Square foot gardening is an alternative to traditional gardening and the term was coined by American author cum TV Presenter Mel Bartholomew and introduced in his book “Square Foot Gardening” in 1981. It aims at planning and making an intensively planted, but small vegetable garden. The result is a simple but orderly gardening system, which is very appealing to all gardening enthusiasts and especially beginners.
Square foot gardening is a simple way to create gardens which are quite easy to manage and need minimum maintenance time. The main distinguishing feature is the beautiful-looking, well-organized, raised beds which are divided into a number of perfect squares, each featuring its own variety of garden plant.
The idea came up when Mel found out by experience that an average gardener would be spending hours to weed the gaps between the rows of plants, thereby creating more work for themselves. It occurred to him that by getting rid of the rows and by using deep and intensive beds, the garden maintenance could be dramatically cut down. By placing a grid on top, the bed can be further divided into squares, thus making it easy to space crops as well as to rotate the crops each season, and moreover, to visually separate the crops. The method claims to produce more, use less soil, maintenance and as well as water. This practice can also help the gardener to save his time compared to traditional gardening methods.
The basic construction is easy and starts with creating a small garden bed, maybe four feet by four feet, or four feet by eight feet commonly, and placing a one-foot square grid on top to divide it into squares which can then be managed individually. The soil beds are 6 inches to 12 inches deep so that the plants get lots of rich nutrients and maintain proper drainage. The soil mix specifically recommended is one-third compost, one-third peat, and the rest vermiculite. This helps to ensure that the soil bed starts free from weeds and full of nutrients, while at the same time retaining enough water. It is extremely light and does not block the growing seeds in any way.
The raised bed frame can be built using sinder, vinyl, or even wood. The square foot gardening concept has become so popular that there are various companies now offering ready-to-assemble SFG gardens and prefabricated garden frames. Another vital thing is to choose a sunny location which is ideal for watering too.
The seeds are, of course, the next most important part. The garden bed can be divided into various sections for each kind of vegetable for efficient utilization in the square foot gardening method. Plants which grow tall may be planted on the north side. The center can be kept aside for plants with medium height, with the smallest plants on the south side. This is done to ensure a healthy and direct dose of sunlight for all the crops every day. Before you start the garden, plan ahead so that you are knowledgeable about what, when, and where to plant. After each crop cultivation, it is always best to rotate the crops to different spots to avoid the chance of diseases building up in the soil by the repetition of crops.
Seedlings or seeds of different kinds of vegetables are then planted in one or more of the squares as planned. The density depends on the plant size, like one tomato plant per square, but 16 radish seeds may be in a square. There is no waste of space since there are no paths in between and the soil stays loose because no one steps on it.
Advantages of Square Foot Gardening
- Practical – This is a great gardening method for aspiring gardeners, for those who have little time, the disabled, and as well as elderly, since the bed can even be placed at a raised height for more accessibility. Even schools prefer this method due to the ease of installation and maintenance.
- Better yield – Since the crops are planted intensively and can be rotated easily, the yield from a small space is much higher and is even ideal for those who have a little space.
- Easy set-up – Starting a new garden with this method is quick and easy, even for those who do it for the first time. The raised bed frame can be placed anywhere be it over the grass, over the pavement or even on the terrace. You can build, fill, and start planting in just a few hours.
- Minimum maintenance – Since the gardening area is small, there are only a few specific tasks to be done each day and a little time is taken for planting, maintaining, and harvesting. If you use the right compost mix, weeds will not be there unless they blow or fall in overtime.
Disadvantages of Square Foot Gardening
- Not suitable for all plants – Although this gardening method is suitable for small vegetable plants, the larger plants, perennials, fruit trees or bushes cannot be accommodated. Once the aspiring gardener or the beginner experience the success of gardening, they soon outgrow the method and need to move on to expand their range of crops.
- Non-renewable resources – Even though the initial soil mix is an excellent choice for the vegetable soil bed, some of the components are non-renewable resources and would not be a choice for most regular gardeners. Also, it leaves a significant carbon footprint.
- Expensive for large areas – Even though the SFG beds are cheaper in maintenance, the initial set up is quite costly, especially if you have a large area to fill.
- Watering problems – The raised bed soil tends to become dry faster and you need to be watering it every day in the summer heat to ensure your plants grow well. A drip irrigation system may need to be installed or you need to find other ways to conserve the moisture.
- More maintenance needed – Weeds can still be a pain and may be difficult to pull out unless they are removed when they are still small.