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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.
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 × 4 ft (1.2 × 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 especially compatible with:
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