Back to Square One: Planning and Implementing Square Foot Gardening
Want to make the best of a small growing space? Want to maximize the productivity of a large plot? Want to grow plants in a way that means less work for you and more food at the same time? If you answered yes to any of these questions, keep on reading. All you really need is some motivation and a bit of space! Square foot gardening can be implemented in plots of any size and even works well in container gardens or raised beds. This guide to the basics of square foot gardening will teach you everything you need to know to get you started.
What is square foot Gardening?
Square foot gardening is a high intensity form of gardening that aims to provide an ordlerly system that maximizes the yield in a small space. It is a method of planning and maintaining a garden space so that you can use as much of the soil as possible. It utilizes blocks of square patches that can be easily worked from all sides rather than rows. These blocks are designed and planned so as to best used is allows plants to utilize each other in all sorts of ways and in a way that minimizes unused space. It is essentially a modular system where you can fill the different boxes of your plot with different plants. There is a lot of room for fun and creativity with the beauty of having neatness and simplicity to planning the garden.
Planning, planning, planning
A little planning goes a long way in any garden and a really long way in square foot gardening. Below are outlined some of the basic steps of planning your new plot. They don’t necessarily have to be done in order but are meant to build on one another.
Picking A Site
One of the great things about square foot gardening is it can be applied in many different settings. So if you have a large plot, a small plot or even raised beds or a couple large planters you can implement square foot gardening practices. Make sure your plants are in a place where they receive enough sun and if in planters, some shelter from the hot afternoon sun would be ideal to prevent overheating. Make sure that when you lay out the site you can put taller plants towards the north side (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or the south side (if you are in the southern hemisphere) so they do not shade the others.
Once you have picked a site, you have an idea of the condtions that will be there and can start picking plants to grow. Take note of the sun it receives and the amount of wind. Even taking into account how much rain you receive in a year or how easily you can water the site may be helpful. Ultimately the best variety is one that will grow well for and that you like to eat. Some of the best varieties for square foot gardening are the dwarf ones. For example bush beans take up less space than standard beans that trail but can’t quite be pole beans.
Variety is the spice of life, and also helps when it comes to gardening. By planting more than one variety of something, you are increasing you chances of a yield. If you grow multiple kinds of one vegetable, you can not only find out which ones grow best, you will still get a good crop if one of them doesn’t like the weather that summer. Sometimes you cannot get multiple varieties of something but increasing the diversity of your garden in any sense will help ensure that you get a good yield. It is kind of a numbers game, if you only grow three species, a pest that likes to eat all three of them could come through and wipe out your whole seasons crop. However, if you plant 10 very different things, then some things are bound to survive in the event of an infestation.
One of the key elements to think of when planning a square foot garden is companion plants. This is the practice of planting things together that benefit from each other and don’t mind sharing the same space. Some plants even make each other healthier, repel pests or fertilize the other.
For example, beans fix nitrogen and pole beans could be used to feed leafy greens planted at their base or bush beans or nasturtiums could feed tomatoes. Other plants, like marigolds and rosemary are used to keep away common pests that don’t like the smell of them. Marigolds even secrete chemicals into the soil that help keep certain ground pests away for up to a couple years. There are lots of beneficial combinations and information about many of these companion plantings can be found online or in books. I outlined a couple that I find work really well and also some combinations that don’t work well.
A few great combos:
-tomatoes and basil
-marigolds and tomatoes
-beans and corn
-beets and kale
A few bad combos:
-onions and any beans
-beets and pole beans
-brassicas (broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc) and nightshades (tomato,pepper,eggplant,potato)
The other key element of square foot gardening is time stacking. This means planting crops together that are harvested at different times in order to use the same space twice. For example, this is easily done with leafy greens and the space around tomatoes and peppers. Time stacking can also be done by seeding the same crop but at different times. An example of this is if you space out the planting of every other row of lettuce by two weeks. Then, when you harvest the first crop, it makes room for the next crop to mature.
There are lots of ways to do this and you can get really creative with it. Think of a crop of carrots with spring greens planted around them and then kale seeded each side of them for a later crop. As the spring greens grow and are eaten, the Kale has more room to grow. Then as the kale grows it can be thinned or the lower leaves removed to make room for the shorter carrot. The sky is the limit as long as the plants are compatible like we talked about above.
