Square Foot Gardening Techniques

Have you heard of Square Foot Gardening before? No, it’s not about people who have really angular feet gardening. But for a minute, let’s just imagine someone with cartoonish, block-like feet attempting to garden – the mental picture is hilarious!

 

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is all about maxing out what you can grow in a square foot (12” x 12”) planting area. Most SFGs are no more than 4 ft wide (to allow for easy reaching into the bed without stepping into the planting area) and can be any length. If you don’t have a copy already, I highly recommend purchasing the creator, Mel Bartholmew’s, book. I use it as a reference every single growing season. This book never collects dust at my house.

(This is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you choose to purchase using this link, I’ll get the world’s tiniest commission ever). 

 

SFG: AN Answer to Inefficiency

SFG eliminates gardening inefficiencies that are carryovers from traditional row farming. Here are some of the issues with traditional row gardening/farming that SFG solves:

  1. Eliminates wasted space (i.e.  huge aisles and footpaths in farming or traditional row growing methods)
  2. Reduces weed competition by growing densely and shading out weeds
  3. Conserves water by utilizing a smaller planting area
  4. Reduces seed waste (no thinning seedlings)
  5. Spaces out harvests through succession planting and planting reasonable numbers of plants
  6. Starts with healthy soil – a soil recipe so light, airy, and nutrient-dense that plants have a healthy start from day 1

 

The late, great Mel Bartholomew invented this method of gardening in 1976, and with it, revolutionized home gardening. With the common-sense ideas listed above, can you guess what Mel’s background was prior to developing SFG? If you guessed engineer, you’re a winner! Mel was a civil engineer, specializing in eliminating inefficiencies in construction and manufacturing prior to his foray into gardening.

5 second T.O. (Time Out): Isn’t it amazing how our God-given gifts and talents can be utilized in such different and cool ways? I find that fascinating. Anyway, I digress.

Back on topic now. 

 

Here’s what I love about SFG:

  1. It’s accessible. The small size of square foot gardens (as small as 3×3 or 4×4 ft), makes it an approachable start for beginning gardeners. 
  2. It’s easy and efficient. Less weeding (plants in SFG grow so closely together that they effectively shade out most weeds), few tools needed, less hauling hoses around a gigantic garden, no digging, no fooling with trying to improve your native soil.
  3. It’s tidy and compact. You can fit a SFG just about anywhere. If you only have a tiny bit of land, you can still probably fit a 4×4 ft bed. Heck, you can even make SFG raised bed tables that can go on a deck or patio. 
  4. It’s adaptable. Building the beds can be a pain if you’re not confident with tools, but I’ve learned that you really don’t have to make a border if you don’t want to or it’s not in your budget. You could make a 4×4 ft patch of soil with no border (just watch out for erosion) or you could make a border out of large tree branches (hello pruning upcycling!), bricks, pavers, large rocks, cinder blocks, or whatever other random things you have lying around. You can also make the SFG any size you want, for any types of plants you want to grow. You can do all vegetables, all herbs, all flowers, all perennials, or a combination of any of those. The world is your oyster!
  5. It doesn’t require a ton of maintenance. Unlike row gardening, you don’t have to till the soil every year. You just top up the beds with a little bit of compost in the fall, and you’re good to go in the spring!

 

So how do you make a square foot garden?

 

Step 1: Decide on where you want your SFG to go.

Consider what areas of your property get the most light during the day (best for most vegetables) and how far you’ll have to haul water. Don’t forget to think about things that might cast a shadow on your planting area or cause a microclimate where things get too hot or cold (buildings, trees, fences).

 

Step 2: Determine the size of your SFG.

Start small! For your first year, I recommend going with one 4×4 ft bed or 4×8 ft bed if you’re feeling ambitious. 

Our first SFG bed

This was our first SFG bed, back in 2017. We made 2- 4×4 beds and put them side-by-side to make it 4×8. I ultimately didn’t like having a bed that long and 4 ft across was too wide for me. I’m glad we only made one bed that year so I could easily make changes to the layout.

 You can supplement with container gardening (pots) if you think you need more space, but it’s best to start small when you’re building any sort of garden structure. It gives you a growing season or two to decide if you like the orientation, make changes, and decide how you might like to expand (or if you even need to expand).

