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Square foot gardening

Square foot gardening

You want to grow your vegetables in only 20% of the space of a traditional row garden? And with less effort, water and weeds? Then Square Foot Gardening is just what you are looking for! Square Foot Gardening is more effective, and requires less space and maintenance than conventional row planting. In Germany, vegetables are still mostly sown in rows in home gardens, whereas Square Foot Gardening has many followers in US and Canada. Square Foot Gardening is especially suitable for limited space. Are you thinking about switching to this method of gardening and want to know more about it? Then you have come to the right place. 

How Square Foot Gardening started

In 1975, Mel Bartholomew retired from his civil engineering job and decided to devote himself to gardening from then on. As a hobby, he joined a local community garden in Long Island that conventionally planted in rows. He quickly realized how wasteful and tedious row gardening was and how much time and labor it took. Still high spirited in spring, by midsummer the enthusiasm of him and other gardeners had disappeared. In a short time, the gardens were overgrown with weeds. Driven by his observations that went beyond the community garden, Mel wondered why, despite all the work, crops are grown only in rows, an outdated technique that originated in large-scale farming and is designed to use machinery. Why sow seeds in large numbers, only to thin them out afterwards in a laborious way? Why plant a whole row of cabbages when one only wants a few plants? Why spread fertilizer and water over the entire bed area, including the area between the rows, which is not planted at all? Used as a treading surface, this area only serves to become overgrown with weeds, requiring constant weeding. The answer he got to all his questions was always the same, whether amateur gardener or expert: „We’ve always done it that way.“ This answer was not satisfactory to Mel, the engineer, and he decided to develop a new method of gardening. This was the birth of Square Foot Gardening.

Large harvest on small area

Square Foot Gardening, in a nutshell, is a method of bio-intensive vegetable growing. Close planting can reduce labor and required resources. Square Foot Gardening is perfectly consistent with permaculture, which also follows the Easy Gardening approach. A Square Foot Gardening bed is a boxed bed measuring no more than 1.2 x 1.2 m and 15 cm in depth, into which nutrient-rich substrate or Mel’s Mix is filled. It is divided into squares of 1 foot (i.e., 30 cm) each, separated by a grid or strings. The number of plants that fit into a square depends on the size of the plants. 

„Permaculture“: Holistic, sustainable concept of agriculture that goes beyond the principle of an organic garden. A permaculture garden takes advantage of cycles of nature and intervenes only where necessary. By maintaining the natural ecological balance, a larger and tastier harvest can be achieved with less effort.

„Substrate“: Usually industrially produced mixture of various mineral and organic starting materials used for growing and cultivating plants.

Advantages and disadvantages of Square Foot Gardening:

In addition, there are the advantages of a raised bed:

Mel's Mix

Mel also introduced his own nutrient-rich substrate mix in his best-selling book „Square Foot Gardening“ in 1981, which included by volume

  • 1/3 Peat
  • 1/3 Vermiculite
  • 1/3 Compost

and, according to Mel, makes additional fertilizing unnecessary. If you do not want to use peat for environmental reasons, you can just replace it with coir or bark humus.

Properties of the soil: 

You can vary the mixture, it is only important that your soil has the characteristics mentioned above. If you want more tips on the ideal substrate, take a look here!

Harmony in the Square Foot Gardening bed

Because of the high variety of different crops in the bed, taking mixed cropping into account is especially important in Square Foot Gardening! Mixed cropping has many benefits, from pest and disease resistance to the attraction of beneficial insects to a better aroma of your harvest. 

„Mixed cropping“: Joint cultivation of plants that benefit from each other. So-called „good“ neighbors positively influence each other’s growth and protect each other. On the contrary, „bad“ neighbors should not be planted next to each other.

But:

Mixed cropping needs to be well planned and requires extensive research and knowledge about which plants go together, when to sow and harvest, and much more. But, don’t worry, we will help you plan! Just let us know what your needs and preferences are, and we will provide you with an optimized mixed cropping plan!

But:

Mixed cropping needs to be well planned and requires extensive research and knowledge about which plants go together, when to sow and harvest, and much more. But, don’t worry, we will help you plan! Just let us know what your needs and preferences are, and we will provide you with an optimized mixed cropping plan!

Well planned is richly harvested

Because of mixed cropping and growing vegetables year-round, a good bed plan is essential! A plan will also help you choose cultivars that suit your location and needs. Place climbing plants (e.g., cucumbers) at the edges of the bed or direct them vertically upward. Plant tall cultivars (e.g., tomatoes) at the north side of the bed so they don’t cast shadows. 

Number of plants per square:

The cultivars are divided into S (small), M (medium), L (large) and XL (very large). In one square there is room for 16 (S), 9 (M), 4 (L) and 1 (XL) plant(s).

S

e.g. radish, carrot

Square foot gardening - Radieschen & Möhren

M

e.g. spinach, beetroot

Square foot gardening - Spinat & Rote Beete

L

e.g. lettuce, kohlrabi

Square foot gardening - Salat & Kohlrabi

XL

e.g. pepper, tomato

Square foot gardening - Tomate & Paprika

My recommendations for Square Foot Gardening

  1. Choose a bed with a depth of 30-40 cm rather than 15 cm to provide enough root space for deep-rooted plants.
  2. Squares of 40 x 40 cm instead of 30 x 30 cm reduce the risk of disease outbreaks caused by leaves that are too close together.
  3. If you use Mel’s Mix, add an organic long-term fertilizer, especially for high nutrient-demanding plants, and apply short-term fertilizer every 2-3 weeks.
  4. By mulching your bed, you can additionally save water and reduce weed growth.

„Deep-rooted plants“: Crops (e.g. tomatoes) whose roots reach far down into the ground. Deep-rooted varieties can even root up to 70 cm deep!

„High nutrient-demanding plants“: Plant that produces lots of fruits or large leaf masses over weeks and therefore needs many nutrients. Examples are cabbage plants, tomatoes, or cucumbers.

„Long-term fertilizer“: Organic material that is decomposed by microorganisms in the soil. The decomposition releases nutrients that are available to the plant for a long time. As complete fertilizers, long-term fertilizers contain all necessary nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and trace elements.

„Short-term fertilizer“: Liquid fertilizer that provides nutrients (especially potassium and nitrogen) to the plant immediately and acts quickly.

„Mulch“: Soil cover that keeps moisture in the soil and suppresses weeds.

How do I start a Square foot snack garden?

  1. Build a Square Foot Gardening bed with the desired dimensions or assemble a ready-made kit.
  2. To define the borders of the squares, make a grid of wooden strips or use strings that you attach to the frame with a nail or stapler.
  3. Fill the bed with nutrient-rich substrate and add long-term fertilizer. Cover the soil with a 5-10 cm layer of mulch.
  4. Create a bed plan that takes into account mixed cropping and site requirements or have us create a plan for you.
  5. Sow (direct seeding or starting indoors).
  6. Maintain your bed (fertilizer, plant protection, water) and watch the plants grow.
  7. Snack straight from the plant without feeling guilty.
  8. Harvest your vegetables and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
  9. Once a square is harvested, reseed.
  10. This way you can harvest several times a year.

If you use your boxed bed on the balcony or terrace, it will also need a bottom. Provide the bottom with holes to allow excess water to drain away. Before you fill your substrate into the bed, add a drainage layer of expanded clay at least 5 cm high. To prevent siltation, separate the expanded clay and substrate layers with a weed mat.

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