A Lesson in Gardening

:: A square for every plant, every plant in its square. ::

I square foot garden.  I don’t know if square-foot-garden is technically a verb, but I’m going to roll with it.  This is the style of gardening we do on our little homestead.  The funny thing is that it’s supposedly a very popular technique, yet no one in my circles seems to have heard of it.  To get to the bottom of this, I had a chat with my trusty gardening manual All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.

Jessica: Hello SFG book, thank you for coming today.

SFG Book: Over 2 million people have read me!  I’m super popular.

Jessica: No you’re not.  Nobody I know has heard of you.

SFG Book: But I have a label on my cover that says so.  And I have a website that has a ton of hits.

Jessica: That’s because people get there by accident.  They probably think SFG is the airport code for San Francisco.

SFG Book: Anywayssss, there was a Square Foot Gardening TV show and so many people watched it.

Jessica: I don’t want to argue with you, book.  Personally, I love you.  I’m just saying I have yet to meet one other person who knows what SFG is or who has ever heard of it.

SFG Book: Sad face.

So let’s remedy this situation, shall we?  Here’s the super short summary of Square Foot Gardening: a raised bed filled with healthy soil, divided into a grid of one-square-foot sections with a different plant in each section.  The number of seeds you can plant in each square depends on the type of plant.

Raised beds ready for planting
Raised beds ready for planting

What’s So Great About Square Foot Gardening?

#1: SQUARES!

This one may apply more to those of us with obsessive compulsive tendencies, but everything is better when it’s lined up in squares.  Am I right?  Neat rows intersected by perfectly straight columns…you had me at right angle.

#2: DIRT!

With SFG, you fill your raised beds with a soil mixture rather than digging down into the ground.  This is a huge benefit for several reasons.  First of all, you don’t have to wait for the ground to thaw before setting up your garden.  I never considered this issue when I lived on the West Coast, but now I live in the Midwest and it is a real thing.  The ground can freeze, you guys.  Who knew?

Second – and even better – you don’t have to know what kind of soil you have.  No need to test the pH, calculate the balance of nutrients, or figure out what kind of soil amendment you need.  Seriously, I can do smart things but gardening is supposed to be relaxing.  I don’t need to be working out complicated Mr. Wizard formulas just to get my garden ready for planting.  The SFG book recommends a mixture of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite in equal parts.  You get the amount you need for your raised beds, mix it all together, and toss it in.  Done.

Another VERY important point: you don’t have to till the ground!  You don’t have to hoe!  You don’t have to pick rocks out of the ground.  You don’t have to break your back digging into the ground and bending it to your will.  You just tell the ground, “You keep doing your thing and I’ll do mine.”  And then you plop a garden bed on it and fill it with awesome soil mix.  The ground might have hurt feelings for a day or two, but it’ll get over it.

#3: WEEDS!

Or lack thereof.  Because you are planting your seeds in a nice mixture of clean soil, there are no weed seeds to start off with.  If you lay down some weed cloth under your garden bed, you will only have the occasional weed that was either dropped there by a passing bird or that muscled its way through the weed cloth.  In any case, the soil mixture you used is so loose and crumbly (the magic word here is friable), it’s easy to pluck sporadic weeds out by hand.  I will concede that we have some ferocious, jungle style plants out here in Michigan and even the grass will break through weed cloth and shoot for the sky.  But I weed the garden beds about twice a week, for about 10 minutes each time (I have 64 squares in my garden).  That’s the kind of minimal time commitment I can get on board with.

Cloche-style covers keep out the deer
Cloche-style covers keep out the deer

#4: VARIETY!

If I had to plant my garden in rows I would have to do at least one full row of each crop, probably two.  This would limit the number of different types of plants I could grow.  I don’t know if you have to do it that way, but I know myself and there’s no way I would have a row with two cabbages, then two corns, then a tomato plant, then a line of carrots.  That kind of chaos would keep me up all night, itching and pacing the floor.  I need order.  With SFG, the order is imposed by the squares. (Can I hear it for squares?!) So I can have one kind of plant here, another there, a third one over there.  But each plant stays in its own square, so it doesn’t bother me that there are so many different types next to each other.  So if I want to plant peanuts, I can dedicate one square to trying it out.  And I can grow broccoli next to it, and some beets next to that.  With a row garden, I’m pretty sure I would grow a bamillion of the same thing and my family would have a dreary winter eating cabbage and carrots over and over and over.

#5: SPACE!

One of the big selling points of Square Foot Gardening is that you can create a very productive garden in a small amount of space.  Our garden beds are 4’x4’ squares, so we are growing 16 crops per bed. (Math!) That’s a small area but it can generate a lot of food.  Depending on what you choose to plant, that one bed could produce 16 cabbages or 256 carrots or 64 heads of lettuce or 8 watermelons or 144 onions, or some combination of those.  If all goes according to plan, here is what our 4 garden beds will produce this season:

48 carrots                          3 heads of broccoli                          2 heads of cabbage

2 watermelons                  8 heads of lettuce                            16 onions

1 birdhouse gourd           2 lavender bushes                           1 zucchini plant

8 bunches of kale             8 ears of corn                                  2 cantaloupes

1 mint bush                        1 rosemary bush                            2 nasturtium plants

18 bean bushes                 16 bean poles                                 1 pumpkin

1 yellow squash                 3 cucumber plants                       18 beets

4 tomato plants                 1 sage bush                                   1 acorn squash

And a whole mess of cut flowers like snapdragons, cosmos, 4 o’clocks, and marigolds.

Big variety in a small space
Big variety in a small space

garden tomatoes

#6: ONE-TIME SET UP!

This is our first year having a garden.  So we had the initial investment of time and money building our garden beds, buying the soil mix components, and putting it all together.  But next year, it will all be ready for us to jump right in.  The garden beds won’t need to be built again; they’re already there.  The soil mix won’t need to be added again; all we do is add some compost along to the way to keep it topped off.  (And you know that’s free when you have a worm bin…see upcoming article on vermiculture.  I know you can’t wait.)

I hope this shed some light on the wonderful, orderly, math-friendly world of Square Foot Gardening.  If not, check out the actual SFG website for more information.  Or borrow my book; it’s dying to bend someone else’s ear about how awesome it is.

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6 thoughts on “A Lesson in Gardening

  1. So here’s one hint that SFG is not that popular. I just typed it in on my phone & it autocorrected to Afghanistan. Point number two I came here to make is that it’s all nice and dandy for you out there with all this space to live & breathe. But for those of us that live in boxes smaller than your garden itself, we started to do some vertical gardening. Ever heard of that SFG book? Ya. It’s cool too. So take that.

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  2. Really cool! I outfitted my raised bed with SFG divisions this year to help with my spacing issues – I always plant too much, too closely.
    One thing you might want to reconsider is the mint; as an aggressive plant, it will take over your entire bed and work its roots through the soil in short time (about a year) heading for the rest of your garden. It is advised to plant mint in a pot and keep it off the soil (i.e. on the patio/terrace).
    Looking forward to seeing how your SFG comes along!

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  3. If you plant 4 O’ clocks once you will never get rid of them. I’m still trying to kill them off 25 years after my grandmother originally planted them. I’m stuck with the ugliest flowers I haver seen. Some horrid color of pink and pee yellow. Gross.

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