Last year I read Mel Bartholomew’s book “Square Foot Gardening – a new way to garden in less space with less work”. And was inspired to give it try. So bright and early this past spring I built 3 raised beds more or less like Mel recommends in his book and got off to an early start with Square Foot Gardening.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of Square Foot Gardening it boils down to this:
- Limit the size of your garden to only what you actually can and will take care of.
- Garden in Raised Beds – like any raised bed system, you never walk on the soil.
- Divide your beds into sections that are 12 inches by 12 inches instead of in traditional rows.
- Manage each of those one square foot sections very intensively.
- Mr. Bartholomew also embraces organic methods – as do I.
It’s a pretty simple concept and other than the 12 inch grid aspect it is pretty similar to some other gardening systems. In the Square foot Gardening Book, Mel gives lots of very useful information on many aspects of gardening including planting and spacing, composting, trellis systems, seed starting, watering, weeds, pests, and tools and techniques for extending the season. It’s an informative book even if you never try the square foot method.
My Experiences With the Square Foot Gardening Method
First I should tell you that I did not strictly adhere to Mel Bartholomew’s methods. Mel states that if you don’t install some kind of permanent 12″ by 12″ grid then it isn’t really a square foot garden – I didn’t. But other than that I pretty much did follow his plan.
What Went Right
I had some of my best ever results early on in this experiment, my early spring salad crops were super productive, and everything that I planted got off to a great start. I was able to plant and perform other garden tasks any time I wanted to without concern over working in a muddy garden after a rain. This is because with the Square Foot Garden system you don’t step on the soil. Staying ahead of weeds in these beds was really easy, for several reasons – 1) the small size is easy to manage. 2) the use of mulches helps to suppress weeds 3) because of the intensive planting there is just less area for weeds to grow, and it takes less mulch to cover it.
What Went Wrong
I discovered that you have to be careful about what plants you put next to each other. For example, the idea of having only one or two square feet of bush beans planted at one time sounded good to me. This may seem like a ridiculously small amount to many people, but not to me. My wife and I don’t want to preserve food at this point in our lives, we just want high quality fresh produce for the table. So 9 bush bean plants in a single square foot sounds like it would produce exactly the number of beans at one time that I want to pick and string. And it did, however those 9 plants actually want to spread out and cover a much larger area, and were vigorous enough to pretty much over power anything in a neighboring square. Lesson learned – be careful what you plant next to aggressive sprawlers like bush beans.
I also came to the conclusion that for larger plants (tomatoes for example) a larger (16 by 16 or 18 by 18) grid system might be better (Mel actually says this in his book). And in my opinion vining plants like cucumbers, and squash would probably be more practical in a less space intensive system.
The only other negative comment that I have to say about the system is that it seemed to me that the Square Foot Garden beds dried out a lot quicker than the more traditionally cultivated parts of my garden did. I used the exact soil mix that Mel recommends in his book for best results – a mixture of compost, vermiculite, peat moss, sand, and organic fertilizer. I don’t know if the rapid drying was because it drained so well, or just because of the raised beds, or the sustained upper 90 degree temperatures that we had here in TN, but it really was hard to stay ahead of the watering in the Square Foot Garden beds.
My Conclusions About the Square Foot Gardening Method
In my humble opinion this system is ideal for a salad garden, and for any crops that don’t get too big, but less than ideal for very large or sprawling plants. However, Mel Bartholomew indicates that this may be the case in his book, but that the careful gardener can adapt the system to work well for the larger plants. I’m sure that he is right, but for me I’m not sure that it isn’t less trouble to just use a different system for some crops. I’m certainly going to continue with the Square Foot Garden system for those crops that I like in it.
One more thing that I would do different…
My garden has developed a plague of moles. It took the varmints a while to figure out how to go under the edge of the beds and get up into all that nice loose organic soil, but when they do it makes for one more unhappy gardener. So I think I’m going to try putting some kind of wire mesh under the bed or maybe trenched in around the perimeter. In the immortal words of Rosanna Rosannadanna “If it ain’t one thing then it’s another ‘ If deer ain’t eating your strawberry plants down to the nub, then moles are tunneling under your raised beds.” Or something like that.
Now, go plant something!