Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More on Square Foot Gardening

Welcome back everyone! Hopefully you got a chance to see my post over on Grit yesterday, where I wrapped up the two-part Building the Soil series. If not, don't forget to head over there later and take a look.

Today, as promised, I wanted to go a little more in depth on the Square Foot Gardening method, what I like about it and how it works, both in general and for me. I'll start off by saying I am not affiliated with the SFG organization in any way, but I have been thinking about their certification program because I do think it's that good.

As I mentioned on Monday, the key to the SFG method starts with the beds, and making sure they're sized appropriately for your reach. I have mine set up so that I never have to reach farther than 2 feet in, which is a real back-saver. One thing I don't have set up, that the method specifically states is a "must have" in order to be authentic, is a permanent grid over the boxes. I have a couple of pieces of lattice that I use to measure out my grids when planting, and I have used a piece or two of twine on occasion just to line things up, but I'm not keen on having a permanent grid in place. The less stuff that's in my way when I'm weeding or whatever, the better.

I also have not used the soil recipe that is touted in the book. I had been composting and mulching for years in that area before putting the boxes in, so the soil there was already really close to perfect, in my opinion. That being said, if I were to start a new raised garden in an area over grass, and I didn't have time to properly layer in the beds a season ahead of time, I'd give the mix a shot as it looks pretty good. I've said it before, and I'll say it again- find what works best for you, and do that. Plants and soil are forgiving, so experimentation is a great learning tool.

Now, on to the good stuff. The reason that SFG is so awesome is that instead of planting one straight row, we space the plants in one foot square groups. As an example, you'll recall that our original layout had roughly 2' x 6' rows. If I wanted to plant something that required 6 inch spacing, the most I'd be able to put in would be 12 plants, because the rows needed to be planted on center for watering. Now, when I plant on a grid, I can put in 15 plants in just a 2' x 2' area, and still keep the required 6 inch spacing. Talk about doing more with less!

If you're more visual, check out this link. You'll bounce out to Gardeners Supply, where they have a few preplanned SFG layouts as reference. Their beds are designed as 3' x 6' rectangles, which are also a very good layout, if you have the space for it.

Other benefits to planting on a grid in a raised box:

  • Watering efficiency. I water my beds at the soil level (no wet leaves means fewer fungal issues) by "filling them up" with the hose and letting the water soak in. I flood each bed with about an inch of water (the space I like to keep between the soil level and the top lip of the bed) every few days. I don't water my paths, or any other area that doesn't need it, like I would with an overhead sprinkler. 
  • Hoops. It's really easy to make hoops out of pvc pipe, which you can then cover with plastic to create mini-greenhouses, or cover with bird netting or floating row covers to keep pests away. 
  • Manageability. By breaking a garden down into smaller chunks like this, it's a lot easier to manage the tasks of weeding, mulching and such. 
Some potential drawbacks:
  • Intensive planting requires diligence in monitoring for pests and diseases. Because they're grouped so closely, problems can spread quickly if you're not watching.
  • You MUST feed your soil at the end of each season. Because there are more plants pulling nutrients out of less space, it's an absolute requirement to put those nutrients back in. On the up side, it's really easy to layer on mulch or compostables at the end of a season. 
  • Overplanting. I don't know if this is really a drawback, but it's something to be aware of. You can put so many more plants in, that it's easy to end up overwhelmed with produce. If you're into preserving (drying, canning, freezing, fermenting...) then mentally move this up to the benefits list. :)
Want to learn more? Here are some resources for you to check out, in addition to the book itself: 
  • Grit ran this article written by the SFG creator, Mel Bartholomew, this past winter. 
  • Mother Earth News ran this one from Mel back in 2011. 
  • This website has a TON of information on sample layouts and even succession planting, if you're looking to really maximize your productivity.
  • Search "Square Foot Gardening" in your search engine of choice. My quick Google search yielded over 4 million results, including images. 

So... Are you interested in giving this method a try? Let me know what you think, over on Facebook. If you're already into square foot gardening, post a photo over on the page and tell us all about it!

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