If you’re short like me, having one of the sides be 3 ft instead of 4 is helpful – it can be hard to reach all the way across a 4 ft bed without stepping in it if you’re small (and stepping in a SFG is a big no-no!).

SFG bed layout

An example of how you might lay out your SFG beds. This was back in 2019 when we added 2- 3×4 ft beds to our SFG setup.

 

Step 3: Choose your material.

You’ve got some options here:

      • Sloping edges on a mound of soil can work as an SFG! You’ll need to stay on top of weeding, but it can work. Check out Charles Dowding’s method.
      • If you’re using lumber, untreated or heat-treated pine is fine and cheap! Thicker stock is better (1 in is great). Some sites will say you need to use cedar, but it can get cost-prohibitive. We initially got 1/2in cedar boards and they warped and fell apart at the joints within 3 years, probably due to the thinness of the wood and the way we fastened the edges together. Thick pine should last you at least 5 years. Cedar has longevity (some claim 20 years), but think about the reality of whether you’ll even be living in the same place then. Thick cedar boards can also be difficult to source – the Home Depot and Lowes near us don’t carry them.
        • A note about wood/logs/natural edging for SFG beds: they attract roly polies, slugs, and other detrivore pests that make their living decomposing things for us. They’re just trying to do their job, but here’s your warning that using this material could introduce some pests to your garden that you weren’t counting on.
      • Bricks, pavers, and cinder blocks have the best longevity, but can be expensive and require some heavy-duty labor at the outset to move everything to the site and get things level. 
      • Pre-made SFG kits are available, but they’re mostly a rip-off.
      • Materials to avoid: rubber tires, railroad ties, chemically treated lumber, some types of cinder blocks that contain fly ash. Basically, avoid anything that could possibly leach harmful chemicals or heavy metals into the soil.

 

Step 4: Lay down plain cardboard to kill grass and weeds and assemble your bed edges.

 

Step 5: Add soil.

You want ⅓ certified organic compost (bulk or bagged), ⅓ perlite or vermiculite, and ⅓ peat moss or coconut coir. Don’t use your native garden soil for this.

Optional: Mark your beds so you have a square foot grid. You can use nails to hold some twine in place or create your own grid from rocks, bamboo canes, or anything that makes a straight line.

 

Step 6: Plant your seeds or transplants using the guide below.

  1.  

Here’s a list of the most common vegetables and their spacing in SFG method. If you’re planting something that isn’t listed here, use the “thin to” instructions on your seed packet as a guide and follow the simple calculation I outlined in All About Seeds Part 1: Deciphering Seed Packets.

Have you used the SFG method? What’s your experience been like? What thoughts or recommendations do you have for beginners trying out SFG? Share your wisdom in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Palm-Waving Groupies

Next Wednesday: Update and Pictures from Our Jubilee Garden

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All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting

Hooray! You’ve made it to week 3 of All About Seeds. Now that we’ve learned how to decipher a seed packet and understand some of the lingo, we can get down to business. It’s time to choose your varieties!

Here are some things to consider:

 

Step 1: Finalize your planting list

Decide what types of plants you want in your garden.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What do you have space for? 
  • What do you/your family eat the most of?
  • What might be tastier grown at home rather than buying from the store?
    • What bruises or goes bad quickly after being harvested?
  • Which items have a big mark-up at the store that you could grow more cheaply yourself?
    • Berries? Rare veggies? Spices? Herbs?
  • Which company (or companies) do you want to buy from?
    • What’s in stock?
    • Can you buy all your seeds from them and get a discount or free shipping?
    • Who’s got the best prices? (Don’t forget to take into consideration the unit/weight for each seed pack)
    • What’s their lead time on shipping?

Step 2: Determine your seed “rules”

Selecting varieties can be overwhelming and it’s easy to over-buy. So create some rules for yourself before you even crack open a seed catalog or peruse a seed company’s website. Here are some examples of rules that you can use or adjust for yourself:

  • I’m limiting myself to x number of varieties of the same plant (i.e. 2 tomato varieties)
  • I’m limiting myself to varieties that are bred for containers (dwarf size)
  • I’m limiting myself to varieties that support my convictions about GMO vs. Non-GMO, Organic vs. Non-organic, and/or Open-pollinated/Heirloom vs. Hybrid.
  • I won’t pay over $x per packet of seeds
  • My total budget is $x, and I will stick to that number

Are all these rules really necessary? The Big Lebowski

Yes, yes they are. Because you’re about to…


Step 3: Crack open a seed catalog / seed company’s website

Now you’re armed with some defenses against overspending on seeds. Here’s an example of a spread you might see (this one’s from Baker Creek):

Baker Creek Seed Catalog - Example of Bean Options

 

It’s so alluring, am I right? The photography is on point – look at all those beautiful green beans you could have in your garden!

