During the dead of winter I was at the library with my son, in the kid’s section. I spotted a book on the reshelving pile called Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholemew. Intrigued by the picture on the front, I picked it up and glanced through. I was impressed and curious about what I saw inside. I took it home with me and waited impatiently for the growing season to begin.
Square foot gardening is a re-engineered version of the traditional home garden. It has a few major tenets:
- Gardens are built in raised boxes with a grid divided into one square foot sections
- A special soil mix fills the boxes – you don’t use existing soil, which means you can put your garden anywhere you like, with minimal digging/weeding/etc.
- The garden is located in an often-used part of your yard
- You plant only the seeds you need, and store the rest for following years
- Plants are grown in groups of 1, 4, 9, or 16 within the square divisions, not rows
Some of the major benefits of square foot gardening are space conservation (plants grow in 20% of the space required in a traditional bed garden), water conservation (only water the roots of your plant instead of the entire garden), easy upkeep (weeding takes very little time, and doesn’t need to be done often, since you’re using brand new soil), and natural crop rotation (when one square’s crop is done, replant with something else!)
I live in a fairly urban area, so my backyard is about the size of Buckingham Palace’s bathrooms. In past years, I tried to garden on the side of the house, but you know what they say – out of sight, out of mind – and by midseason, my garden would invariably be a tangle of weeds and crowded, sickly plants. Last year I attempted to do all my gardening in containers on the deck, but that failed even more miserably as I wasn’t able to keep them watered properly. I assumed gardening just wasn’t for me and that I would never grow more than a few tomato plants.
When I decided to try SFG, I opted to put the boxes on a patch of weeds and bone-dry dirt between my neighbor’s fence and the path to our garage. Nothing would grow there anyway, and it was heavily trafficked, so it seemed like an ideal location. The area was almost exactly 3 feet deep, so I built two 3′ by 4′ boxes. The cost? Nothing, I just used some lumber we had sitting around in our garage. I’m no carpenter, but I was able to build the boxes in an afternoon mostly by myself (I needed a hand cutting the lumber to size.)
The soil, Mel’s Mix, is a blend of 1/3 each of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost. The vermiculite and peat moss I was able to buy at our local nursery, and we’ve been composting kitchen scraps for years, so I had no shortage of compost. You fill the boxes and affix some sort of grid to the top. I stapled mini-blind slats to the boxes to create my grid – each box held 12 1′ squares.
In addition, I built trellises for each box for vertical gardening. I made these out of electrical conduit, cut to size, and attached at the corners with some plastic plumbing parts. Each trellis was slid over rebar hammered into the ground, which both keeps them vertical and gives you the option to put the trellis away when it’s not in use. Finally, I tied nylon trellis net (available at garden centers) to the top and sides to form the trellis itself. These fixtures are extremely strong, and have held up in 70 mph+ winds. Here is a great video tutorial on building your trellis.
Now, we’re mid-summer, and here is a list of things I have successfully grown in just 24 square feet of previously unused yard space: kale (2 plants), basil, cilantro, peas (16 plants), carrots (2 squares), onions (2 squares), tomatoes (4 plants), nasturtium (2 plants), microgreens, green beans (3 squares), lettuce (3 squares), squash – but I’m not sure what kind yet, they were volunteers – pumpkin, maybe?, Serrano peppers, and spinach. The kale, tomatoes, and squash have done particularly well – my tomato plants are over 12′ tall, and just LOVE the trellis. I’m harvesting at least 20 cherry tomatoes a day off a single plant. The squash has sort of taken over – it covers the entire trellis and has moved on to the rest of the yard and is trying to annex my neighbor’s yard as well, so I have to keep it in check. At the moment I have about 6 empty squares just waiting for fall’s crops to go in.
If you’re interested, the best place to get started is Mel’s book, but there are lots of resources available online to help you, too. One excellent reference for plant spacing and other information specific to SFG is My Square Foot Garden. So, what I’m trying to say is that I can’t believe this gardening technique isn’t more popular. I haven’t even listed half the benefits – it’s amazing what a little fresh thinking has done to revolutionize what is a centuries-old process.