Lets start with a few questions:
- Have you failed at growing produce in the past?
- Do you have limited space for your garden?
- Have you been taught that gardening is super labor intensive and thusly decided not to try?
- Do you want to grow lots of produce in a small space?
- Are you planning on gardening with children?
- Do you want to grow even more produce in the space you already have?
If you said yes to any of these questions, then you have come to the right post! I’m going to talk about the primary concept that we implemented to ease our learning to garden process. We had to edited it a bit for our needs and sometimes this was more successful that others. But if you check out my new Lovingly Growing Garden 2014 page, you’ll see that it’s working out pretty well if I do say so myself.
Back tracking just a bit, we built these raised bed over 2 years ago and we did so fairly haphazardly given what we know now. We used generic untreated lumber and galvanized screws, nothing fancy, just 4 ft x 8 ft beds that were 12 inches tall. We measured the space we wanted the beds to go on the side of the house, factored in the walk way to the backyard and leaving room between beds and behind the beds for getting a lawn mowers in (as we were planted where grass was) and were left with a space large enough to hold 2 of these 4 ft x 8 ft beds. And then we bought seeds and I sat down and made plans for how to fit these seed in rows based on the instructions given with each seed. I was excited but in truth, the yield was going to be low due to plant spacing and row spacing requirements set forth of seed packages. I accepted this fate that I had a “small garden space” and was ready to be content with minimal gardening. Fast forward to this past winter when I learned about … Drum roll please … Square Foot Gardening or SFG for short. This was a game changer. If you have a small space, want a lot of produce, you’ve failed at gardening in the past, plan on using containers or pretty much plan on doing any kind of produce gardening without needing to get large vehicles in the area … then this is a process you need to consider. The concept was born by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970s and he has written 2 editions of the book All New Square Foot Gardening. I’m reading the latest version as we speak which I waited over a month to get from my local library. So if you are seriously interested, just go buy it.
SQUARE FOOT GARDENING:
The premiss is simple friends: make your own amazing homemade and water retentive soil, plant seeds at their minimum thinning distance in each square foot of your garden and then watch the amazing produce grow. As an example, if carrots tell you to thin to 3 inches between plants but leave 18 inches between rows, then my 4 ft x 8 ft bed would have held roughly 5 rows with 16 carrots in each row … thats like 80 carrots and my whole bed is used up. BORING! In SFG, with his rule of using the thinning spacing as your planting guide, you can fit 16 carrots in a square. So it only takes 5 of the 32 squares in 1 of my beds to hold those same 80 carrots. So 27 squares are still available for me to plant more variety. And I still have an entire other bed of 32 squares to plant. Had I planted the entire bed with carrots using SFG, that would be 512 carrots in 32 sq. ft. Talk about yield!!!! Yep, I was sold on the concept and you should be too. Rows are for farmers and very important for them. There is absolutely a place for fields of rows, but if you aren’t using tractors or plows being pulled by horses then you don’t need rows. So are you with me mathematically? Small space, intense planting (but still within the thinning guidelines on the seed packet), more yield. Awesome!
It is here that I would like to admit that I’m not doing 100% organic gardening. I am working in that direction, it’s a goal. But financially speaking, starting at organic just wasn’t an option. Mr. Bartholomew uses 3 ingredients in his “Mel’s Mix” soil recipe for filling his raised beds. His ingredients are compost, peat moss and vermiculite. I had not started composting at the time of finally being ready to get our garden growing. I have since then, but only on a small scale, not enough to fill my bed from the start none the less feed my plants for season after season. Peat moss is readily available at big box stores though it is not a renewable resource so there is contention about using this. The job of peat moss is to help keep the soil mixture soft and fluffy for the roots to grow easily and to help the soil retain moisture. And vermiculite … well it definitely wasn’t at my big box store garden center. For those of you who don’t know what this is, here is a long and technical Wikipedia entry that boils down to it’s meant to help with water retention in the soil as well as helping the soil stay fluffy for easy root growth as well. I know you can order it online or drive around God’s green Earth to fancy garden centers to find it. At least the peat moss and vermiculite are a one time addition, after that you only amend with compost. But with 2 children and a 2 year garden delay, finding perfect ingredients didn’t happen. So I improvised. I used Miracle Gro garden soil for fruits, vegetables and herbs and Black Kow composted cow manure and peat moss (because a little goes a LONG way). The Miracle Gro garden soil was on sale making it the most affordable plus it was already designed with some vermiculite or perlite (a substitute for vermiculite) and some slow release fertilizer. I used 7 bags of the 1 cu. ft Miracle Grow soil, 1 block of the 3 cu. ft peat moss (which probably expanded to 6-8 cu. ft.) and 1 bag of Black Kow per raised bed.
The big perks of this are that you don’t have to till and turn your soil painstakingly before beginning. Build your raised bed, add soil and a grid and boom, you are gardening! It can fit any where you want, even a 2 ft. x 2 ft. raised bed could grow 16 carrots, 8 pea plants (if trellised), 9 spinach plants and 4 leaf lettuce plants in the spring. In the summer re-up your compost and those 4 boxes could grow 1 tomato plant, 1 pepper plant, 4 basil plants and 2 cucumbers (if trellised). Add more compost again in the fall and you can grow 9 beets, 1 kale, 9 parsnips, and 9 leeks. You are saving seeds in a huge way because you no longer are planting a big row and then thinning, so if you store them properly, you’ve got seed for next year. Your planting increments of 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, or 16 depending on the size of the plant (read thinning spacing) and that is huge seed savings itself. This is great for kids because you can build a box size that they can walk all the way around and reach all the way in to help maintain. As an aside, don’t make your box wider than 3 ft. I did, and now that things are getting big and thorns and spines are getting more vicious, its is ugly reaching into the middle. Make the beds as long as you are willing you walk around, but not more than 3 ft wide … trust my itchy arms on this one.
So check out this SFG thing. There is so much information out there to help you get started while you wait for your turn with the book from the library. I have many SFG links on my Edible Gardening board on Pinterest that I welcome you to check out. I’m absolutely certain that SFG is what got me from zero to Garden Hero. Hope this helps with some basic demystifying of how my garden is growing with fervor (just check my Harvest Counter 2014 for proof of this!)
PS: I did not use this soil mix in my containers of veggies and fruit … and I’m regretting it every day. Spend the time and money to make a great soil for your containers, it will pay off.