Gardening is less work than most people think.
Gardening is like finding money growing in your yard.
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The Ten Basics of Square Foot Gardening
The Easy/Less Work Method for Beginning Gardeners
by Mel Bartholomew
1. LAYOUT – Pick an area that gets 6-8 hours of sunshine daily. Stay clear of trees and shrubs where roots and shade may interfere. Have it close to the house for convenience. The area should not puddle after a heavy rain. Arrange your garden in squares, not rows. Always think in squares: lay out 4 foot by 4 foot planting areas with wide walkways between them. Your boxes can be in one place, or in different places around the yard, and you can arrange them in interesting patterns that fit in with your landscaping. Don’t block traffic lanes, make your garden readily accessible.
2. BOXES – Build boxes to hold a new soil mix above ground. Build box frames no wider than 4 feet, and 6 to 8 inches deep. The length is not as important, but a recommended size for your first time is one 4 foot by 4 foot bed. You can, of course, go smaller. A 2 foot by 2 foot works great on patios and 3 foot by 3 foot box is ideal for kids. Frames can be made from almost any material except treated wood, which has toxic chemicals that might leach into the soil. Don’t use railroad ties. 1 X 6 or 2 X 6, or 2 X 8 lumber is ideal, and comes in 8-foot lengths. Most lumber yards will cut it at little or no cost. Exact dimensions are not critical. Deck screws work best to fasten the boards together. Rotate or alternate corners to end up with a square inside. Look for FREE lumber at construction sites.
3. AISLES – Space boxes 3′ apart to form walking aisles. For accessibility, ease of walking around, kneeling, working and harvesting, the ideal width is three feet between boxes. But it can be more or a bit less as long as you can navigate. The space between your boxes can be left in grass or covered with any attractive ground cover. We laid down brick in between the boxes in one area and made it into a patio garden.
4. SOIL – Fill boxes with Mel’s special soil mix: 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. A blended compost made from many ingredients provides all the nutrients the plants require (no chemical fertilizers needed). Peat moss and vermiculite help hold moisture and keep the soil loose. It’s best to make your own compost from many ingredients but if you have to buy it, make sure it is truly compost. Some stores sell mulch or humus and other ground covers but call it compost. Most commercial compost is made from one or two ingredients so to be safe, don’t buy all of one kind but one of each kind until you have enough for your garden. It’s really best to make your own compost, then you know what goes in it. When buying vermiculite, be sure to get the coarse grade, and get the more economical 4 cubic feet size bags. All three of these ingredients are all natural, not manufactured, non- chemical and readily available. This mix has a light loose texture, smells good, and is a pleasure to work with.
5. GRID – On top of each frame place a permanent grid that divides the box into one foot squares. The grid is the unique feature that makes the whole system work so well. To show you why the grid is so important, do this little demonstration: Look at your 4 foot by 4 foot box with the grid on and imagine up to 16 different crops. What you see before you is a neat and attractive, well organized garden, that will be easy to manage. Now remove the grid. Could you organize and manage this space without dividing it up into squares? Besides, without the grid you will be tempted to plant in rows, which is a poor use of space. Grids can be made from nearly any material; wood, plastic strips, old venetian blinds, etc. Use screws or rivets to attach them where they cross. On a 4 foot by 4 foot frame, the grid divides the frame into 16 easy-to-manage spaces, for up to 16 different crops. Leave the grid in place all season. The grid can be cut long enough to fit across the top of the box or cut shorter to lay on the soil inside the box.
6. CARE. The Golden Rule of Square Foot Gardening is: “NEVER WALK ON YOUR GROWING SOIL!” To accomplish that, you walk around your garden boxes and reach in to garden. If you do that, you’ll never have to do any heavy digging, and your soil will stay loose and friable forever.
