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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hip To Be Square

By Michael

In my previous article I discussed single row gardening and discussed the pros and cons of the method. This article will do the same for square foot gardening.

We have talked about square foot gardening in past articles by Jennifer and Megan. Marisa and I used the square foot gardening method for part of our garden on our last property. We liked it a lot and had a lot of success with it.

It seems to me that square foot gardening is the cool kid of the gardening methods. If he and single row gardening were in the lunchroom together, you would see him in a leather jacket with sunglasses surrounded by cheerleaders while single row sat in the corner doing his science homework. Right now, square foot gardening is just sexy.

Square foot gardening was made popular by Mel Bartholomew. A square foot garden is a raised bed method in which a small square area is used for a garden. The square is broken into a grid with plants planted in each grid. It is recommended that you plant different plants within each grid so you get a variety of produce in one plot.

Advantages of Square Foot Gardening

  • Square foot gardening will normally give you a better yield for the area you are using. This makes it better for those with limited space.
  • Weeds are easier to control since plants are compact and close together. Weeds get crowded out.
  • Raised bed method means it is easier to access plants for those that have problems bending over or kneeling down.
  • Compact areas with lots of plants tend to keep moisture in the soil better so water is used efficiently.
Disadvantages of Square Foot Gardening

  • The recommended soil mix that is suggested is very expensive. We did 3 4x4 boxes last year and it cost about $100 to fill them with Mel Bartholomew's recommended mix.
  • If you live in a windy area, large plants like corn and tomatoes will blow over easily even when staked (based on our personal experience). Megan had the same problem as us.
  • Since plants are so close together, there can be less air circulation which can cause issues with mildew or disease that you might not have from other planting methods.
If you are interested in this method you can check out Mel Bartholomew's book All New Square Foot Gardening. You can probably get it at most libraries.

What are some of the pros and cons that I missed about square foot gardening? Share them with us in the comments to educate us on your experiences.


Rachel said...

We did square foot gardening one season and I have to say I will never go back. I had the worst disease and pest problems. My onions and garlic rotted in his soil mix because it held onto water TOO well. That year, out of 10 tomato plants we only got 6 small tomatoes.

I now just stick with the tried and true W.O.R.D method (Wide rows, Organic Methods, Raised beds, Deep soil) described in the Vegetable Gardener's Bible.


Please keep in mind that the science nerds are the employers of tomorrow. Gardening/farming isn't sexy. If you want success, stick with science (row).

It seems you have the area not to be limited to the square foot method. Bust out and try to make this science sexy.

A. Edwards said...

I have Mel's original book (picked up at a used bookstore) and will be employing some of his principles except the soil mixture. I think we'll be gambling this season.

Anonymous said...

I have used raised beds (because of bending problems) for 17 years and haven't experienced any problems with disease (yet). I do space my plants further apart than Mel recommends and I interplant several types of plant in each bed. I rotate my crops each year so no crop is in the same bed two years in a row. Mel's soil mixture was too expensive for me, too. I just used our own soil mixed with a bit of commercial soil year 1, then topped off the beds with compost at the beginning of each new year. (The composted material comes from garden matter, yard trimmings, and my chickens, horses, goats, and rabbit.) I firmly secure taller plants to bamboo stakes (7' tall 1-1/2" diameter stakes) using pieces of old panty hose (I knew they were good for something!) and nothing has been knocked down yet. I live in Iowa, so wind is a constant part of life. I'm sorry to hear that other people have had so many problems.

Mike said...

Thanks for the feedback on your experiences Rachel and Anonymous.

A Edwards: Gardening is always a gamble.

Maybelline: We will not be using the square foot gardening method in our garden this year. When I say it is sexy I am just saying that it seems to be all the rage lately. I do think that square foot gardening is a viable option for those who have limited space.

Green Griffin said...

My first serious veggie garden was square foot. It is science. It is a great experimental garden because the conditions can be controlled so well in his method. Though I don't use his methods any longer in my larger attempts at gardening, I still like to keep a square or two in the small corner for new varieties and types, and new soil mixtures. Don't stick to his soil recommendations.

ali said...