 

Thriller - I'm just here to watch people in denial rationalize their excuses

REALITY CHECK. Your garden is not a farm. Your plants will not look like these pristine, beautifully arranged specimens. So let’s keep it real, shall we?

  1. Go to the section for the first type of plant you want to order. 
  2. Immediately mark out any varieties that break your rules. If you’ve got a physical copy of the seed catalog, mark it out with a big X. I’m not kidding. If you’re looking at the website, write down the “hard no’s” on one side of a sheet of paper. 
  3. Assess what’s left. Of the varieties that are left, which ones will work best for you and your garden? You can compare the following to help you further narrow the list down:
    • Is it appropriate for your growing zone? (ex: “long day” onions do best when grown in zones 6 and colder)
    • What are the # of days to maturity? Do you prefer an earlier or later harvest?
    • Does it have any special advantages over others (ex: resistance to verticillium wilt in a tomato variety)?
    • Are there any disadvantages? (ex: beans that need to be trellised vs. ones that grow in a “bush” habit and don’t need support)
  4. Put your final “yeses” in your online shopping cart or write them down on the other side of your piece of paper that had the hard no’s on them.

Step 4: Wait 24 hours

Have a neutral third party (spouse, friend, mail carrier, local dog-walker) review what you have in your shopping cart. Give them permission to gently remind you of your seed rules and which selections might be breaking those rules. Get real with yourself. Have you gone over budget? It’s time to make some hard choices. YOU CAN DO THIS! Just don’t be like Cindy:


Step 5: Place your order

Enter that credit card info and click submit. Now sit back, relax and get ready for the next step in the process – preparing your planting area for your seeds or transplants! But before we do that, we’ve got some pruning to do…

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Pruning Time!

Next Wednesday: We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for Pruning – It’s Not that Hard!

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All About Seeds – Part 2! Seed Lingo Decoded

Let’s learn some lingo, real quick. There are some buzzword-y things that go on seed packets, a lot of which we just smile and nod at because, yes we’ve heard those words before, and if it sounds science-y and not natural-y it’s probably bad, right? 

WRONG

Let’s shut down that sort of thinking right now. This blog is a hearsay-free zone. No, we’re going to do the work to understand these concepts, not just be influenced by vague notions we’ve heard. 

So without further ado, going head-to-head in ring tonight are:

Hybrid, GMO, Non-organic versus open-pollinated & heirloom, Non-GMO, and Organic


 

Open-pollinated/Heirlooms Vs. Hybrids

Open-pollinated: When a parent plant self-pollinates or is pollinated by another plant of the same variety, the next generation will be similar to the parent plant. This is how pollination happens naturally, with no human intervention. 

Heirlooms: are just open-pollinated varieties that can be traced back a long time (like 50+ years).

VERSUS

Hybrids: Humans intervene in the pollination/breeding process, selecting which plants to cross-pollinate. Think Gregor Mendel and his pea plants, if you’re familiar with that story from your High School Biology class. Essentially, you’re inbreeding the plants so that you get desirable phenotypes (how a gene expresses itself physically… let’s say a pink flower color instead of a purple flower color). Ultimately, hybrids WILL NOT have offspring that look like the parent. Hybrids are called “F1s” because that’s the nomenclature used in genetics to indicate the offspring of a cross-breeding; the “f” stands for filial, meaning “generation”, hence F1 is a 1st generation plant. So if you buy hybrid seeds, and you want to save your seeds from a F1 tomato, next year’s tomato isn’t going to look anything like the tomato you grew this year. It’ll still be a tomato and it might even taste good (or better!), but it’s not consistent. Another thing to note is that hybrids that make it to market usually have better yields (something known as hybrid vigor) and have better disease resistance. They are also typically more expensive because you’re paying for the labor to do all the cross-breeding and management, ensuring that nothing wild gets mixed in. Think buying a pure-bred dog versus adopting a mutt.