7. SELECT – Plant a different flower, vegetable, or herb crop in each square foot, using 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants per square foot, spacing depending on the mature size of the plant. If the seed packet recommends plant spacing be 12 inches apart within the rows, plant one plant per square foot. If 6 inch spacing; 4 per square foot. If 4 inch spacing; 9 per square foot. If 3 inch spacing; 16 per square foot. Each 4′ x 4′ bed has 16 spaces, that can take 16 different crops! There are many interrelated reasons for the “different crop in every Square Foot” rule. They deal with nutrients used, limiting over-ambitious planting, staggered harvest, weed and pest control, beauty of the garden, and many more factors that result in an innovative gardening system.
8. PLANT – Plant one or two seeds in each spot by making a shallow hole with your finger. Cover, but do not pack the soil. Thinning is all but eliminated. Seeds are not wasted. Extra seeds can be stored cool and dry in your refrigerator. Don’t over-plant. Plant only as much of any one crop as you will use. This 4 foot by 4 foot box will grow more than a conventional garden that is 8 foot by 10 foot. Conserve seeds. Place transplants in a slight saucer-shaped depression.
9. WATER – Water by hand from a bucket of sun-warmed water (use a cup or dipper). Warm water helps the soil stay warm. Water only as much as each plant needs. Water often, especially at first, and on very hot dry days. But, be careful not to over water – this special soil holds water like a sponge.
10. HARVEST – Harvest continuously, and when you finish harvesting a square foot, add compost and replant it with a new and different crop.
Bob Waldrop’s Notes on Square Foot Gardening:
- We start small or we don’t start at all. Don’t plow up your entire back yard for your first year’s garden. In fact, you won’t need to plow or till, ever. Build your soil up rather than dig down using the Square Foot Garden method. It is much less work. Let the worms till your soil.
- If the area is covered by grass, remove the sod first. Then lay down two layers of cardboard, and build the garden bed on top of that.
- The grid that Mel talks about below may seem odd at first, but it is really helpful as a way to visualize 16 square foot planting areas in each 4′ X 4′ bed.
- If you put 6 inches of “Mel’s Mix” in each planting bed, you will need 8 cubic feed of the mix. Generally, the bags of ingredients will say how many cubic feet they contain. Hopefully you will have your own compost. To save money though , you can use Bob’s Cheap as Dirt Mix instead of Mel’s Mix. To make the Cheap as Dirt Mix — Combine 1/3 soil, 1/3 straw (or shredded leaves), 1/3 compost. We have not bought any vermiculite or peat moss and have had great success with this mix. Renew your beds each planting cycle with compost and mulch.
- As your seeds and plants get started, put 2-4 inches of mulch around them to conserve moisture.
- If you want to grow a lot of a particular crop, and harvest it all at once for canning or dehydrating, then instead of planting different crops in each square, you can devote all or half of a square to a specific plant.
Vertical and container growing.
Some plants can be grown vertically in square foot gardening beds.
Grow vine tomatoes 1 plant per square foot, and plant four of them in a row along one side of a bed. Make a trellis by putting 6′ fence posts at either end, and then put a 1 X 2″ or other pole across the top. Use welded wire or a net and train the tomatoes as they grow to go up the trellis. Bush type tomatoes don’t use a trellis, and can be planted as close as 4/square foot.
Zucchini and yellow squash can also be grown on a trellis.
Plant beans/peas with corn or sunflowers so they grow up the stalks.
Typical Plant Spacings
16 per square foot: radishes, onions, carrots
9 per square foot: bush beans, spinach
8 per square foot: pole beans and peas climbing poles or a trellis,
4 per square foot: celery, chard, corn, garlic, lettuce, mustard
2 per square foot: cucumbers (in a row of 4 squares, vertically on a trellis)
1 per square foot: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, okra, summer squash (grow summer squash vertically)., tomatoes (in a row of 4 squares, vertically on a trellis)
1 per 2 square feet: winter squash
Compost: Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste.
If you want to grow your own food, the place to start is by making compost. Some people make this out to be much more complicated than it really is. Here is a basic recipe for making compost.
