When I first became a mother, the hardest lesson I had to learn, was that the only way to accomplish anything was in small, bite-sized pieces. Gone were the luxurious days of working on a project for as long as you felt like it, whether it was hours, days, or weeks. Gone were the days of marathon cleaning the whole house all in one go, and doing all your laundry at the same time. I had to learn to do a load of laundry a day to keep it from getting out of control, and clean the house a little each day in between caring for the kids. As someone who likes to “get stuff done”, this was a hard pill to swallow! I needed a gardening method that would allow me to just do ‘a little each day’, and not leave me feeling completely overwhelmed. For me, this method was Square Foot Gardening.
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Enter: Square Foot Gardening.
When I discovered this book at our local library, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was so incredibly simple, I called it “Gardening for Dummies” (aka, me).
The book was so clearly laid out and easy to follow, which was exactly what I needed as a gardening newbie! Because square foot gardening breaks your garden up into 1 foot squares, you literally only have to focus on one square at a time. As silly as it might sound, this made gardening feel manageable to me.
I ended up purchasing the book about 15 years ago, and it’s the only book I use, year after year. It’s dirty, dog-eared, and falling apart, but I love that I have everything in one place.
Here are Some of the Things I Love about Square Foot Gardening.
You Only Have to Focus on One Square at a Time
When I go out to weed, plant, or harvest, I can focus on just one square at a time.
I don’t get overwhelmed looking at my whole garden and wonder where to begin. I can do a couple squares one day, and a couple squares the next. I can see that my spinach is spent, so it’s time to pull it and plant something new in those squares.
These are some carrots & peppers that came out of my Square Foot Garden:
Square Foot Gardens have (Almost) No Weeds
Because square foot gardening uses intensive plant spacing, it holds water well, produces very few weeds, and requires very little maintenance once everything is planted.
I like to wander in the yard each morning and check on the garden… I can see what needs to be harvested and plan supper accordingly. If I see a weed, I can easily lift it out (the soil is loose so weeds are easy to pull).
For me, the key to living a simple life, is to truly keep things simple. I know that if I over-complicate things, or make them too hard, I won’t do them. The thought of having a huge garden with tons of bare soil, ripe for weeds to germinate, overwhelms me. But these raised beds? I can do that.
Easy to Start Over with Square Foot Gardens
I first discovered Square Foot Gardening when my kids were babies, and my time was at a premium. However, having moved several times since then, it’s always refreshing to know how quickly and easily I can get back to gardening by following the Square Foot Gardening method.
Sometimes it was just having one raised bed. At my last home we had 4.
At our new home, I’m simply making use of the 2 raised beds that were already here when we moved in, but plan to add several more over time.
Regardless of whether I’ve had one raised bed or 4, I’m always blown away by how much food these Square Foot Gardens can produce. The secret is the intensive spacing, and eliminating rows (which are literally a waste of space).
Start with a Simple Raised Bed and Divide it Into Squares
If you’re brand new to gardening, Mel suggests starting off with a simple 4×4 bed, divided into squares like this:
He even gives you step by step instructions (complete with photos) for how to build it.
As you can see, with just this one 4×4 box, you could grow 16 different crops!
Mel’s Mix (Square Foot Gardening Soil Mix)
True Square Foot Gardening involves a very specific ‘soil’ mix – called Mel’s Mix. (Mel Bartholomew was the person who invented Square Foot Gardening).
It’s 1/3 mixed compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite (there is no actual soil in the mix!).
It’s a beautiful, light, fluffy soil, that never requires tilling. It never gets hard and compacted. And after you harvest something, all you do is add another scoop of compost before re-planting that square (because the previous plant used up all the nutrients from the compost). The compost is the only thing you will ever have to replenish.
These ingredients are pretty easy to find at most home improvement stores or nurseries. Shop around for the best pricing – I find I save the most money by buying in bulk! If you’re building more than one raised bed, try to find the ingredients in the largest sized bags.
The 1/3 compost component should be a mix of 5 different types of compost. So shop around at garden centres to try to get a variety of compost types. Or if you know someone who has a farm, see if you can get some rotted manure (providing they raise their animals naturally). Or better still, if you have your own backyard compost, use that.
However, since we had just moved into our new home, and my goal was to just get this garden up and running as quickly as possible, I just amended the existing soil by adding peat moss and compost.