Main take away: Open-pollinated and hybrids each have their place. I opt for open-pollinated when I want to save my own seeds. I go for hybrids if I know I’ve got a problem that a hybrid can solve (say, tomatoes that won’t crack easily or beautiful flower colors). “Heirloom” is just a marketing ploy.

And since I can’t resist a good Biology meme, you’re welcome in advance for the following Gregor Mendel memes.

 

Gregor Mendel - Give Peas a Chance Gregor Mendel - BRB doing science

 


 

Non-GMO Vs. GMO

Non-GMO: Not a Genetically Modified Organism. Meaning, the DNA sequences of these varieties haven’t been manipulated in a lab (no gene insertions, deletions, or substitutions). 

VERSUS

GMO: Genetically Modified Organism – a scientist in a lab somewhere has been fiddling with the DNA. Why would someone do that? Well, it turns out that scientists have found ways to change the DNA sequence that can result in a more desirable outcome, usually to make Big Agriculture easier, but sometimes for even GOOD, humanitarian reasons. For instance, adding DNA sequences that make the plant resistant to viruses (yes, plants can get viruses, too!). Or enabling a plant to secrete a substance that’s undesirable to a common pest. Or enhancing vitamin content so a staple food (like rice) can be more nutritious (this is a major public health win in the developing world). 

So, overall, GMO is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to us consuming the plant (unlike pesticide use in non-organic growing methods). The problems with GMOs are primarily ecological and legal. 

    • Ecologically speaking, do we really know the full impact of messing with an organism’s genetic make-up? How might the changes we make impact soil conditions (nutrient uptake, water requirements) or other levels of the food web? 
    • Then there’s the question of genetic diversity. If every large agricultural outfit is using the same GMO seeds because they need their corn to be resistant to corn borers (an insect pest) for a profitable harvest, what happens when corn borers begin to adapt (which they inevitably will) and suddenly no one has seed that the corn borers aren’t adapted to? You’re up a creek without a paddle, or a corn, that’s what.
    • Legally speaking, who owns the rights to those seeds? Many of the companies who create GMO seeds (you’ve probably heard names like Monsanto and Syngenta), make it illegal for farmers to save seeds from GMO plants they’ve grown. Due to these patent laws and other regulations, farmers are dependent on GMO developers to supply seeds, which can get expensive.

Dwight Schrute on GMOs

Main take away: GMO and non-GMO are buzzwords that don’t have a lot of bearing for the home gardener. I think it’s fine to plant GMO seeds, and see the benefit of their use in agriculture and public health applications. But it’s probably a better option to not put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and maintain the supply (and demand) for non-GMO. For more on the GMO debate, check out this site!

 


 

Organic Vs. Non-Organic

Organic: No pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic pest or disease controls were used on the parent plants that produced your seeds.

VERSUS

Non-Organic: The parent plants that produced your seeds might have been sprayed. 

Main take away: For seeds, organic vs. non-organic has very little bearing on the quality of the seeds themselves. You MIGHT WANT TO BE CONCERNED about whether your PRODUCE is organic or non-organic because you could be consuming whatever pesticides were sprayed on the plant. Plus, organic farming practices are gentler on the soil and larger ecosystem, which I think it worth promoting. If you want to get gung-ho and vote with your dollars to encourage organic practices in seed production, that’s fantastic. But ultimately, it’s less of a concern with seeds than with produce.

 


TLDR:

When it comes to seeds, a lot of these buzzwords are marketing ploys to appeal to different segments of consumers. However, if you’re fundamentally opposed to or in support of certain business practices or environmental justice issues, then dig in and pick your seeds according to your convictions. 

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Flood

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting

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All About Seeds – Part 1! Deciphering Seed Packets

Do seed packets simultaneously inspire you AND overwhelm you? Well, I’m glad I’m not alone! Today, I’m going to show you how to decipher seed packets. If it’s Greek to you now, hopefully by the end of this post you’ll either be speaking Greek or at least be proficient in reading it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding - Give me a word, any word. I show you how root is greek.