Write it Down!
Something that is really handy in any form of gardening is keeping a good log or record of what you are planting. This becomes even more valuable in systems like square foot gardening where everything is planned and intentional to maximize yield. Getting into the habit of writing things down as you go can be really helpful in planning next years garden. This information will come in especially handy with managing crop rotation and making sure you don’t make any blunders more than once.
Thinks to keep tabs of:
-date of thinning/first harvest
-what amendments were added to the soil
-which plants were your favourites?
-if you saved any seeds from anything
-Any weather patterns that may have affected yield
-date of final harvest
-any pests/problems experienced
Preparing the Site
To have a healthy garden you have to do some groundwork, literally. Starting with a well-structured, nutritious soil can make all the difference for your plants health and ultimately the yield you get for your effort. It is all about balance, you want a soil that holds moisture well but also drains properly. A great soil also has a good mix of organic and inorganic components.
Heavy, clay soils should have composted manure or other composted organic material added to lighten them up. Coffee grounds work great for this and you can get large amounts of them for free if you ask nicely at local coffee shops. Never work in non-composted dry material like woodchips or leaves as these will actually rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose. Coffee grounds aren’t composted but have more than enough nitrogen in them to compensate.
Highly organic soils should have inorganic matter like clay or sand added. Sand is actually a great addition to any soil type as it helps prevent compaction because sand grains don’t stick to each other. A bit of bone meal ore blood meal for phosphorous is a great idea. A vegan alternative would be kelp meal and it works wonders as well. I also recommend adding rock dust or crushed shale, especially if the plot has been gardened before. It is a great way to make sure your soil has all the micronutrients a plant could need. These micronutrients help plants deal with stress and drought, making your plants tougher. They also end up in your food, making it more nutritious for you too. Also, be sure to add in some well-prepared compost for nitrogen too. Composted manures are a good, inexpensive choice when first starting a garden. There are also products made from kelp or composted fish by-product which are great too.
Marking it Out
Here comes the actual square foot part. The square foot system uses a grid of uniform squares that are usually about 1” squared. These become the cells of your system into which pre planned plantings are put into. It is usually easiest to mark out this grid with string which can be attached to the side of your raised bed or tied to stakes in the ground. Another way is to use flour or sand to create a temporary grid on the surface of the soil.
Sowing your Veggies
If you are new to a crop, be sure to read the instructions carefully on your seed packets before attempting to sow something. Some things may only produce if started ahead of time and may be best just bought as transplants from a nursery if you cannot do this.
Planting depth is especially important but the rules for spacing are usually what you bend a little when it comes to square foot gardening. For example, the package may say to space your spinach rows 10” apart but you can space them every 5” if you plan on harvesting every second row as baby greens. This allows you to make the most of your space. Or you could plant a row of radishes between every green bean row to be harvested long before the beans need that space.
Mulch your Munchies
Mulch will be your best friend I promise. Many modern methods of gardening do not utilize mulch, especially for edibles, but it makes everything so much easier. It helps keep weeds down and it helps retain soil moisture. This is important in a high density system like square foot gardening, there is no room for weeds and you want all the moisture you can get. It also helps to shelter the soil from the elements which allows it to have a thriving community of bacteria and fungi, healthy soil means healthy plants. It has been proven that a thriving soil community provides a sort of defense for plants against many pests and pathogens. Mulch is usually best applied once seedlings have grown a little so as not to impede their sprouting. It is also best to put your garden to bed in the fall with a good layer of mulch.
Wood mulches can be easily and inexpensively obtained from you municipal tree services. Also, mulching your pathways with newspaper/cardboard and woodchips is so much easier than weeding them all summer long. It is best to use organic mulches in any space you intend to plant as rocks are hard to remove and don’t break down and add to the soil. Below are some ideas for mulch and mulches to avoid.
Great Wood Mulches
Bad Mulches (release natural compounds that stunt plants)
Planning Future Square Foots
Part of square foot gardening is adapting the system to work for you and your climate. Be sure to pay close attention to crop rotation. In a densely populated, intensive system like square foot systems crop rotation is extra important. It helps prevent soil depletion and pests problems from arising. It can also help you build your soil by moving where you grow your nitrogen fixing crops like beans and peas. Plan to try a few new varieties and arrangements every year until you find what works for you!