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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Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

This Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide will help you with all the planning you need to do in the coming weeks to get your garden off the ground. Here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll need to get your Spring garden going this year! 

  1. Know your last frost date. This dictates how much time you have left before you need to really get things going. You can find it by putting in your zip code here. The date the calculator spits out  is the average range of the last frost in your area (+/- 2 weeks). That’s a month long window, so it’s really an estimate. 

You can plant up to two weeks earlier than the official date, BUT you’ll need to watch the nighttime temperatures like a hawk. If it dips to below 32F, you’ll need to get ready to cover any tender seedlings. Some years you win the gamble of planting early, and sometimes you end up like Linus, covering your plants every night for three weeks. It’s up to you how much effort you want to put into it.

Linus covering Christmas Tree

2. Decide how you’ll start your plants. If you haven’t made your decision yet, check out last week’s post about the pros & cons of transplants vs. direct sowing vs. indoor seed-starting

Here’s my honest opinion on the matter:

IT IS OKAY to buy transplants from a local nursery. You can buy nursery plants and STILL GET THE SAME DELICIOUS PRODUCE! You are not a “lesser” gardener for buying transplants. Anyone who judges you for going with transplants over seeds is probably a little full of themselves and not someone you want to be taking gardening advice from anyway.

Want more of a challenge than buying transplants? Do you like to live dangerously? Well, danger is my middle name. If you’re really sold on seed starting, then I HIGHLY recommend direct sowing.

Austin Powers: Danger is My Middle Name

3. Make a plan for what you want to plant and where it’s going to go. 

Consider these three things:

SPACE: How much space do you have? Will you be planting in containers? A garden bed? Make a paper chart (or spreadsheet you can print) of where everything will go. And make sure it’s to scale. Take into account plant spacings using the Square Foot Gardening method (post coming in the next few weeks!) and/or underplanting for getting the most out of your space. Ignore traditional row spacings on seed packets unless you’re a farmer. 

SELECTION: Every gardening website in the history of the world will tell you “plant what your family eats”. I didn’t take this advice for the first six years I gardened, because I wanted to see what I could grow, how plants in different families grow, and maybe because I thought deep down that I would enjoy eating Malabar Spinach (reality: slimy, gross texture) and Nasturtium (reality: smells like wet dog). I was wrong. Look at what your family eats regularly and plant that. Think about things you get at the grocery store every week (or at least every week in the summertime). Eighty percent of your space should be dedicated to those things. For our family, those are things like potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and lettuce. Not Nasturtium (though this makes a great companion plant!).

FUN FACTOR: Growing plants is also about learning and having fun, so I recommend getting 2-3 plants that will bring you joy or be a challenge to grow. WARNING: DO NOT experiment with things like PUMPKIN, MELONS, GOURDS, or WINTER SQUASH. They require a huge amount of space, so unless you’re trellising them over a massive arch or have a patch of grass you really want to kill, don’t do it. 

4. If you’re sowing seed, order seed catalogs/peruse seed websites NOW. Most companies send them for free, though Baker Creek has a coffee-table like book you can also buy for $14 if you just want to drool over some botanical eye candy. You can also peruse their websites if you don’t want the clutter/temptation of seed catalogs in your house. My favorites are: – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds & Seed Saver’s Exchange

**Special Note for 2021: There may be issues with seed shortages due to a boom in COVID gardening. You may have to get creative here… see step #6.

5. DO NOT PLANT ANYTHING OUTDOORS RIGHT NOW. Let me remind you that it is February, and unless you live in Zones 9 or 10 (think FL/south GA), we’ll be going through some menopausal weather from now until mid-April (at least here in NC). If you try to plant now, your seedlings will get tricked into thinking it’s Spring about eight times between now and then, it will freeze and those poor little babies will bite the dust. Control yourself! Spring is coming but it’s not here yet.

Winter is coming... no wait, warm again. Ok it's cold, winter is coming... nope, warm again.

6. Buy/source your seeds or transplants. ONLY do this once you’ve planned out your space. Get your order in as early as possible for seeds (February or early March at the latest). Have a back-up plan in case something you want is sold out. Share or swap seeds with a friend or neighbor to keep costs down. Many public libraries also have “seed libraries” where you can give/take seeds for free!

