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Square Foot Gardening Planning

What is Square Foot Gardening The concept behind square-foot gardening is that you will be able to grow as much as possible in a small space without choking out any...

What is Square Foot Gardening

The concept behind square-foot gardening is that you will be able to grow as much as possible in a small space without choking out any plants or having them fight for nutrients. Using grid lines (either imaginary or a wide variety of other dividing methods, from twine to unfinished wooden slats and even pvc pipe), gardeners are able to divide their garden into manageable sections, growing different plant varieties in each section rather than the more traditional method of planting in rows. 

Why use the square foot gardening method?

Square foot gardening requires less space.  

The square foot gardening method is primarily utilized by those who have spacial restrictions. If you have expansive acreage available for your crops, square foot gardening won’t be the most efficient way to grow your flowers, fruits, and vegetables. When space allows for larger plantings, rows will likely be a better fit, saving time in both planting and harvesting. 

That said, most Americans do not have vast acreage at their disposal. So if you are amongst those who want to supply your own food, but have limited space available, square foot gardening might just be the solution. It will allow you to bring in significant yields and variety with the space you have available. 

Square foot gardening can require less water. 

Notice I used the word, “can” here. Square foot gardens are typically planted in raised beds, which are known to dry out more quickly than in-ground garden beds but with proper care, you can actually tend to each plant’s watering needs and still save water. 

Additionally, because your plantings will be closer together, you will have the opportunity to be more targeted with your water, so you might actually be able to save on water in the long-run. Drip hoses are one way to do this, but you will likely lose some water to evaporation before your plants are able to use it. There are some ways you can slow the evaporation and keep the soil moist longer, like adding a thick layer of mulch (which will also help with weed control), but that is still not the most efficient way to water.

Instead, we recommend watering at the roots using an in-ground watering device like Root Quencher Jr. or Spikes to water under the surface. Doing so will save as much as 50% on water usage. With the Root Quencher Jr. in combination with the directional plugs you will be able to direct the water to exactly where it needs to go, so you could put it between the garden sections and use one device to water multiple crops. For the more petite plants, the spikes might be your best bet. Just use them along with a drip hose and stake them next to each planting, using them only where they are needed and nowhere else. 

Square foot gardening can make tending to your plant’s nutritional needs easy!

As you are probably already well aware, different types of plants will have different nutritional requirements, which you will need to satisfy if you want them to thrive—which you obviously do. Using the square foot gardening method can help you achieve this easily. By carefully planning your plot set-up, you will be able to balance nutritional needs by organizing your garden in a way that places mutually beneficial plants next to eachother. For instance, if one plant type is a nitrogen lover, plant it next to another that is known to be a nitrogen fixer. This style of “companion planting” can also be used as a means of pest control. Spend some time doing a little bit of research to determine what plants you should putt next to each other in order to naturally satisfy the unique nutritional requirements of your garden. Here’s a great list of companion plants from Farmers’ Almanac to get you started. 

Companion planting is a great way  to balance nutrients in the garden, but there still might be times when you need to supplement with compost or fertilizers. If you are using a Root Quencher watering device, you can ensure those nutrients are being delivered exactly where they are needed—the roots. 

Square foot gardening may provide financial savings. 

Mel Bartholomew, creator of The Square Foot Gardening Method and the Foundation which dons the same name, suggests that the method costs 50% less than traditional gardening methods, largely in part due to the fact that it requires an average of 20% less space. We aren’t sure where that 50% number came from and it does seem a little hard to believe considering most square foot gardening takes place in raised beds using a specific blend of soil. Regardless, for many people, the return may be well worth it—especially when you consider what it costs to purchase produce at a grocery store or farmers’ market. 

We can safely say that there can be financial savings, including money spent on fertilizers and pesticides if plantings are well-thought-out, and considering “time is money”, there will be some savings there because you will likely spend less time weeding and harvesting for a larger harvest as you would using row planting in the same sized area. This method is also extremely conducive to organic gardening, as well, because companion planting can help naturally deter pests and balance nutrients. 

We are guessing that those estimates were made around 1981, when Bartholomew published his book. At that time, wood was very inexpensive in comparison to today’s prices. So we are assuming he was incorporating the cost of tilling equipment and the like and comparing it to the cost of building materials. These days, wood and other building materials are extremely costly, while tool libraries have popped up in cities around the country providing savings opportunities. 