(note: if building a new bed from scratch, I would use Mel’s Mix! This existing soil had a ton of weed seeds which I have been battling. The new beds we will building will definitely have Mel’s Mix!).
As you can see, our beds were a mess (these were here when we bought the house).
We cleaned them out, and then put new boards on the 2nd bed, as they were rotten.
We added compost and peat moss and mixed it in well, then added the grid (I simply measured 1 foot increments and put screw eyes all the way around the bed – then added some cotton string to make the grid.
Grow in Grids, not Rows
Square foot gardens are always planted in grids, rather than rows. Rows waste space, because you are leaving large gaps of soil between plants.
And you know what likes to grow in large gaps? Weeds.
We don’t like weeding. This type of plant spacing crowds out weeds, especially as the plants get larger and more established. Unlike rows, which are like weed magnets, because earth abhors a vacuum – therefore bare soil is going to fill up with weeds!
What I love about Mel’s Mix, is because there is no actual soil in the mix, the only weed seeds you have are the occasional ones that might blow into your bed from your yard. Because they are close to the surface and not deeply rooted, they are extremely easy to just pluck out when you see them.
It Tells You Exactly When to Start Your Seeds (just count back the # of weeks from your local last frost date).
How Many Plants Per Square Foot?
Now this is the fun part – figuring out how many plants you can grow per square foot!
How many plants you put in per square foot, depends on the size of the finished vegetable.
Some smaller veggies (like radishes, carrots, and green onions) can be planted 16 to a square foot.
Slightly larger plants, like beets, can be planted 9 to a square foot.
Lettuce is 4 to a square foot, and some large plants, like kale, are just one per square foot.
Here is an example from the book, as to how many plants per square foot.
It makes it really simple to figure out how close to plant things if you’re just following this format.
There is no guesswork, which I love!
You can see I planted radishes in this square.
Because radishes are small, you can plant 16 to a square, in this grid format.
As they get a little bigger, they will get thinned out so there is only one plant in each of those spots. I wait to see which is the strongest, healthiest looking sprout, and carefully (with sharp scissors) cut the others down to the ground.
This gives the strong one plenty of space to grow and thrive.
But don’t throw away the little sprouts when you cut them back to just one – they’re nutritional powerhouses, and are awesome added to salads, to to top burgers and sandwiches with.
Which way is the sun facing?
It’s helpful to think of which direction your bed is facing – anything on the south side of your bed is going to shade out plants on the north side. So put taller, or climbing plants on the north side, and shorter plants on the south side.
As things fill in, you can see how lovely and neat and tidy everything looks.
Grow UP, Not Out!
Growing plants vertically is one of the hallmarks of square foot gardening, because it takes up less space that way.
Train your vines to grow UP, rather than sprawl out! I simply use these metal dollar store trellises, they have been going strong for almost 6 years now! And bamboo poles work just fine for peas.
You don’t have to spend a ton of money on this stuff, you can be creative and use what you might already have around the house.
It’s Fun for Kids!
When we’ve had square foot gardens in the past, I let each kid be in charge of one complete garden bed – from deciding what to plant, learning about the plant spacing, watering, and (occasional) weeding.
It helps kids feel less overwhelmed too, because all they have to focus on is one square at a time. What do you want to plant in THIS square? How many seeds do we plant in THIS square?
We always draw it out on paper first so we have a plan, and we can remember what was planted where.
Summary: Benefits of Square Foot Gardening
- Close spacing prevents weeds from growing
- Light, fluffy soil is easy to work with
- Grow a variety of different plants in one bed (awesome for companion planting)
- Raised beds are easier on the back
- You can just focus on one square at a time, not the entire garden
- ‘Gardening for Dummies’ – it tells you exactly what to plant, when to plant it, and how many seeds to plant in each square! It’s almost impossible to screw it up.
There are tons of videos and blogs about Square Foot Gardening, but I highly, highly recommend just purchasing the book.
It is the one garden book that I use and refer to very, very frequently. It is so clear and easy to follow, and every time I want to plant something, I grab the book. (affiliate link)
In short, Square Foot Gardening is my ALL TIME favourite gardening method.
It also happens to be the only gardening method I’ve ever used – it was so simple, that I didn’t see the need to try anything else!
Now, I know that everyone gardens differently – this is in no way to discount anyone else’s method. It’s just what I have found to work the best for me!
Do you have a favourite gardening method, or would you consider trying square foot gardening? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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