This will be our first full gardening season in our new house. So far we have two 4’x4′ raised beds. A third one will be built in the next week or two. One is for our girls. It’s my goal to have them do as much of the work as possible and so far it’s going well. They’re planting it in rows or where ever the seeds end up getting thrown. I had planned on doing a Square Foot Garden for my bed but as I’ve gone along in the process I’ve had to modify it a bit.
I read All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew about a year ago. I really love the idea of intensive planting especially in areas where our backyards are so tiny. In a nutshell, this method of intensive planting uses a raised bed about 6-8″ deep filled with a very specific soil mix. The bed is divided into 1′ squares. Each square has one type of plant that is planted in a block rather than a row. The book lists how many of the plants can go into each square based on the “thin to” plant spacing on the seed packet. Row spacing is ignored. The shallowness of the bed is explained by the high amount of compost in the soil mix. This is supposed to provide all the nutrients the plants need. More compost is added to each square as it’s harvested. No additional fertilizer is used. The book reassures us that deeper beds are just a waste of materials. I’m not sure that I completely buy into that idea especially when planting some of the larger plants such as tomatoes. Actually, tomatoes hardly get any mention in the book which is odd considering how popular of a plant it is for home gardeners. Carrots are another difficult one for such a shallow bed. There are shorter varieties but typically you need a depth of 10-12″. Crop rotation and diversity is achieved by planting different plants in each square. I think that about sums up the key points of the book. It’s a quick and easy book so it’d be worth reading if this sounds like something you’d be interested in.
My first deviation from the official Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method was the soil mix. The recipe is 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 compost. It’s best to get the compost from as many sources as possible. I think the book recommends five different types. The book goes into detail about how to do the math to figure out how much of each ingredient to use and how to thoroughly mix it all without too much trouble. Or you can buy the soil in premixed bags. When I first looked into it about a year ago I did a price comparison between the premixed bags and the DIY recipe. At that time there wasn’t enough savings to justify doing it myself. I would’ve had to get the ingredients at multiple stores plus the work of mixing it all. So when it came time to fill the bed I didn’t do another price check but instead went straight for the premixed bags. After I got all the bags home I noticed a small company name printed on the lower back side of the bag. It seemed to be a parent company (different than the brand name displayed on the front of the bag) and it was a company I had become a bit familiar with several years ago for some pretty bad reasons. I wasn’t thrilled with giving them a nice chunk of change. I did some quick and dirty research to see if my concerns about this company were still valid and I haven’t been able to confirm anything either way. Also, the ingredient list on the bags included fertilizers. Yes, they are organic fertilizers but part of the official “system” of SFG is using compost as the only fertilizer so that raised some questions that I wasn’t able to get answered. Several of the bags ripped while getting them home so I wasn’t going to get a full refund if I returned them. I decided to keep the bags and use them elsewhere in our yard and buy a different soil for my edible garden. During my quick research I found several posts on the SFG forum where people had mixed results with the premixed bagged soil. It sounds like there was a quality control issue at some point and possibly there was/is more than one company making this mix. It seems like the generic advice on the forum is to make your own. While I was researching this I filled the girls’ bed, they planted some seeds and they were sprouting very well. I liked the feel and smell of the soil I choose for that bed so I decided to stop messing around with my bed and just use the same soil. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything to be concerned about with the premixed bagged SFG soil which is why I’m not going to go into any more details at this time. But until I can do more thorough research I decided to deviate from the official SFG soil recipe.
My second deviation is with the bed depth. As I mentioned 6-8″ is the recommended depth. On the forum, I found many people confirming that this really is all that is needed. The wood we used to build the beds was just under 6″ wide which was just too shallow for me so we used two boards to increase the depth to just under 12″.
My third deviation is the plant spacing. Here is where I’m a bit confused. There have been a few instances where the recommended number of plants for a square differed from the “thin to” spacing listed on my seed packets. For instance, kale is listed as 4 plants per square. My kale seed packet had a “thin to” spacing of 12″ which means this should have been planted as 1 plant per square. I did 4 plants per square because I figured that kale is one of the plants that we will continually harvest from for awhile instead of letting the plants grow to full maturity before harvesting the whole thing. When in doubt I opted for the closer spacing.
My fourth deviation is fertilizer. I dug in an organic fertilizer before planting the bed. Compost is supposed to be the only fertilizer used in this method.
My fifth and final deviation (so far at least) is the watering method used. The book recommends using sun warmed water to hand water the bed. Specifically, it says to leave a bucket of water out in the sun and use a cup of this water per square. Well..this is a really bad idea if you live in the desert. I think drip irrigation, preferably on a timer, is the best way to go here. Drip irrigation saves water by putting the water exactly where it needs to go. The timer is a life saver if you ever want to leave town for even just a day or two and not have to rely on neighbors and friends. The downside to this kind of system is that it’s really easy to ignore the garden. Hand watering forces you to go to the garden everyday which gives you a chance to inspect your plants for bugs and weeds. But I like the flexibility of a timer so that you can ignore the garden and take a vacation without too much trouble.
So what part of this SFG system did I actually not change? I guess not much. I was hoping to fully stick to the book’s recommendations but I think these deviations were needed for our circumstances.