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May 7, 2019

Gardening: Square-foot method much more efficient

A grid can clearly delineate the growing areas of a square foot garden.
The square foot gardening method saves time and resources.
By Ann Atanasio
Master Gardener

A revolutionary concept, “square foot gardening” allows you to grow more vegetables in less space, using fewer resources.

The idea originated with Mel Bartholomew and is detailed in his books Square Foot Gardening and All New Square Foot Gardening, as well as in several online resources.

Mr. Bartholomew began considering new ideas for gardening after realizing the inefficiency of traditional gardens that grow single rows of vegetables. This layout stems from field farming, with long rows supporting large volumes of plants and wide, unplanted aisles between rows.

The long rows typically grow more produce than a home gardener needs, and we typically plant a whole seed packet, only to pull up most of the seedlings to thin plants. The practice of planting in rows is inefficient, and SFG makes more sense for the home garden.

An additional problem with traditional row gardens is that the 2- to 3-foot aisles between the rows waste space. It’s not being used for growing vegetables, yet it may be rototilled, fertilized and watered with the rest of the garden. As a result, it will also need to be weeded, an enormous waste of energy for garden space that is not productive. SFG eliminates these issues.

So what is SFG? It is the practice of establishing raised square or rectangular beds that are only large enough for your arms to reach into. Each bed is divided into square foot planting areas, so that a 4-by-4-foot garden would contain a 16-square-foot planting area. A 3-by-6-foot rectangular garden would contain 18 square feet, etc. Remember, the size of the garden is only limited by how far you can reach into it for maintenance and there are no aisles for walking between plants.

Mr. Bartholomew determined that a square foot growing area should be planned with the precise number of plants permitted to allow for adequate spacing. For example, one square foot will accommodate nine plants requiring 4-inch spacing, such as spinach. With plants needing 6-inch spacing, four can be planted in a square foot, and 16 plants can grow if they need to be 3 inches apart.

This efficient method of organizing growing areas makes it easier to control the amount of yield, and you are working smaller areas that are producing maximum harvest.

How do you begin? First, choose a location for your garden near your home that makes it convenient to go out and tend to your plantings. Because SFGs are compact, highly productive and virtually weed-free, consider incorporating them into your landscape design as you would a flowerbed.

The next step is to build your garden on top of the ground instead of digging into your soil. You will build a box the size of your garden, such as a 4-by-4 box for a 16-square-foot planting area. For most garden vegetables, the box only needs to be 6 inches deep. Some very long root crops (large carrots, leeks, potatoes) may require a depth of 12 inches, and for them it is most efficient to build individual square foot boxes.

The boxes can be made of lumber, bricks, blocks, stone, whatever, as long as it is not a material harmful to your plants. The box should be bottomless with weed barrier covering the entire bottom surface. It should be situated so that you can walk around the perimeter and can reach completely to all areas within the box. This eliminates the need to step onto the growing surface which packs down the soil.

The third step is to build your soil. By creating your own growing mix, you ensure that it is rich in nutrients and minerals, holds moisture and drains well. Mr. Bartholomew recommends a mixture of equal parts peat moss, vermiculite and blended compost. Not only will all of these materials provide a perfect, natural bed for your plants, but by not using soil from your yard, you have virtually eliminated the growth of weeds. Also, there is no need for fertilizing since compost provides the nutrients required for healthy plants.

Once your garden box has been filled with growing medium, lay out a grid on top of the box dividing it into square foot growing areas. The grid can be made of any sturdy material, such as wood lath or venetian blinds. The grid should be secured to the box frame so that the individual growing spaces are clearly delineated.

Finally, you are ready to plant. Mr. Bartholomew provides clear instruction for how many plants each square foot can maintain, such as one head of cabbage, four Swiss chard, nine beets, 16 onions or one tomato with support per square foot. It is also easier to plan for rotating seasonal crops with SFG. Overall, planting, watering, harvesting and all other maintenance will be easier because you are working with a more manageable and efficient growing area than you are with a traditional garden.

Now is the time to consider converting your garden to an easier, more efficient and potentially more aesthetic design. SFG provides many benefits over traditional practices.
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Cammie Rodgers · May 7, 2019 at 3:58 pm
Not revolutionary, I've been planting this way for 20 years. Yet, it is timely as now is the time to put your hands in the soil and grow things. Many people get frustrated with the task and idea of weeding, recalling the time spent as a child maybe in the garden "pulling" weeds. This is a great way to garden! The key component is building your soil.
born_Fauquier_1961 · May 7, 2019 at 2:43 pm
It's not a revolutionary concept, I remember studying about this in college back in the 80's.
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