Square Foot Gardening
May 24, 2009 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Square Foot Gardening is the practice of planning small but intensively planted gardens. The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series. The practice combines concepts from other organic gardening methods, including a strong focus on compost, closely planted raised beds and biointensive attention to a small, clearly defined area. - Wikipedia (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (42 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Finally, worthy bait to place at the center of a maze of chickenwire (affectionately named The Rabbilynth) and a series of motion-controlled, hare-sensing gun turrets to guard it. Bunny blood will nourish my tiny crops, oh yes. Bet they don't cover that in their fancy drip irrigation systems, oh no.
posted by adipocere at 9:28 AM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Have to say the whole "Make a permanent square foot grid for the top of each box. A MUST!" thing seems overblown to me, but after a little research I did end up using a modified version of Mel's soil mix for my second year - more than 1/3 compost and a hunk less than 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite - and it seems to be working great so far. I switched to perlite instead of vermiculite for the 2nd bed just to be rid of the last vestiges of asbestos worry (I know, but I feel better), and that seems to be working fine, too.

If anyone's thinking of doing this, don't let all the talk of careful planning and precisely measured squares slow you down; it's not necessary to be such a stickler when you're just starting out. This raised bed instruction linked in a previous AskMe is easy to simplify, too.
posted by mediareport at 10:23 AM on May 24, 2009

Been doing this for a couple years now. It's very well suited to the procedurally-inclined and the hurried. The book is super-easy to follow, and you can dip in when you have a specific question. There are numerous fast-but-workable solutions for this and that (a chickenwire cover to fend the critters when setting seed, instant greenhouses out of 2 10-foot 1-inch PVC pipes, some clamps, and some clear plastic tarp).

Building a bed and prepping the 1/3 each soil mix of vermiculite, peat moss, and organic compost takes me about 45 minutes now. The first time I did it it took maybe an hour and a half, most due to checking the book. If you build an 8-inch deep bed four feet square you'll need about 6-to-8 square feet of soil; I usually start with six, as two feet each of compost, vermi, and peat is pretty easy to manage. Peat expands, too, so I do it a bit at at time right in the bed. YMMV.

There are also charts of growth cycles and planting calendars at the back of the book that make it easy to figure out when crop X or Y will be due, and to see what you can get away with planting in the season that is left.

Our (Seattle) spring this year is a solid 10 to 15 degrees colder than average, which means our summer crops will be, quite literally, retarded. Our spring cool-weather crops are bumpin' though. Lettuce for days.

I have had great results with any kind of leafy greens, broccoli (takes a long time and you do not get a grocery-store-size head, but it's tasty) carrots, and potatoes. Decent but unremarkable results with tomatoes and onions. Complete failure with corn (critters and soil depth got me on that one). This year I'm adding peas and making a real effort to bring my tomatoes up to snuff. I've also added some flowers and herbs into the beds. I might add one more bed this summer but haven't made up my mind yet.

Alas, though, a week ago, just before a couple of days of torrential rain I left the book outside. After something like 6 inches of rain the book was only fit for compost or recycling. From pulp to pulp!
posted by mwhybark at 10:31 AM on May 24, 2009

I'm trying Square Foot Gardening this year, and just yesterday mixed all the soil substitute materials together to fill a 4x8 foot bed, 8 inches tall. There's a forum for SFG at Gardensweb which is extremely helpful. One theme to the forum is to not worry about following Mel Bartholomew's methods to the letter (as mediareport suggested).
posted by Snerd at 10:35 AM on May 24, 2009

Depending of which part of the world you live in, using peat moss can be really bad for the environment.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:06 AM on May 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

All the advice is good, but you do not need the squares. They assist in planting your garden at far higher density than other books and the seed packets would advise. The high quality soil, and lots of water, help keep everything healthy and strong despite the overcrowding.
posted by caddis at 11:08 AM on May 24, 2009