This could really work for us. I am worried about the expense as we are on a tight budget this year. Are there other soil options that aren't as costly???

Ulrike said...

I have experience with row gardening, SFG, and modified SFG.

For me, one of the biggest disadvantages of row gardening is organization. Keeping the yard out of the garden and vice versa is a constant and losing battle. I look at the garden, and like a small child in a messy room, I don't see individual items to take care of, I just see one giant, overwhelming mess. SFG makes gardening FEEL manageable to me, which makes me more likely to do it, even after mid-summer.

Other things I've found:

1) Tilling is bad for soil (Mother Earth News has several articles about this), and tilling is pretty much mandatory with rows.

2) SFG is less labor intensive than other raised bed methods (no double digging, for example).

3) SFG is much, much more expensive than row gardening and somewhat more expensive than other raised beds, because you have to BUY soil.

4) SFG is supposed to be practically weed-free, but this has not been my experience. Crab grass loves my by-the-rules SFG bed.

I made one bed the "right" way (i.e., following the directions in the current edition of the SFG book) the year we bought our house (2006). Then I had a baby and my husband deployed, and I didn't have the time or energy to manage a garden beyond that one small, weedy salad/herb bed (I cannot emphasize enough how much grass grows in the sucker!).

I live in Iowa, where the top soil is AMAZING. It seemed a shame to replace the best soil in the world with something I bought in the store, so in 2009, when I was ready to expand our garden area 2 years ago, I went back to the traditional row garden method of my childhood. It was a disaster. Too much weeding, too much mess, and ultimately, I got very little yield.

Last year, I tried again. I didn't have money for 80+ cubic feet of Mel's Mix, and I knew how amazing my soil was from digging in it the year before, so I made 4x8 boxes, but this time I filled them with soil from my yard. Even though these boxes were filled with sod & soil, they were LESS weedy than my original Mel's Mix box!

Last year was terribly wet (Google: Iowa flood 2010), and the weather made gardening a hassle (I never did get my trellises installed for my vine crops). Our yield wasn't great, but it was better than the previous year, and the manageability of the beds was much, much better. When I did have a chance to work in them, I never felt like the mess was too big for me or that I just didn't know where to start.

That's why I'll continue to use SFG as the base of my gardening. I may modify it some as I find what works and what doesn't, but it starts with that 4x8 bed.

Kristina Seleshanko said...

From my experience, I'd say many things aren't suitable for square foot or intensive gardening - tomatoes and corn being the most obvious. The method works really well for greens like lettuce and spinach. The SFG method just doesn't give plants enough leg room and they compete too much for water and nutrients. Giving plants more foot room allows their roots to go deep in the soil, so they need less watering. They are also often bigger and more productive.

Kara said...

I used to watch Mel's TV show with my grandfather back in the early 90's, and for my 16th birthday, my grandfather built me my own SFG beds. Now (close to, but not quite 20 years later!) I use modified square foot gardening.

I definitely do NOT use his special soil blend, just my own dirt and some of my own compost here and there.

My beds are only slightly raised (6 inches), and are more markers and clean edges than anything else. I dug the bejeezus out of the soil under them before topping them off with a bit more dirt so the roots can do their thing.

I follow his spacing rules for many things, but not exactly, especially for bigger plants. If it feels too crowded to me, I change it.

Still, I appreciate the organization and neatness like Ulrike mentioned and definitely use his book as a reference here and there.

I had a great garden year last year, and set up several more beds this year, so we'll see how it goes!

Lindsay said...

I use the "old" square foot gardening book which I recommend! It recommends using your own soil and less expensive borders. I do use my own soil and space farther apart then recommended most of the time.

I like the method almost purely though because of neatness and weeding!!! It is much easier for me to keep up with weeding the garden when there is not a lot of space and when it is organized and I can mulch, and it is CONTAINED. I can't weed the whole yard (or so I have been heard to say) but I can weed a few boxes! I have a half acre, but for many things I grow this is my favorite method because my eyes like it, and it is managable to me. I have five young children. I am still a novice and getting a great crop with any method where I live is still a hope and wonder. :)

I would never be able to afford the methods of the new book, but I love reading the old one--dearly!