Garden Planning for 2014: Square Foot Garden Intro

On Monday, the high is supposed to be 3 degrees.  Fahrenheit.  With a low of -4.  And a windchill of Get Me the Hell Out of Here.  I suspect these are not even real numbers and the Weather Channel is having us all on.

Natually, this means I am longing for green things and warm spring days.  Couple this longing with the arrival of several lovely seed catalogs, and well, you see, it’s garden planning time!

This year, I will have a real, honest to goodness garden!  No pots (unless I want them), no containers.  Just down in the dirt digging and turning gardening.  For the past year, I’ve been studying the Square Foot Garden method developed by Mel Bartholomew.  I’ve been obsessively reading and rereading his book, All New Square Foot Gardening, and I have to say that I am so glad I got it on Kindle.  Otherwise the pages would be falling out by now!

In a nutshell, Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is a way to grow more food in less space with less work.  It is what my dad would refer to as intensive gardening, meaning you plant as much as you can in the space you have.  Mel instructs SFGers to use simple raised beds divided into square foot segments.  Into each segment goes his very specific soil mixture, called Mel’s Mix, which is really more of a rich growing medium: 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite.  Into that go your plants, which are laid out carefully, each within a square foot of space.  Spotting an SFG garden from a distance is easy.  You will see the bed divided into 1′ by 1′ squared, each square containing one type of vegetable, herb, or flower.

I was initially attracted to SFG because of the promise of growing a lot of food in a small space.  After reading Mel’s book, I was hooked by the ease at which SFGers can manage their gardens.  As Mel says, gardening in rows is well suited to large scale vegetable farming, but how many people are able to plant full rows of squash or carrots?  Most of us want a few squash plants, some tomatoes, a patch or two of carrots, and so forth.  Mel breaks down for his readers spacing, nutritional needs, and timing for growing a full-scale, but tightly packed garden in a four foot by four foot raised bed.  I really encourage anyone interesting in getting started with gardening or anyone interested in trying a new gardening technique to pick up a copy of this book and give it a read.  It’s an easy read, and his enthusiasm and passion are just so engaging.  He believes wholeheartedly in his gardening method and loves sharing the good news!

For a quick how-to (and yes, it really is this simple) on getting started with SFG, check out!

So this year, I am giving it a try.  I will have two 4′ by 4′ raised beds and one 2′ by 6′ raised bed, giving me the chance to plant 44 different squares of… well, whatever I want!  And this is in addition to empty beds the previous owners left us that will be reserved for a medicinal and culinary herb garden.

The beds were so simple to make.  Just 2 x 6 boards that I had the hardware store cut to length for me.  In my case, I also had them cut additional 1 foot lengths to make carrot risers which allow you to grow root crops that are deeper than 6 inches.

The Grasshopper and the lumber, down in the basement, ready for construction.
The Grasshopper and the lumber, down in the basement, ready for construction.

I just pre-drilled and screwed them together one weekday while Cricket was napping. It took me maybe 30 minutes, and that was following Mel’s instructions in the book to the letter.

A completed SFG 4x4 bed, ready for transport to the yard above.
A completed SFG 4×4 bed, ready for transport to the yard above.

Then, all that was left was to determine where I should put the beds in my yard and staple ground cloth in to keep the weeds out.  I followed Mel’s advice and put them right outside my back door where I will see them every day.  SFG gardens are pretty!  And when you hide your garden away at the back of the yard, it’s so much easier to forget it.

Right outside my backdoor, ready for Mel's Mix!
Right outside my backdoor, ready for Mel’s Mix!

I did make an attempt to get some fall crops in, and filled and planted one bed with various fall items.  But I was planting in mid-September, which is really too late.  I got a few cuttings of mesclun (baby lettuce) and a couple of radishes that I failed to ferment correctly and lost to mold, but other than that, it didn’t really produce anything.

square foot garden

Then the freezes started coming and I gave it up as a loss, deciding instead to concentrate on the spring.  With that in mind, I dropped in a couple of squares of garlic (more on that in a later post) which have to overwinter in the garden, and called it a season.

Snow filled my square after the wind blew my frost cover off. The bags of soil and things that were supposed to weigh it down didn't. The wind and cold were too much for it.
Snow filled my square after the wind blew my frost cover off. The bags of soil and things that were supposed to weigh it down didn’t. The wind and cold were too much for it.

So now, the big choices.  What do I put into my squares this spring?

It can be so easy to get caught up in all of the beautiful pictures and delicious descriptions of the seed catalogs.  But it’s important not to get carried away.  Plant what you will eat.  If you and your family aren’t big on tomatoes, don’t plant them.  If you know the kids simply will not eat turnips, skip it.  Plant what you eat.  That said, the beauty of SFG is that you can dedicate a square or two to trying new things.  Because it’s only one square, you don’t have to commit to an entire row.

For us, that means lots and lots of tomatoes, hot peppers, a few sweet peppers, green beans, lettuce, strawberries, and asparagus.  Unfortunately, the others in my family are a little more limited than I am in what kinds of veggies they like to eat. Hmph.  But like I said above, I can still give myself a square or two of the things I love, like Swiss chard and beets for smoothie-making.  And when the plant on one square is played out, well, it’s easy!  You pull it out, mix in a spadeful of compost, and pop in your next crop!

I can’t wait to try out this method!

Are any of you thinking of starting a garden this year?  Any experienced gardeners or SFGers out there?  Tell me about your experience or your big plans for the new year!

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