This is my first year with a square foot garden, and I love it! My tip: instead of using thin wooden fencing for the rigid grid, I used stiff electrical wire wrapped around nails. It's easy to move, cheaper than wood, and you can get it in all sorts of colors (making it easier to spot amongst the busy plants).
posted by bjork24 at 11:28 AM on May 24, 2009

Thanks, le morte de bea arthur, I had no idea there was an issue with sustainability of peat moss harvesting.
posted by mediareport at 11:34 AM on May 24, 2009

We're growing potatoes in old plastic garbage cans in our driveway. We plan on putting some squash in an old broken rubbermaid toy bin as well. Great way to "reclaim" some paved space. God I love growing potatoes! Plant and forget mostly. They grow like crazy, and in the end, you end up with oodles of yummy taters. Not quite the same as what this person is talking about, but by adding soil to the can as the plants grow, I expect we'll be getting quite a lot out of a fairly small space.
posted by Windopaene at 12:00 PM on May 24, 2009

I've got ten 4x4 squares this year and plan to add more next season. It does keep things organized and pretty easy. My favorite feature is planting gradually so you can harvest a little at a time. But I'm still finding the balance between planting just enough (and not having all the seeds germinate) and planting too much (and having to thin). Well-written and well-reasoned book, though.
posted by rikschell at 12:18 PM on May 24, 2009

using peat moss can be really bad for the environment.

We've switched to using cocopeat instead of peat moss. So far, so good.
posted by arcticwoman at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, Rodale on the front page. Very nice.
posted by bardic at 12:33 PM on May 24, 2009

"We've switched to using cocopeat instead of peat moss."

I've been wondering about that product. Soil around here is pretty sandy so water just flows through it. Besides the embodied energy it looks pretty good.
posted by Mitheral at 12:37 PM on May 24, 2009

This book is pretty good and I used it for my garden. Unfortunately for me, I have such a black thumb that nothing will grow in my raised beds. Even the 3 foot tall weeds that took over my yard refuse to grow there.
posted by idiotfactory at 12:44 PM on May 24, 2009

I tried square-foot gardening about six years ago, at a local organic garden. Though the reults were pretty good, I found the startup work to be huge. Of course that was partially because we were in a plot that had been neglected for years, and before that had been used by hippies who thought raising chickens would be a good source of fertilizer. Nothing takes the shine off a happy gardenng book like digging out rusty chicken wire and fennel plant roots.

We did find the set-up to be fairly fexible, with 6' X 4' and 8' X 4' working as well as the squares. However, we did find that planting basil, oregeno and thyme in the same box will result in an herbal kaiju battle, with oregeno eventually eating everything.
posted by happyroach at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does anyone sell entire garden kits? I'm definitely not looking for one, but I bet a lot of people would love to be able to buy the whole thing as a package: box, special soil, your choice of seeds, and a computer program to track things, all delivered to your home and set up for you by attractive garden deliverers. A sort of Victory by Proxy Garden.
posted by pracowity at 12:47 PM on May 24, 2009

The Earthbox people will send you everything you need minus the computer program though I don't see how you'd need much more than a text editor to track things. Similar concept, less space per unit.
posted by Mitheral at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2009

When I first saw the bucket from the second link, I first thought of the Krusty/Freedom bucket. Reading through it, they're just creating a drip irrigation system and not a soil-less medium to growing the plants, but I don't know wh you wouldn't want to go the extra step.
posted by geoff. at 1:12 PM on May 24, 2009

Mel was living in Alpine Utah eight years ago and teaching these 2 day classes. I was sitting in on a International Development class at BYU and they encouraged us to go... the idea being that some sustainable household-scale agriculture skills are worthwhile for anybody to have and for development-minded folks to be able to teach (and they'd just started sponsoring people specifically to go out and teach). The class was dirt cheap, and my own experiment at small scale gardening in an old little red wagon the year before had yielded mixed results, so I figured I ought to learn a thing or two, and I went.