Let’s take a look at a seed packet. Here’s an example of a lettuce mix I got from Seed Saver’s Exchange:

Front of Seed Packet Explained

The front is pretty self-explanatory, with the company name, plant type, and variety/mix name, except for the bottom which says “Always Open-Pollinated and Non-GMO”, which I’ll cover in next week’s post. So let’s skip that for now and move to the back of the packet:

Back of Seed Packet Explained

So at the very top we have “packed for 2019, sell by 10/31/19”, then the product number & lot number, then the number of seeds or weight of seeds that come in the packet. 

“Packed for” and “sell by” dates ARE NOT expiration dates, so don’t throw your old seeds away. Your seeds will still be viable for many years (but fresher seeds always germinate best). It depends on the type of seed, but many stay good for 5-10 years (some shorter, some longer). If your seeds are getting up there in age, you can always sow more seeds than you intend to grow to maturity as extra insurance in case they don’t all germinate.

Then we’ve got the product number and the mix name again, plus the Latin Genus and Species name for lettuce (Lactuca sativa). This is helpful because it gives you a clue about how plants are related. For instance, onions are “Allium cepa”, while garlic is “Allium sativum”. Guess what? They’re related! But that was an easy one. Here’s another neat connection: tomatoes are “Solanum lycopersicum” and eggplants are “Solanum melongena”. Yes – tomatoes and eggplants are part of the same family – commonly called nightshades – and even grow similarly! This is helpful to know when planting so you don’t put cousins right next to each other in your garden bed – they likely have similar nutrient needs (they’ll deplete the same soil nutrients meaning you’ll have to fertilize) and they might even attract the same pests (together, they’ll act like a giant neon “eat me!” sign to any bug in the area). Is your mind blown yet?

Mind Blown
Next, we’ve got a description from the seed company. Since this is a mix, they’re telling us the variety names that they’ve included (some packets for mixes don’t even go this far… it’s a smorgasbord of whatever seeds they had left, so I give SSE props for disclosing their varieties). 

Okay now we get to the VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION.

40-45 days- this is the days to maturity (number of days from planting the seed to harvesting your lettuce). Extremely important information to have so you know when to harvest.

Seed spacingignore the “direct seed” spacing“ if you’re doing square foot gardening. The direct seed spacing information given on the seed packet is how to grow these using traditional gardening rows. This particular packet is instructing you to sow seeds one inch apart, then once seedling sprout, to cut down excess seedlings so that the ones that remain are 6-8 inches apart. It’s extremely wasteful and stupid, in my opinion. However, it’s a great way for the seed companies to get you to buy more of their product. We aren’t going to be fooled by their shenanigans, though.

No, what we’re going to do is look at the final spacing from the “thin” instructions (6-8 inches for lettuce) and think about how many plants with that spacing could fit in a 12” x 12” square. NOW DON’T FREAK OUT. We’re going to do some math. It’s not hard and it’s simple to remember.

Oh No! Not Math! Kitty Screaming Meme

You can do this! I believe in you! Now STAY WITH ME. We do this quick calculation:

  • Width of your planting area (12 inches) ➗ seed spacing (6 inches) = 2 plants across
  • Length of your planting area (12 inches) ➗ seed spacing (6 inches) = 2 plants down
  • Multiply your two answers together to get the total number of seeds to plant per square.

2 x 2 = 4

(see, you can do this!)

ANSWER: At 6” spacing, you can fit 4 lettuce plants in a square foot.

There are also handy dandy charts online with this information pre-calculated for different types of plants.

Planting depth is VERY important. Don’t just shove your seeds as deep as you want. You want them to be close to the surface. Rule of thumb is sow 2 times as deep as the seed is wide.

Germination info is just what you think it is – how long it takes for seeds to sprout into seedlings once planted, in this case 7-14 days.

The instructions section has other notes that might help you like sunlight and temperature needs (does it need full sun or partial? Frost tolerant? Heat tolerant? etc)

Lastly, we’ve got more company contact info should you have questions or problems.

And that’s it! That wasn’t so bad, was it? I’m sure you’re speaking Greek fluently now! And you’re polished up on your multiplication tables. Wondering about some of those buzzwords like “Open-Pollinated” and “Non-GMO” we saw on the packet? If so, great! Because that’s what I’ll cover in next week’s post – All About Seeds – Part 2! Seed Lingo Decoded!

What other seed packet variations have you seen? Which seed companies do you think have the most useful information on their packs? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up:

Sunday: Where are you planted?

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds – Part 2!  Seed Lingo Decoded

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