Example of a Seed Library: https://www.blounttn.org/1464/Seed-Library

7. Prep the planting area. Have you made your planting beds yet? If not, now’s the time. If you did step #3, you should know how big to make your beds or how many containers to source/buy. If you’re doing raised beds, get yourself a load of certified organic compost (make sure it’s certified, meaning they test for heavy metals & persistent herbicides!) from a local landscaping company (they’ll deliver by the truckload for cheap compared to getting bags) and spread it over your planting area (at least ⅛ in thick, but more is better). For my garden (2- 4’x4’ and 2- 3’x4’ raised beds, plus 4’ wide beds around most of the perimeter of my house), I get 5 cubic yards (the minimum the landscape company will deliver, since I don’t have a truck to pick it up myself). It costs ~$180. It’s a huge pile of compost, so I end up laying it on thick. It takes 2-3 full afternoons to wheelbarrow and spread it by myself, but it’s worth it – I rarely fertilize my plants because the compost does such a great job providing nutrients. A good mix for raised beds is 1/3 compost, 1/3 coconut coir/peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite/perlite. You can get a few bags of the coir/peat moss and vermiculite/perlite at Home Depot or Lowes.

Compost delivery

This is what 5 cubic yards of compost looks like.

8. When it’s time to plant, water the planting area BEFORE you direct sow OR after planting if using transplants. Why? Because tiny seeds will get washed away by a stream of water from a hose, whereas transplants need to “settle” into the soil by being watered in. Better yet, plant right before/after it rains and you can skip watering entirely! Note that for transplants, you’ll need to harden them off (acclimate them to being outside for gradually longer periods each day for about a week) before planting.

9. Plant your seeds/transplants. Bring a written diagram/chart outside with you so you know where everything goes. If you need to make adjustments when planting, write down your changes on that paper so you know what got planted where. Then, take a picture of it because YOU WILL LOSE THAT PAPER. You can also label with plant tags, but the diagram should be the source of truth. Seedlings all look VERY similar. A diagram helps you know what’s a weed and what’s something you planted when things start popping up! Pay attention to the proper plant spacing as outlined in the Square Foot Gardening Method or for underplanting. Seeds should be planted twice as deep as they are wide. A 1 cm seed would be planted 2 cm deep. 

Planting chart

My planting chart from last year with some edits.

10. Keep an eye on seedlings until they are established. This means not allowing them to dry out, protecting them from potential frosts, and shielding them from critters like birds, rodents, and insect pests that enjoy munching on the fresh new growth.

That’s it! Now go order some seed catalogs and curl up with a mug of hot chocolate. Enjoy this time of preparation and rest before the mad rush of planting in a few short weeks!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Kingdom First

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds! Choosing Varieties and Deciphering Seed Packets

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Where to Start? Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting

Spring is just around the corner! It’s hard to believe, but in just a few short weeks, it will be planting time. Have you thought about how you plan to start your garden this year? Here are some tips for choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting, including a run-down of the pros and cons for each option, with a handy flow chart to help you make your decision.

 

Nursery Transplants

Pros: 

    • Least amount of work. The nursery has done the hard work for you! You don’t have to deal with planting schedules, germination fails, and plants keeling over/getting leggy because they don’t have sufficient lighting (no, putting your plants in a windowsill is NOT enough light for baby seedlings… you need a fluorescent or special spectrum LED light to mimic the sun – I’ve learned this the hard way in growing the world’s floppiest tomatoes)
    • No waste! Did you really need 45 lettuce seedlings? That’s what you’re going to have when you sow indoors (lettuce seeds are TINY, betcha can’t plant just one!). Have you thought about how they will fit once they are full-size? At proper spacing (4 per foot in the Square Foot Gardening method), you’d need 11 square feet (close to three-quarters of a 4×4 ft bed) to plant all those lettuces. And I’m guessing you probably wanted to eat more than just lettuce this year. Plus, if you’re like me, you hear Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angels” every time you have to cull a perfectly good seedling because there is no room in the inn.