It's possible that any gardening education would have been helpful to me -- I didn't know very much at all beyond putting seeds/seedlings in earth and watering them -- but I think mwhybark's observation that SFG is "very well suited to the procedurally-inclined and the hurried" seems on the mark, and it gives you a kind of confidence to stick with the whole project to boot. Part of the course was at his house, and it was pretty clear that they were getting good results: not only was there a lot of garden in the yard, lunch was partly from it and pretty darn tasty. Learned all kinds of things... had no idea that nasturtiums were (a) good for flavoring and (b) companion plants that can keep some pests away from your other plants. Definitely a good memory as well as educational and motivational. I haven't done a lot of gardening for the last six years, but I happily lend out my copy of the rodale book and recommend it.
posted by weston at 1:34 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

OK you youngsters, here's from gramp's 20 years experience with SFG.

It's the general concepts that matter, not the specifics. Use lots of compost and no vermiculite. Prep the area for each bed by trench composting. Feel free to use any shape that fits your area and that you like; square, hexagon, triangle of circle all work fine. You just have to be able to reach all parts of the bed easily. Plant what you like, not what people recommend to you. Experiment! Scale the total garden to what is managable for you. Make watering easy by burying drip tube or PVC pipe with a riser at an inside edge each bed. Battery operated timers simplify watering - and simplicity is good. My beds have a 'T' fitting at the top of the riser with a full circle wrap of drip tube stuck into each side of the 'T' for water pressure/volume equalization. Low volume (2 or 3 gph) 90 degree spray emitters in the tubing provide overlaping coverage. Mix flowers and veggies. Have fun..
posted by X4ster at 2:05 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Windowpaene, how deep in the trash can do you plant your seed potatoes? Drainage detailing for the cans? If the young plant is far down in the can, any issues with getting enough light?

I'm intrigued.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:27 PM on May 24, 2009

Yeah, count me in the "wants to hear more about growing potatoes in garbage cans" camp.
posted by mediareport at 3:04 PM on May 24, 2009

I appreciate the value in easy, quick gardens made from raised beds, but the degree to which raised beds have been adopted as the standard for so many gardeners is a bit frightening. Raised beds just don't make sense in dry climates with well-draining soils. Raised beds dry out much quicker than ground level gardens and thus require much greater water use. You can still plant intensively without a raised bed if you make the effort to prepare the soil well, instead of spending time and money on raised beds and then expensive materials to fill them. Finally, many vegetable roots go down below 8". If the soil below your raised beds is no good, then you'll get less growth and your plants, being shallow-rooted, will require even more water.
posted by ssg at 3:22 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nothing about square foot gardening (at least the edition I have) is specific to raised beds. I've dug out beds and mixed my own (very clayey) soil with sphagnum moss and compost. It's a lot of work the first season, but those beds should stay golden as I keep putting in more compost.
posted by rikschell at 4:12 PM on May 24, 2009

Regarding soil depth and prep, the current edition suggests just plopping the frame down with no prep work, lining it with root barrier, and dumping the soil in. Which is just what I have done. I do have one double-depth bed.
posted by mwhybark at 4:58 PM on May 24, 2009

Here's one way to do potatoes in a garbage can: http://www.ehow.com/how_2222722_grow-potatoes-garbage-can.html.

I've heard of a similar method using old tires. You plant the potatoes in one tire, then as they grow, add more tires & dirt to the top. The plants will produce potatoes all the way up, and they're easy to harvest.

Also, as ssg says, raised beds aren't necessarily all that great in dry climates. If your yard is basically a beach (like mine), sunken beds will retain water much better.
posted by pmann at 5:08 PM on May 24, 2009

Potatoes in garbage cans? I've grown good spuds in 5 gallon growers pots sunk a couple inches into the ground next to my beds. The pots were filled about 2/3 with good soil mix, the starter is set on the mix and then just barely covered. As the plants grow the pot is filled with soil mix. In the larger beds the potatoes become weeds because the tiny little starters left after harvest continue to show up for years.

