Square foot gardening: go figure!
by Emma Cooper
What is Square Foot Gardening?
Square Foot Gardening is a set of techniques for creating and maintaining a productive vegetable garden in a small space, without it being labour intensive. It’s not a new idea, it was first put forward by Mel Bartholomew and popularised in the 1980s, but it’s a perennial favourite because it makes growing your own as simple as possible especially for new gardeners.
How do I make a Square Foot Garden?
To begin with, start small. The idea of Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is that beginners start with a small garden that they can add to, rather than being overwhelmed by managing a large garden all at once.There are several key features to SFG, and the first is that it uses raised beds. The ideal scenario is to have a square raised bed, 4 x 4 feet, with solid edges made out of wood or something similar,at least 6 inches deep. The bed is then marked out (often with string) into a square foot grid –in a 4 x 4 bed you would have 16 squares in your grid.
With a raised bed this size, you can reach into the centre from the edges, and avoid stepping on the soil. SFG beds are managed without the need for digging – you will be able to do everything in your grid with just hand tools. And if you have trouble bending down to the soil, you can put a raised bed on a table-top, it doesn’t have to be on the ground.
Having filled the raised bed with a suitable growing medium, each square in the grid can then be sown or planted with a different crop. The emphasis is on a larger harvest of baby vegetables, rather than trying to grow a mammoth marrow.
There is a ‘Square Foot’ spacing for every crop, which tells you how many plants to plant, or seeds to sow, in each square. For large plants like tomatoes they each get a square foot to themselves; for something small like carrots you can squeeze in sixteen plants.
To find the Square Foot spacing for each crop you want to plant, so you know how many to put in each section, there are plenty of lists on the internet you can have a look at. Try Googling “Square Foot spacing for xxx”, or look at My Square Foot Garden which has diagrams showing various ways to space out your plants. If you can’t find a Square Foot spacing online then you can work one out – just use the final plant spacing recommended on the seed packet to decide how many plants you can fit inside a square foot. A pencil and a piece of squared paper might come in handy.
Try and arrange your planting so that taller crops (like tomatoes) are on the north side of the grid, to prevent them casting shade on the smaller plants. If you want to grow climbing plants such as runner beans, a supporting structure like a trellis can be added – also on the north side of the grid.
Once a crop has grown and been picked, a new crop can then be planted in the space (“successional sowing”), to give you a continuous harvest of different vegetables throughout the growing season, with no risk of gluts or ‘hungry gaps’.
When you’ve got the hang of SFG you can add more grids to your garden, if you have the space.
What are the advantages of Square Foot Gardening?
- Gardening effort, as well as inputs, is concentrated on the grids -as opposed to growing in rows, where, for example, water and fertilizer can be applied to areas where plants aren’t growing. You weed/water/feed/harvest/plant one square at a time, making it manageable for gardeners who are short on time.
- Planting a different crop in each square takes care of your crop rotation for you, and helps to prevent pest and disease problems. It is also easier to protect crops from pests and weather.
- Because seeds are sown where they are to grow, “station sown”, this method is very economical on seed, and doesn’t require thinning out later. Any excess can simply be snipped off with scissors.
- If you plant a square of flowers, or flowering herbs, in one of your SFG squares, then you’ve taken care of companion planting (and attracting beneficial insects) as well.
- Square Foot Gardening is more economical because it doesn’t require costly equipment.
Is Square Foot Gardening simply for growing vegetables?
The original SFG idea was very much focused on producing a continuous harvest of different vegetables, but you can easily adapt the system to work for you.
In fact, you can think of Square Foot Gardening as a way to organise a traditional English cottage garden – a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers – whether you have a small space or something larger to work with.
Square Foot Gardening also lends itself to a garden of edible flowers, or a small cutting patch if you want to grow flowers for the house.
Perennial plants (including most fruits) don’t fit in with the SFG technique, as it makes no allowance for permanent planting, but you could grow strawberries – or try goldenberries, which grow in a similar manner to tomatoes.
You could use a Square Foot bed as a seed bed, propagating your own plants to fill borders the following year. It would make a good place to sow seeds that need winter cold to germinate, for planting out later on.
Or you could use the space to grow plants with a wildlife benefit – whether you want a long season of flowers to help the bees, or a variety of seed- and fruit-bearing plants to feed the birds.
The Square Foot system aims to break gardening down to a simple method that anyone can follow, so that gardeners at all experience levels can enjoy as much gardening as they want without becoming overwhelmed or exhausted. But it doesn’t remove any of the individuality – what you make of your square foot garden is up to you!