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Square foot gardening is the practice of planning and creating small but intensively planted gardens. The practice combines concepts from other organic gardening methods, including a strong focus on compost, densely planted raised beds and biointensive attention to a small, clearly defined area. This method is particularly well-suited for areas with poor soil, beginner gardeners or as adaptive recreation for those with disabilities (Bartholomew, 2005). The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series.
After retiring and moving to Long Island Mel Bartholomew was eager to start investing time on his new hobby, gardening. He led a community garden project following the typical gardening style by planting in rows. However, as the growing season progressed, Bartholomew was not entirely pleased by the results. He then began to question the way in which gardens are designed because for him, this typical row gardening only seemed to invite weeds, waste space, and cause a lot of frustration. Through many travels Bartholomew concluded that gardening by rows was inspired by our farming system in which room is needed between the rows for machinery. But this wasted space does little in a garden. Through a little bit of garden experimentation Bartholomew discovered that an efficient garden would be one that was easily accessible and used space resourcefully. He wrote of the evolution of his thought process in his book All New Square Foot Gardening.
Mel used a 12’ by 12’ square and used a grid that divided it into 9 squares with equal lengths of 4 feet on each side. Each of these 4’ by 4’ squares were invisibly divided into sixteen one foot squares that were each planted with a different species. However, the size you use in your garden depends on the space that is available and how much you want to grow. From Bartholomew’s experience, it’s shown that the same number of crops can be grown using square foot gardening method as in the conventional rows method but in 20% of the space. He suggests carefully spacing seeds rather than planting the entire seed packet. In this way fewer but stronger plants will grow. In smaller square gardens the grids may simply serve as a way to divide the garden but in larger gardens the grids could be made wide enough to be used as narrow walkways. This would prevent you from having to walk on the soil to reach the plants and compacting the earth.
Lawn to Garden Why not convert your unused lawn into a beautiful and productive garden? Decide how big you want your garden to be and mark out an area. An ideal spot would be one that receives sufficient sunlight and is relatively flat. One way to begin your garden is to smother the existing grass that is already there. This can be done by laying out newspapers or cardboard onto the ground to block out the sunlight. By placing layers of organic material on top of this the moisture of the ground will be locked in and this will quicken the process.
Conventional gardening can require heavy tools to loosen the soil, whereas in square foot gardening methods the soil is typically not walked on and thus not compacted, and it remains loose and more easily workable due to the composition of the recommended soil mixture. Weeds may be easier to remove due to the light soil, and accessing them can be easier as raised beds bring the soil level closer to the gardener.
Using specific soil mixtures within the beds can help to increase water-holding capacities, so that the garden needs less additional water than in systems reliant on the native soil. In the "All New Square Foot Gardening" book, Mel Bartholomew recommends the following soil mixture: one-third compost, one-third peat moss, and one-third vermiculite. Water is also spared by hand-watering directly at the plant roots, so that there is very little waste and tender young plants and seedlings are preserved.
Natural insect repellent methods such as companion planting (i.e. planting marigolds or other naturally pest-repelling plants) become more efficient in a close space, which may reduce the need to use pesticides. The large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily
A plywood bottom can be attached to the bottom of a box, which can then be placed on a tabletop or raised platform for those who wish to garden without bending or squatting, or to make gardening easily accessible for wheelchair, cane or walker users. According to Bartholomew, gardeners wishing to utilize this "raised" method of gardening should install the SFG on a very stable surface, preferably with four legs and not just a center support as tipping can occur. Sawhorses may also be used to raise the SFG.
Since the beds are typically small, making covers or cages to protect plants from pests, cold, or sun is more practical than with larger gardens. To extend the growing season of a square foot garden, a cold/hot frame may be built around the SFG, and by facing the cold/hot frame south, the SFG captures more light and heat during the colder months of spring and winter. Black&Decker's, "The Complete Guide to Greenhouses & Garden Projects," offers a fairly easy to make cold frame pattern with instructions and materials needed.
The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series. A full-length companion DVD, "Square Foot Gardening" (2010), was released in collaboration with Patti Moreno, the "garden girl".
The original square-foot-gardening method (per Bartholomew) uses a four-sided box with no top or bottom to contain a finite amount of soil, which was divided with a grid into sections. To encourage variety of different crops over time, each square would be planted with a different kind of plant, the number of plants per square depending on an individual plant's size. A single tomato plant might take a full square, as might herbs such as oregano, basil or mint, while most strawberry plants could be planted four per square, with up to sixteen radishes per square. Tall or climbing plants such as maize or pole beans might be planted in a northern row (south in the southern hemisphere) so as not to shade other plants, and supported with lattice or netting.
The logic behind using smaller beds is that they are easily adapted, and the gardener can easily reach the entire area, without stepping on and compacting the soil. In the second edition, Bartholomew suggests using a "weed barrier" beneath the box, and filling it completely with "Mel's mix," a combination by volume of one third of decayed sphagnum peat moss, one-third expanded vermiculite and one-third blended compost. Bartholomew also recommends buying at least five varieties of compost as this will give the soil mix more nutrients as one variety of compost may only be made with one type of material such as sawdust. New compost should be added and mixed in each year. To save money on compost and to recycle, gardeners can make their own compost using vegetable scraps, eggs shells, coffee and tea bags, leaves and grass clippings. Beginning on page 92 of the "All New Square Foot Gardening" book, Bartholomew gives instructions for compost making. For accessibility, raised boxes may have bottoms to sit like tables at a convenient height, with approximately 6" (15 cm) of manufactured soil per square foot. For some plants, such as carrots or asparagus, it is recommended to build areas deeper than 6" in order to facilitate a deeper root requirement.
