had in the beginning; vacation plans, barbeques, cocktail parties, and lounging in the shade seeming to be more important than weeding, watering, staking, and harvesting.  So Mr. Bartholomew set about to create a system that, in his words, would “be so simple and easy that anyone can enjoy a weed-free garden all year and produce a continuous harvest” (Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening 2). 

Basically, the growing space is gridded, typically into 4 ft. by 4 ft. beds, although you could set up a 4 ft. by however-long-you-want (2 feet is the maximum distance an average person can reach into the centre of the bed from either side), and that 4 ft. by 4 ft. bed is further gridded into 1 ft. square increments.  Those 1 ft. squares are then each planted with your vegetable/fruit/herb choice, except in the case of some larger plants that might require 2-1 ft squares.  This is a highly efficient system that makes succession planting and crop rotation a breeze and, because you plant tighter than you think you should, you get more food from a small amount of space.

If you’re a newbie gardener, this is the best ‘grow by numbers’ system I’ve encountered to date, since, in addition to garden plans for 1, 2, and 4 person households, the book does a lot of hand-holding and details exactly when to fertilize, how much to water, when to harvest, and even has suggestions on how to eat the fruits of your labor.  If you are apprehensive about where to start, have a small amount of growing space, and/or are only concerned about gardening efficiently, this is the book for you.

As an experienced gardener and designer, I use the book differently.  Already possessing numerous books on French kitchen gardens before Square Foot Gardening found it’s way onto my shelves, I’d been looking at why North American food gardens were always planted in rows (has to do with the size of the machinery typically used), and I’d been experimenting with other types of garden layouts and sizes (edible landscaping and permaculture systems being a couple of the easily identifiable ones).  But the design schemes those systems generated didn’t satisfy my formalist (okay, I admit it, control) aesthetic.  I had a typical small urban plot of land that needed to be efficiently yet beautifully (as I defined it for me) planted and, when I started reading this book, I realized that it lends itself wonderfully to my kitchen garden style – a potager where beds are bordered with basil and lettuces and edible flowers, and plants are arranged with an eye toward complementary and contrasting color and texture pairings.  My beds revolve around the 4 ft. by 4 ft. dimension although I sometimes make them longer when I want to accomplish a design attribute like, for example, a strong axis, or I’ll lop off  a corner (as I did last year) to make a wider path.  When I pull this book off my shelf – which I do every time I start planning the coming season’s garden – it’s to refresh my memory on the spacing of the plants and seeds, which I plant in each bed in squares or rows as the design dictates.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

That’s my contribution to the square foot gardening zeitgeist.

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The First Season

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Snow is covering the kitchen garden and nothing is left for me to do but plan for next year (while this last season’s harvest is still fresh in my mind).  Still, while I am familiar with what went on in my garden, you’re not, so here’s what happened…

 When we moved in to the rental house, we identified this patch of lawn to be the best place for the kitchen garden – the most sun, visible from the kitchen window, and with existing boundaries that made sense.

Facing south

We stripped off the sod, added 2″ of compost and a sprinkling of bonemeal, and tilled it all in.  After digging out the paths and using the soil to create slightly raised beds, this was the result.

Just planted

After planting, we went away for a couple of weeks during June/July.  Fortunately, I’d installed an above-ground irrigation system on a timer (and we had some rain while we were gone) so I came back to a garden that looked like this (if you look closely you can see my husband in the background taking it all in).

Early July '09 facing north

Early July '09

But then things started getting out of control and by August the garden was a mess!  Part of the problem was that I couldn’t decide on a mulch material for the path so I just left it and weeds started to take over.  The other issue was that I’d fertilized three times during the season with a combination of a liquid fish fertilizer and nettle tea and the plants became rambunctious.

Wild Garden facing S

Wild Garden facing N
After some significant thinning and cutting back though, I think I got it under control…

Late Summer '09
…until the cold weather hit!

Fall cleanup '09

Now you know the story of the first season in the garden so you’ll be ready for my next post…making changes.