Large diameter plastic pipe or corragated tube can make good beds. A friend scavanged two pieces of 36 inch diameter plastic culvert about 24 inches long that he used as garden beds. I picked up a bunch of 12 inch diameter PVC pipe in random lengths that are clustered together in the back yard making a stair stepped garden bed. Chimney pipe or other clay pipe would make a nice looking arrangement too.
posted by X4ster at 5:36 PM on May 24, 2009

For water retention you can line your beds - either with multiple layers of weed barrier fabric, which is permiable but significantly slows drainage, or with sheet plastic that has an appropriate number and size of drainage holes cut in it.
posted by X4ster at 5:40 PM on May 24, 2009

X4ster, you may have just resolved a longstanding dilemma in my yard - there's a crappy 45-degree hill that gets great sun but is just awful old fill, gravel and smashed old concrete and for all I know old engine parts. I have been thinking about terracing it for beds but the digging would be a terror. Wide-bore pipe would by significantly easier to set up.
posted by mwhybark at 5:54 PM on May 24, 2009

"You plant the potatoes in one tire, then as they grow, add more tires & dirt to the top. The plants will produce potatoes all the way up, and they're easy to harvest."

It's key to plant late set potatoes (russets are a good choice) if you do this. Early set potatoes (like yukon gold) only start buds once so it doesn't matter how high they grow you just get one crop right at the bottom. Late set put out new buds continuously allowing for the high yields in a compact space.

Detailed story on potato towers.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

That sinfonian guy lives within a mile of my house - it's very odd to read him blogging about my weather every day. His potato-bin blog stuff was featured in a local paper and it resulted in provider-based outage (a metered outage, not a meltdown outage).
posted by mwhybark at 8:02 PM on May 24, 2009

Grow 100# of potatoes in 4 square feet? So crazy it just might work.
Living in an apt. right now, but I've had decent success in pilfered soda crates with cardboard boxes in 'em. Just fill and go.
posted by Gilbert at 9:12 PM on May 24, 2009

As others have mentioned, just do a google on growing taters in garbage cans and you'll get a bunch of links. We had two plastic trash cans that we occasionally used for overflow yard waste. Seattle went to weekly yard waste pickup, so we weren't ever going to need to use them again for that. So I drilled a bunch of holes in the bottom, and some on the sides for drainage, plopped about 14 - 16 inches of soil in, and put in the seed potatoes. Then, as they grew up to 6 inches or so over the soil, I'd put more soil in. Just reached the top this weekend. Had some issue with putting in different varieties, and so I may have covered some up, as some were too tall and some were too short. Even though they were way down in the can, even here in rainy Seattle, we got enough light for them to grow. Potatoes just really, really like to grow...
posted by Windopaene at 10:13 PM on May 24, 2009

Thanks for this! I remember watching this in the 80s during summer vacation. I must have been really bored. Youtube is slowly accumulating all the PBS shows I watched in my youth that I thought I'd never see again!
posted by jewzilla at 11:18 PM on May 24, 2009

We have three 4 ft. squares, had them for a couple of years now. One is actually made out of pressure-treated wood (I know, I know), but the other two are ipe, which is supposedly quite rot-resistant. Our grids are made of wire.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:36 AM on May 25, 2009

The great thing about gardening is that you learn new stuff every year. I moved into a new house with no backyard so at the last minute for our climate I put in a raised bed SFG in the front yard. I made the mistake of planting per SFG's instructions this year. The issue is microclimates - many of the plants just aren't getting enough sun because some of the others are blocking them. The cucumbers, squash, and beans are having a hard time competing with the tomatoes, basil, and other tall plans for sun and are pretty much out of the running for this year.

