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Be Square

How to garden easily and productively with square-foot gardening

Raised bed gardens

Written By

Peter Burke

Written on

June 01 , 2012

Three years ago I converted my front lawn into a garden plot. But it wasn’t your typical garden with rows of vegetables planted side by side. Instead, it was a garden of 12 raised beds that were divided into a bunch of square-foot plots, each one easy to plant and manage. I know it sounds counterintuitive—gardening is supposed to be hard work—but I am a fan of the simple method of square-foot gardening, which doesn’t refer to the size of your garden or the size of the beds, but to the method of preparing, planting, and maintaining a garden made up of square-foot grids.

I started the preparations at the end of April, when the snow finally melted, by laying down two large sheets of black plastic over the 20’ x 25’ area where I planned to put the garden. This included a 2-foot-wide pathway around the whole garden. Next, my son and I built 12 wooden frames, each 4 feet square, out of 2 x 6 spruce boards from the local lumberyard. On May 8, we peeled back the plastic sheets, put down the wooden frames (leaving 2-foot-wide paths between the boxes), filled the frames with a soil mix, and then spread bark on the paths between the boxes. We then watered the soil and planted. All in one day we established a garden.

There were a number of reasons I decided to make this lawn-to-garden conversion. One was that my wife and I wanted more garden space, and all we had done with the lawn was spend our weekends mowing it. But also, I was curious: I had just bought the book All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space! by Mel Bartholomew and I wanted to test the changes he’d made in this edition. The original version had been my garden bible since 1981. The new edition advised people to build raised beds and to fill them with a special soil mix rather than dig down into the ground and improve the soil over time.

There are a few key elements to the square-foot gardening method, which Bartholomew developed: permanent beds, permanent paths, perfect soil, grid planting, using a trellis and succession planting. Any one of these concepts will improve your gardening, but all of them together make a complete system for growing more in less space. In fact, the subtitle to the new book should be Grow More in Less Space with a Whole Lot Less Work! because the new system makes everything easier.

••••

Permanent beds are one of the most important tools that a gardener has. In the classes I teach, I often emphasize that gardening is not “farming in miniature” but its own unique craft, and a permanent bed is one of those very productive things a gardener can use that is not considered practical on a larger farm. The garden bed is never walked on, so the soil stays loose and aerated and creates a perfect environment for critters like earthworms that maintain soil structure and add fertility. Also, rather than spread enhancements on the whole garden—or in the case of a farm, on the whole field—we add the manure, compost, fertilizer, sea kelp meal, lime, Azomite, or any soil additive to the bed only, not the path. Same thing with watering: If you only water the beds then the paths remain more hostile to potential weeds. I also like the look of permanent beds. There is a wide range of bed-making materials to suit your aesthetics, although be careful not to use any pressure-treated lumber that uses arsenic as a preservative; check with the lumberyard first. In fact, I would not use any used pressure-treated lumber because it is impossible to tell what was used to treat the lumber.

Permanent pathways are sort of like the yin to the permanent beds’ yang—they complement each other in that the paths are a bad place to grow things, while the beds are a good place to grow things. I guess the fact that there is little or no weeding in a square- foot garden is the most important advantage, but keeping my boots out of the mud is something I like a lot, too. Then there is the fact that it looks good. I know of one gardener who used pea gravel for her garden paths because she liked how it felt on her bare feet! I do put a layer of landscape cloth down first and then the bark mulch. In the older section of my garden I only use the bark and it tends to disappear down into the dirt after a year, so now I use the landscape cloth. Another option for paths is grass or clover that you mow every week. You get the idea; there are lots of different types of mulches for the permanent garden path—bark, brick, gravel, grass. One thing that can be a disaster, though, is hay, which is loaded with seeds and can spread weeds.

Perfect soil might sound a bit presumptuous but most of us are used to the idea of using a special germination mix for growing plant sets or starts, or using a potting mix for plants grown in a container. Well, the garden bed is kind of like a big container, so using a special mix of soil makes perfect sense. What is perfect soil? A one-third mix of peat moss, compost, and vermiculite. The peat and vermiculite you use only once at the beginning, and from then on you only add compost at each planting and fertilizers as needed. If this combination is the soil you are trying to end up with, why not just start using it at the beginning? You only need 6 inches of this soil mix to grow just about anything, and this is why you only need a 6-inch high box for the garden bed.

Grid planting is one of the most effective ways to grow more in less space. The concept is simple. Instead of growing one row of vegetables with a wide path in between, you plant one square foot in a grid (thus the name square-foot gardening). Look at a seed package and if it says to thin every 3 inches then plant a seed every 3 inches in a square foot, which comes out to four rows of four seeds, or, say, 16 carrots. The same idea for beets. One of my larger varieties thins to every 4 inches; the packet says plant every inch, then thin. What I do instead is plant one seed every 4 inches in a grid, so that would be 9 per square foot, or three rows of three. I plant fewer seeds, thin less often, and save the seeds for another planting in a few weeks, or even next year. Broccoli, for its part, is a big plant and wants a full 12 inches between plants, so you can only plant one in a square foot. Lettuce needs 6 inches to make a head, so that comes out to 4 plants per square foot.

Let me give you an example of how productive grid planting is when compared with row planting. I was reading a newspaper recently (yes, a real paper) and there was an article about a community group trying to grow produce for the food shelf. There was a picture of a nicely made raised bed about 30 inches wide with three rows of carrots growing down the middle of the bed about 10 inches apart. It was a better job than the standard farming model of one row three feet apart to make room for a tractor wheel. But still, I noticed that the rows needed to be thinned and I couldn’t help but do the math on this picture. If they had planted the beds with seeds every three inches apart in a grid, the yield would have been about 40 carrots per foot. As it was the yield would be roughly 12 carrots a foot in these beds (three rows of four per foot). So the yield could be increased threefold just by planting on a grid, and people wouldn’t have to go back and thin an entire bed of carrots, either.

Using a trellis can be a huge space saver. For instance, on a 4-foot trellis I plant 2 seeds or sets in each square foot for a total of 8 cucumber plants along the north side of a garden bed. The same 8 plants grown in a hill, as it is called when you plant 3 cucumber plants grouped together, would need approximately 27 square feet of space for the cucumber vines to grow on the ground. So just by using a trellis you can use a third of the space for the same number of plants. I trellis tomatoes, baby watermelon, pole beans, peas, and trombone zucchini; so I have a trellis on almost every bed in my garden.
Succession Planting makes sense for a gardener who is not always looking for a huge crop all at once but rather, an extended harvest over a whole season. Take lettuce, for instance: if you grow a 25-foot row of lettuce, then you may have 25 to 50 heads of lettuce ready all at once, when in fact, you only really need 2 to 7 heads a week. And more than likely, many of your heads of lettuce will bolt and get bitter before you can use them. So rather than planting a whole row of lettuce, plant 4 or even 8 seeds every few weeks so your lettuce is ready a little bit at a time and not all at once. It is a simple idea that works with carrots, beets, many greens, and radishes. Just keep planting a square foot or two all season long to get a steady harvest of veggies at their peak.

••••

I’ve been so pleased with the square-foot gardening method that last year I added another row of 4-foot square beds and plan to add a few more beds this year to finish the lawn conversion. If you want to start a garden that’s productive and easy to manage at the same time, I recommend that you give square-foot gardening a try.

About the Author

Peter Burke

Peter Burke

Peter Burke has lived in Calais since 1977 and works in Barre as a granite salesman at Cochran’s, Inc. His hobby is gardening and he has been teaching classes about indoor gardening and square-foot gardening since 2006.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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