In Bartholomew's method, the garden space is divided into beds that are easily accessed from every side. A 4 ft × 4 ft (1.2 m × 1.2 m) garden is recommended for the first garden, and a path wide enough to comfortably work from should be made on each side of the bed, if possible, or if the bed must be accessed by reaching across it, a more narrow one should be used so that no discomfort results from tending the garden. Each of the beds is divided into approximately one foot square units and marked out with sticks, twine, or sturdy slats to ensure that the square foot units remain visible as the garden matures. Bartholomew suggests putting the SFG closer to the house as this will be more convenient for the gardener to attend the SFG during the growing season.
Different seeds are planted in each square, to ensure a rational amount of each type of crop is grown, and to conserve seeds instead of overplanting, crowding and thinning plants. Common spacing is one plant per square for larger plants (broccoli, basil, tomato, etc.), four plants per square for medium large plants like lettuce, nine plants per square for medium-small plants like spinach, and sixteen per square for small plants such as onions and carrots. Plants that normally take up yards of space as runners, such as squash or cucumbers, are grown vertically on sturdy frames that are hung with netting or string to support the developing crops. Ones that grow deep underground, such as potatoes or carrots, are grown in a square foot section that has foot tall sides and a planting surface above the ground, so that a foot or more of framed soil depth is provided above the garden surface rather than below it.
The beds are weeded and watered from the pathways, so the garden soil is never stepped on or compacted. Because a new soil mixture is used to create the garden, and a few handfuls of compost are added with each harvest to maintain soil fertility over time, the state of the site's underlying soil is irrelevant. This gardening method has been employed successfully in every region, including in deserts, on high arid mountain plateaus, in cramped urban locations, and in areas with polluted or high salinity soils. It is equally useful for growing flowers, vegetables, herbs and some fruits in containers, raised beds, on tabletops or at ground level, in only 4 to 6 inches (15 cm) of soil. A few seeds per square foot, the ability to make compost, to water by hand, and to set up the initial garden in a sunny position or where a container, table or platform garden may be moved on wheels to receive light is all that is needed to set up a square foot garden.
Square foot gardening is similar to gardening with raised beds. Both methods do use a raised bed in which to grow plants. By growing plants above ground level the plants become more accessible to work with. It has also been shown that plants grow better in raised beds because the soil is deep, loose, and fertile with good water drainage. Growing in raised beds can also help in situations where the local soil does not meet the requirements of the plants that one desires to grow. In both types of gardens, one can monitor the plants so that they continue to fill empty dying spaces with new crops. In this way you’ll have a continuous harvest throughout the season. As seen by many gardeners who use these methods, raised beds help save time because the plants can be grown very close together reducing the amount of space and resources that need to be spent on the plants. However, this does not mean to crowd your plants, pay attention to the spacing they require to grow to their mature size. Also keep in mind biodiversity. Gardens may be healthier if compatible plants are grown when intermingled. One example of a set- up is the three sisters, an arrangement of corn, beans, and squash used by Native Americans. However, in addition to using raised bed, a square foot garden uses a grid. A grid is placed on top of the garden to divide it into equal plots that can be used to organize and diversify the plant arrangements. So the first step would be to build a box. There are many dimensions that can be used but it is important to think of what size will be the most manageable and easy to reach across to access the plants. There are also many materials that can be considered. For instance, the walls could be made from trimly cut pieces of wood or recycled from various materials like sticks, tree trunks, cement blocks, or sand bags.
Before filling the box with soil, place a sheet of weed mat at the bottom. This will prevent weeds from growing. A suggested soil reciped is 1/3 coarse grade vermiculite, 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, and 1/3 blended compost. There are many different forms of compost like worm castings, green waste, or manure. Next, place a grid on top of the box. This will evenly divide your square box into equal smaller squares. Placing the grid on top is the key in the difference between square foot gardening and gardening with raised beds. Research the plants you want to plant to decide how much room they’ll need to grow to figure out what the spacing in the squares should be. Here are some advantages of using a raised bed for gardening:
- Prevents grass from growing in your garden space
- Water drains more easily
- The soil warms faster than the ground soil meaning that your growing season can start earlier
- Offer easy access to your plants
- No wasted space
Using cover crops in a raised bed has many benefits for the garden. There are a variety of plants that can be used for cover crops. Two grass types are oats and rye. These plants are generally planted a few weeks before the first frost of winter. As they grow they absorb nitrogen that would be leached from the soil and their roots also prevent any soil erosion that may occur from winds and snow melt. Rye, like buckwheat, are beneficial plants to use to prevent weeds from creeping into the garden by competing for resources. To break up compacted soil consider using annual ryegrass before winter sets in.
Gardens have increasingly been seen in urban areas. They can be used to grow local food to create a localized food system. This increase can specifically be seen in Cleveland where vacant building lots have been converted into urban gardens. There are about 200 community gardens that are contributing to this evolution in this city. This efficiency has been created through efficient gardens. As seen by Bartholomew, efficiency depends on reworking designs and questioning the norm.
Square foot gardening is especially compatible with:
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