That said, these (product placement alert) raised bed corners are major timesavers if you're not construction-inclined - I made beds in less than an hour.
posted by pomegranate at 4:08 AM on May 25, 2009

A few points, I would not let tires near my food as many contain cadmium, a nasty poison. Stick with the garbage can or build potato boxes, wooden corner and slats for the sides which you can slide in when it is time to add more soil, much more attractive than garbage cans. When using peat moss do not forget to compensate with lime, preferably dolomitic lime, to keep a neutral pH. Why raised beds? Simplicity. if you want to make it even more simple, instead of mixing up this mixture of soil, peat moss etc. just use a good organic potting soil because that is essentially what this soil mix in SFG is, although SFG probably has higher compost content than any potting mix you will buy. Around here probably the best compost you can buy is from the mushroom farms. Anyway, a very high quality soil with a high content of amendments and organic nutrients is what allows this high density planting.
posted by caddis at 4:27 AM on May 25, 2009

Never tried any specific methods, but I did start a garden three years ago, and have been building onto it since then, adding raised beds wherever I can find space, and using containers as well. I can't just plant in the ground normally because my significant other had the back yard covered with 15 tons of gravel and some fabric to keep stuff from growing, about 25 years ago. Somehow, over the years I did get a lawn growing on top of all that gravelly crap, but garden plants, no way can they handle soil that's basically just clay and rocks.

This year I have a 4'x12' raised bed planted with Italian beans, snap beans, and red onions. There's a small raised bed with five blueberry bushes, and another two blueberry bushes in two tiny one-bush raised beds. There are 47 pepper plants planted in containers and a third of a raised bed. There are six rows of lettuce in that same bed (planted in two waves), with rows of red and white onions running between them. In containers, I have 7 tomato plants, along with four containers of catnip, three of parsley, and another blueberry plant in a container (a spare). I planted a red apple tree in the front last year and a golden apple tree in the back, and along the side are some hazelnut bushes. I am slowly surrounding myself with food-generating plants! There are also four large containers planted with red and white onions. And finally, there's a raised bed with broccoli and more onions planted between the broccoli plants. (Heh, yes, I like onions!)

Fresh food tastes better, helps the environment, saves money, doesn't really take much work or time, and looks pretty nice too. After seeing what I've done, some of my neighbors are starting their own gardens. I'm sure fresh veggie prices at the grocery store has been a motivating factor for them as well -- healthy food ain't cheap!
posted by jamstigator at 9:36 AM on May 25, 2009

I'm doing five 4x4 beds this year. Just got inside from planting the last of it. It's a good scale to begin gardening with, I'm not feeling as overwhelmed as I did last year when I looked at the space I had for gardening and thought I needed to plant it all. The weeds quickly overtook it because I didn't have time to work it all. I haven't done the extra work of raised beds, although with the rocks and weeds I have, it would probably be a good idea. And it would be easier to work each square if I had a raised area to sit on.

The book is also a great reference for learning the basic characteristics of the varieties and the planting time and spacing, and the website has other varieties that weren't in the book. My Folia has lots of people who've listed their gardens as square foot, so you can see how folks are using the basic plan but with their own style.
posted by saffry at 2:44 PM on May 25, 2009

I was put off square foot gardening a few years ago because the site gave a very dismissive reply to someone who asked about alternatives to peat moss. It was along the lines of "peat moss is a sustainable resource, there is no need to use an alternative". Well, it's not sustainable where I come from, and I'm glad to see they've change their tone and are recommending alternatives.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:24 PM on May 25, 2009

You plant the potatoes in one tire, then as they grow, add more tires & dirt to the top.

Mmmmmm. Tire leachates! And plastic garbage cans — mmmmm! BPA and other leachates!

I suggest sticking to wood. Modern copper and borax treatments are not overly poisonous. If the copper were to leach to a degree that was dangerous, your plants would likely be ill. I'd still place high-drainage sand or pebble on the outside edge of the fill, though.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:03 PM on May 25, 2009

Here is the way to do potatoes with a wooden enclosure.
posted by caddis at 4:39 AM on May 26, 2009

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