I have to make fun of it': Sarah McLachlan on the intense power of Angel, the unofficial song of sorrow | CBC Radio

    • Simple transplanting. Pop them out of their containers, dig a hole in the ground, and pop them in. Voila! You have plants!
    • Supporting a local business. After last year, we should all be supporting these entrepreneurs as much as possible. PREACH.

Cons:

    • Fewer variety options. You probably can’t get that super specific Russian tomato that you’ve been eyeing in the seed catalogs at the nursery. BUT the nursery will have at least 12 other varieties you can try that probably aren’t all that different. 
    • Slightly higher cost than seeds. But realistically people, it’s less than a latte. If you’re really nickel and diming it, get seed packets, but keep in mind that 4- or 6-packs of veggies or herbs at the nursery are usually only a couple bucks. Your sanity and time ARE worth something. Better yet, split that cost with a neighbor who only wants 1 or 2 plants. Now you have a neighbor with the same plants in case your plants fail. And you get to know your neighbor. Win-win.
    • Transplant shock is possible. You need to acclimate your nursery plants to their new home by leaving them outside for gradually longer amounts of time each day (over the course of about a week). If planted out immediately into new surroundings without this acclimatization, Your plants might not survive. 

 

Direct Sowing

Pros:

    • Strong plants. Plenty of sunlight and wind ensure your plants don’t end up leggy and weak.
    • No transplant shock because there is no transplanting! This happens if you don’t acclimate your plants to their final planting location (usually nursery plants need to be set outside for progressively longer periods each day for about a week before you intend to plant)
    • Low cost & low waste. You don’t have to buy potting soil or seed-starting mix.
    • Wide variety of seeds available
    • Some varieties must be direct sown to avoid root damage that would occur if transplanted. These include root vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes. Other types of plants that don’t transplant well are beans, peas, squashes, cucumbers, melons, and corn. 

Cons:

    • Some babysitting required. You need to keep on top of watering so seedlings don’t dry out.
    • Uneven spacing in your beds is a thing. You aren’t going to have Martha Stewart picture perfect photo spreads of your garden. It’s going to look a little higgledy-piggledy. 
    • Thinning required. You have to pull/snip baby plants that are too close together. Cue the sad violin. (OR look at the bright side and enjoy some homegrown microgreens!)
    • Not appropriate for slow growers. Look at the “days to maturity” on your seed pack. If it’s longer than your growing season is (days between your average last and first frost dates), then you’ll need to start with transplants or by starting indoors.

 

Indoor Seed Starting

Pros

  • Wide variety of seeds available. You can grow any variety you want! As long as you can source the seed packet, you can make it happen
  • You have complete control over the growing process
  • Satisfaction/bragging rights of having grown your own plants from seed to harvest
  • You can observe and learn a lot about plant growth – nutrient needs, wind
  • Get a head start on plant growth (can start plants inside when it’s too cold to start them outdoors) – earlier harvests, potentially more rounds of succession planting

Cons

  • Requires expensive equipment to do it right, including seedling heat mats, domed trays or soil blockers, fans, LED/fluorescent lights, bakers racks, plus the actual seeds. This is easily a few hundred dollars in start-up costs. This method won’t pay for itself unless you’re using it for many, many growing seasons or planning to sell your seedlings
  • Wastes a lot of potting soil/seed starting mix. I see this as an unnecessary extra expense.
  • Plants must be hardened off before transplanting into the garden. This means acclimatizing seedlings like you would transplants from a nursery (gradually more time outdoors each day over the course of a week).
  • Dampening off / other fungal infections more likely indoors.
  • It’s a much bigger time commitment than transplanting or direct sowing. With great power comes great responsibility – you will be babysitting these plants, tending to water, heat, and light until it’s time to plant out. 

Here’s a summary of the points above:Plant Starting Pros & Cons Chart

Still not sure what to do? Use this decision guide!

Plant Starting Decision Guide

What are your thoughts on choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting? Are there criteria I missed that you think should be included in deciding? What did you decide? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: How to Achieve Your Goals This Year + My Goals for 2021

Next Wednesday: Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

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