Select a place for a compost pile, and dig the ground up a bit. Put down a layer of twigs and small branches, and then make alternating layers of “brown and dry” materials and “green and wet” materials. Brown and dry can include leaves, shredded tree limbs and bark, newspapers (no shiny slick papers or colored inks), brown cardboard, dried grass clippings. Green and wet includes kitchen scraps, green lawn trimmings, green leaves, flowers, weeds, plants, etc. It’s best not to put fats or meats in the pile, as that will attract varmints, but they will compost if not eaten…
Wet each layer thoroughly, and toss a shovel of soil on each layer and a couple of small branches. Pile it up at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide, & then leave it alone for a year. If it’s a dry summer, water it so it stays damp inside (like a wrung out sponge). After about a year, rake away the leaves still on top, and inside will be a nice, rich, dark loamy compost that smells like forest dirt when you sniff it.
If you can’t wait a whole year, you can make compost faster by fussing with it a bit. Every week or so go out and “turn it”, that is to say, use a pitchfork and move the compost to a different spot, so that what was “outside” on the pile is now inside, and what was inside is now on the outside.
If the compost heap starts to smell bad, something’s wrong, probably either too much “wet and green” or it has somehow gotten so compacted that air can’t get in. For the problem of too much wet and green, add more brown and dry. If the pile has become compacted, then stir it up a bit and add some small branches (the purpose of the branches is to keep the pile from compacting and to help air circulate).
If you dig into the pile, you will find lots of little creatures at work, rolly pollies, worms, etc. That’s good, because that’s what’s supposed to happen.
If you want a nice garden, the place to start is by building your soil. No chemical fertilizer has the advantages of home made compost, & it has the added benefit of recycling your food waste, lawn & garden trimmings on site, rather than sending them off to be buried wastefully in a landfill. Composting is the beginning of a beautiful home garden. Start your compost pile this week, a rind is a terrible thing to waste!
Useful Perennial Edible Garden Plants
If you own your house, or expect to be at your location for some time, plant lots of edible perennials. Perennial plants are very helpful to gardeners, because they only have to be planted once. Each year they come up without further planting, and yield a harvest to benefit the gardener. These plants are very beautiful and can be used as landscape plants, they can also be planted in square foot garden boxes. Put the box with the kitchen herbs closest to the kitchen door. Start with fruit and nut trees and berry bushes. There are many semi dwarf & dwarf varieties of fruit trees that are suitable for small spaces. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, dewberries, boysenberries, and raspberries are essential for the home “permaculture” garden. We suggest the Siberian Pea Tree, which is actually a tall shrub (caragena arborescens), it yields an edible pea that is compared to lentils and puts nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use. Fruit and nut trees and bushes may take 2 to 5 years to come into production, but when they do, you will have fruit to eat fresh and to make jams, jellies, pies, and wines.
Easy Perennial Vegetables
Asparagus, Rhubarb, Dandelions, Bamboo, Egyptian Onions, Day Lilies, Jerusalem artichokes
Essential perennial kitchen herbs:
Rosemary, Thyme (all kinds), Lemon grass, Winter savory, Sage, Chives, Garlic Chives, Horseradish, Catnip, Oregano, Lovage, Lemon balm, Mints (many kinds),
Any lemon-scented herb is a good insect repellent. Simply crush the leaves and rub on your skin.
Fall is a Great Time to Start Your Spring Garden
If you are reading this during the fall, now is a great time to get ready for your spring garden. Build your beds, and fill them either with Mel’s Mix or if you want to use Bob’s Cheap as Dirt Mix but don’t have compost ready, fill them with soil and compost materials & let them turn into compost in place over the winter. You will need about 18 inches of compost materials mixed with some soil on top of each bed to create a 6″ deep planting medium of soil and finished compost.
For information about our plans for adapting our”urban homestead” to meet the looming challenges of peak oil, climate instability, and economic irrationality, see Gatewood Urban Homestead, the permaculture design for our home.