Square Foot Gardening – Post Mortem November 1, 2012

Filed under: Food,Gardening — VisibleBlue @ 10:29 pm
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Last weekend, Hurricane Sandy brought a cold front through my neck of the woods, and with it, an end to my gardening season. Sure, I still have a few squares of lettuce and the kale and nasturtium are going strong, but pulling down yards and yards of (still flowering!) tomato plants broke my heart. Still, with the end of one season comes the planning of the next, so here’s what worked and didn’t work for me, and what I’ll do differently for next year.

For the record, I live in zone 6a.

Garden, late June. You can see the tomatoes on the left side, already at the top of the trellis, and pumpkin on the right side, already invading the neighbor’s yard.

General setup: Two 3′ by 4′ boxes, each 6″ deep, filled with the Mel’s Mix recipe. Two 4′ by 6′ trellises, on the east side of the boxes, against a fence. (I know, I know, horrible placement for a garden, but I have a small yard in the city, and not a lot of choice on where to locate!) I did not add fertilizer or anything other than water throughout the season. When replanting squares, I replenished with compost.

Spring Planting: 

  • 2 squares red onions (variety unknown) – 30 small-medium sized onions harvested. Next year I will do a smaller variety or plant the larger ones 9 to a square, as well as plant a sweeter yellow variety.
  • 2 squares ‘Super Sugar Snap’ peas – Harvested occasionally until hot weather, but never enough at one time for a side dish. Next year I will do at least 4 squares. Peas are my favorite!
  • 2 squares ‘Winterbor’ kale – Still going strong, in November, and nearly 3′ tall at this point! They have escaped the box and are annexing the sidewalk.
  • 2 squares ‘Short ‘n Sweet’ organic carrots – around 25 harvested.
  • 1 square ‘Salad Select’ spinach – A handful of leaves harvested. This was one of my bigger disappointments, and I’m not certain if it was lack of light or something else, but I will try at least one square next year.
  • 2 squares ‘Rainbow Blend’ microgreens – I never really ended up using these, but I could have harvested plenty…
  • 3 squares ‘Burpee’s Looseleaf Mixture’ lettuce – Very prolific, and I was able to harvest well into the hotter days of summer. I will do at least 2 squares of this next year.

Summer Planting:

100% garden-sourced salad.

  • 2 squares ‘Jewel Mix’ nasturtium – 50/50 results on this. One plant limped through the season, producing really weak foliage and just a few flowers, while the other plant did great and is still going. I’ll probably do these in containers next year, but it was nice to have some color in the garden beds.
  • 3 squares ‘Bush Blue Lake 274’ organic beans – These did horribly. The cucumber beetles devoured them and I never got a single bean. If I have some open squares next year I may try again, but these will not be a priority.
  • 2 squares unknown squash – One turned out to be a pumpkin, and the other never produced fruit. This was a fantastic example of why not to plant volunteer squash in a square foot garden, though. The two plants completely overtook my trellis, started in on the other trellis, ended up over the fence in my neighbor’s yard, and sprawled about 12 feet into the rest of my yard. We had every pest imaginable, including squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, squash beetles, and what I think was powdery mildew. It was a mess, but for my trouble I got 5 cute small pumpkins, which were actually fun to carve instead of the tedious giant ones we usually do at Halloween. These plants also completely blocked the light of the surrounding squares, essentially rendering that box unusable until fall.
  • 1 square basil – I only had one plant left after something ate the other four. It did okay, but didn’t get much light after being shadowed by enormous tomato plants.
  • 1 square cumin – Never sprouted (thanks, giant squash plant.)
  • 1 square dill – Ditto above.
  • 1 square serrano pepper – Harvested about 20 peppers. I probably would have been able to get more, but the plant produced one pepper, and didn’t flower anymore until after I harvested that one. I wish I had cut it sooner. The plant was still flowering when I pulled it over the weekend.
  • 1 square ‘Rose de Berne’ tomato – Least favorite of the tomatoes I planted. Harvested a handful around mid-summer, and just a few since then. I’ll pass on this one next year. Still, even the smallest and least prolific of my tomatoes was over 6′ tall and still flowering at the end of October.
  • 1 square ‘Valencia’ tomato – We loved this one, and got a lot of tomatoes off the plant. They look so pretty in a salad or salsa!
  • 1 square ‘German Johnson’ tomato – Very prolific, very HUGE. This one went all the way up the trellis, then folded over the top and went all the way back down, and started going up again! We got some nice fat tomatoes, at least 6″ in diameter, as well as some smaller ones.
  • 1 square ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes – Definitely my favorite garden item this year. I could not believe how big this plant got, and we’ve been swimming in cherry tomatoes since before the fourth of July! They are so juicy and sweet, my son ate handfuls every time we went outside.

Side view of garden in mid-July.

Autumn Planting:

has pretty much been a failure this year. Everything went in kind of late because I had to get rid of the squash first, and everything’s getting eaten up by animals of some sort. (I hope it’s not my dog!) Still, here’s what went in:

  • 2 squares carrots – Maybe I’ll see them next year?
  • 1 square looseleaf lettuce – 2 plants survived.
  • 1 square ‘Tom Thumb’ butterhead lettuce – Still holding out hope for this one.
  • 1 square spinach – Another miserable failure.
  • 2 squares (8 heads) hardneck garlic – So excited about this one! See you in 2013…

So what will change for next year? First of all, I plan on putting in 2 more boxes, on the other side of the yard. (Yes, next to a fence on the west side. Sigh.)

One 2′ x 4′ box will be only for tomatoes, and I’ll do a taller trellis (using the entire 10′ length of conduit, I think) perpendicular to the fence. I’ll be making this change for several reasons: first of all, the foliage of the tomatoes shaded everything in the box except the kale, which escaped onto the sidewalk. Secondly, 6′ was just too short for even the smallest tomato plant I grew this year! And orienting the trellis perpendicular to the fence will make harvesting easier – on a few occasions, I had to have my monkey-armed husband reach the tomatoes on the very inside of the plants. I need to be more careful with pinching the suckers – I was very good about it, until we had to abandon our house for a powerless week. When I came back, it had grown so much that I just gave up and let them go. I’d like to do 6-8 different plants next year, and add a paste-type tomato or two.

I will also be building one deeper box, for root vegetables. I really want to try growing potatoes next year! I’ll put the carrots and onions in there as well.

With the squash out of the picture, I’ll have room for cucumbers on my trellis. I grew a few of the ‘Homemade Pickles’ variety in a pot, but I’d like to see how they’d do in the SFG, with proper support. I also want a bell pepper plant (we got tons of these in the CSA this year, but we won’t be joining next summer) and possibly another chili pepper. I’ve also got  a whole list of herbs I’d like to try, though I’m not 100% sold on doing these in the boxes if I don’ t have room. Even though space is an issue for me in my yard, square foot gardening helps me to get a ton of different crops into the limited area I have!


Square Foot Gardening – a Revelation August 1, 2012

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.

SFG Garden

Sorry for the cell phone picture!

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.