That said, using recycled materials would provide an inexpensive option for building a above-ground square foot garden and while the financial cost of square foot gardening may or may not be more expensive than an in-ground plot, in comparison to raised beds of the same size that use row plantings, it will not cost any more and the output will likely surpass its counterpart.

Does square foot gardening work with all plants? 

Square foot gardening is not ideal for all crops. If they take up a lot of space to get a reasonable harvest (ie: artichokes and corn), it might not be worth it. If you are able, we recommend finding other spaces around your yard for planting space hogs or choosing other crops. 

Some folks will tell you growing large winter squash and larger tomato plants won’t work well in a square foot garden but we believe otherwise. If you are willing to take the time to “train” them to grow upward using stakes and ties, they will work beautifully in a square foot garden and can even provide late summer shade for plants that prefer to not take on too much heat. Plus, high-yield plants like tomatoes and summer squashes will ensure a sizeable bounty. 

How to Plan for a Square Foot Garden

Now that you have a better idea of what square foot gardening is you may be considering moving forward with it, so let’s take a look at how to plan for it. 

What is the square foot garden layout?

A square foot garden contains individual square foot plots—each containing a different crop. How you set it up is up to you, but we do recommend doing your research and using companion planting when you can. 

Here are a few tips to get you started: 

  • Add trellises to the north end of your garden boxes if you will be planting items like peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and other vining fruits and vegetables. If you want more climbing plants than will fit in the furthermost north row of your garden, keep those as close to the north end of the garden as possible and use stakes and ties to train them to grow upward. 
  • Situate plants that don’t do well in extreme heat or prefer more shade next to bushier plants or vining plants that will create shade for them. For instance, you may want to plant a plot of carrots near tomatoes or a bush variety of squash. 
  • If you have any flowering fruits and vegetables in your square foot garden, it is a good idea to also have plantings of flowers to attract more pollinators. Marigolds are a great option, because they also deter many pests. I also love having some other edible flowers available for garnishing plates and adding to salads. Some of my favorites are nasturtium, viola, calendula, and chamomile (also a delicious tisane/herbal tea!). 
  • If you are a salad lover, don’t plant all of your lettuce at once, but space them out every 2 weeks. Doing so will ensure you have salad available all summer long, because as one bolts and turns bitter, you will still have more that willl be perfect for harvesting. 
  • Consider which plants need ample space and which can grow in closely situated rows. For instance, 1 square foot of space might only fit a couple of pepper plants, but it is more than reasonable to grow at least 16 carrots in a single section. 
  • If you are looking to maximize your space, you may want to consider planting potatoes elsewhere, like a potato bag or a even a hog fencing bent into a cylindrical shape, lining the outside with straw, and layering soil and potatoes in the center. 
  • Keep in mind that different plants are suited to different climates. Just because you found a diagram for a square foot garden set-up doesn’t mean it will be good for your space. Choose crops that are well-suited to your particular growing conditions.

How big should a square foot garden be?

The first step to getting your square foot garden set up is to determining how much space you have available to dedicate to the garden. Get outside and measure! From there, you only need to chose a size that is evenly divisible by a square foot. It can be 1’ wide by 10’ long if that is what suits your needs, or 4’ x 4’, or any other variety of sizes. 

I have found that a 2-foot width is best for me because I can reach all of the different sections without trampling into the garden. This is incredibly helpful when it comes to weeding and harvesting. It does require more wood, however, because more boxes are needed to get the same yield. 

What kind of soil should I use in a square foot garden? 

Bartholomew recommends using what is referred to as “Mel’s Mix” for soil and suggests that if you use theis specific mix, fertilizer won’t be needed. The mix includes 1 part coarse grade vermiculite, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part compost. This is probably great for starting out, but we find it hard to believe that some of the plants you will be planting won’t benefit from additional fertilizer or compost tea. There really is no one-size-fits-all for plant needs. If you are using a Root Quencher product to water at the roots, you will be able to deliver extra nutrients to the plants that need them. Using directional plugs, will further direct compost tea, liquid fertilizer, or pellet fertilizer to only the plant it is intended for. 

It’s no wonder why square foot gardening has been a popular method of growing vegetables and other plants in a small space since the 80s. By simply dividing a garden bed into a grid of square foot sections, spending some time to learn about what different plants like, and using companion planting and vertical gardening techniques to grow different crops in each square, the output can be substantial regardless of space and resources. This makes it an ideal choice for urban gardeners and those with sparse garden space and limited time.

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