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Square-foot gardening (SFG) is one of the more popular ways people are growing their own food these days. Unlike the typical garden rows we’ve all come to know so well, square-foot gardens are designed to efficiently utilize space with intensive growing. They are also quite an attractive and orderly way to cultivate a lot of veggies without a lot of tilling or plowing.
Conceived by a retired engineer (and presumably garden enthusiast), SFG has been around since the early 1980s. Mel Bartholomew was simply trying to come up with a replicable method for growing a lot of food in a little space. Rows, which have a corresponding empty row for every cultivated one, were not good for this.
So, he came up with an interesting way of plotting out raised beds such that they were highly productive with very little maintenance issues.
The Basic Layout
SFG is predicated on squares. Typically, it begins with a four-by-four-foot box, a raised bed, which will later be divided by a grid into 16 one-foot squares. However, the boxes can be any length as long as they are no more than four feet across. This allows the gardener to reach the middle of the garden without having to step on it, thus compacting the soil.
Generally, if there is to be more than one box, they are spaced so as to leave a three-foot pathway between them. This makes getting a garden cart and such into the garden much easier when it’s time to harvest. The path can either be left as grass, or many growers choose to spruce up the pathways with gravel or mulch.
The Growing Medium
Rather than using the native soil, square-foot gardens start with a weed barrier between the ground and a special mix of soil: by volume, one part compost to one part peat moss (coconut coir might be a more ecological option) to one part vermiculite. The idea is to create the ideal growing medium rather than relying on the lawn to have done so for us.
The compost in this mixture provides plenty of nutrition for the plants. The peat moss is great at absorbing and retaining water so that irrigation issues are minimalized, as does vermiculite. They also both keep the soil airy and open to the young roots of vegetable plants. Vermiculite also helps to ensure proper drainage.
Once the soil is in the bed, the distinctive SFG grid is added atop the box. The grid is integral to how the garden is grown, and it takes some of the head-scratching out of how much to plant at what spacing. Essentially, for each plant, there is an optimal number for each square. And, ideally, the beds at large would be a mix of plants.
The idea is to fill the space with the maximum number of plants it can hold. This, of course, provides the most possible food that can be grown. Having the plants tightly packed also means that weeds are not an issue because there’s no room for them to grow. The protocol is to plant two or three seeds in each hole to ensure something comes up. If more than one seedling comes up, keep the strongest and discard (or transplant) the others.
Because the weeds are snuffed out, the maintenance of SFGs is minimal. For the most part, it consists of trimming off dead leaves and branches, as well as harvesting. Watering, too, is important, especially during the early days of the plants’ lives or on especially toasty, dry days. (If harvested rainwater is available, that’d be even better.)
The harvesting should be continued throughout the season. As crops are pulled, a handful of compost (make it at home!) and new seeds should be added to the newly-vacated square. The compost will provide the nutrients for the next crop, and the cycle of fresh food continues.
What’s especially nice about the square-foot gardening method is that once in place, it requires very little in tools. No fertilizer is necessary. No tilling is needed. Weeding isn’t a thing. It’s just plant, harvest, and then plant again. Somewhere in there a lot of snacking can take place.
Lead Image Source: Flickr