Okay, people: it’s time to plant your vegetable garden. The weather is beautiful, and even if it isn’t beautiful where you live, it will be sometime in the next week or so. I checked.
Square Foot Gardening is my method of choice, except when I go overboard and just plant stuff everywhere. I expect you to have more self-control. SFG (as square foot gardeners call it) is easy, fast, and everything’s on a grid, which is nice for all you engineers and other geek types.
Best of all, you get a lot of produce out of very little space. That means less building, less dirt to buy or shovel, less weeding and watering, and more eating delicious fresh vegetables. The typical SFG raised bed is just 4’x4′, and one or two beds is plenty for most folks.
What is square foot gardening?
In traditional row gardening, you plant long rows of one kind of seed — usually as many seeds as will fit, regardless of whether you actually want forty lettuces. Then you leave a foot or two of empty space between rows — that’s where you’ll walk as you thin all those seedlings down to a sensible number, and water and weed and water and weed and finally harvest. This uses up a lot of space, water, and energy.
In square foot gardening, you plant things as close together as you can. Instead of long rows, you divide each garden bed into 1 foot by 1 foot squares, with one kind of crop in each square, spaced only as far apart as they need to be.
Look at the back of a packet of seeds. Ignore where it says “seed spacing” and “row spacing” and look for something that says “space after thinning,” or something to that effect. That number tells you how much space that plant actually needs to grow. Carrots need about 3 inches between plants. Lettuce needs 6 inches. Tomatoes need 1 foot.
So for your lettuce plants (space after thinning: 6″) you take one of your 1’x1′ garden squares, divide it into four quarters, and plant one lettuce in the middle of each quarter.
Carrots need 3 inches each, which means you can put 16 carrots in one square foot. (12 inches divided by three inches per carrot = four carrots per linear foot, or 16 carrots per square foot.) So divide your 1′ square of soil into quarters, then divide each quarter into quarters: now you’ve got 16 little squares. Plant one or two seeds (the extra is in case one doesn’t sprout) in the middle of each of the little squares.
Beets need 4 inches each, or 9 per square foot. Divide your square into thirds each way, and plant your nine beet seeds. Getting the hang of it?
Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants each get a whole square to themselves. Cucumbers and kale are medium-sized, and you can fit two plants in each square. (The official guide is 1 kale plant per square, but I know how much kale you eat, and your plants won’t have a chance to get big and overgrown, since you’ll keep them in check by picking a big handful of tender young leaves every few days.)
Zucchini and melons like to sprawl out and take a lot of space, so they get two square feet per plant — just pop your plant right on the line between two squares, and encourage it to grow so it climbs out over the side of the bed and sprawls across your walkway or up a trellis instead of all over the bed.
What’s that? You really like carrots and want more than 16? That’s fine: plant two squares full of carrots. Better yet, plant one square now, and another square in a month — that way you’ll have a continuous supply of tender young carrots.
Once you finish harvesting a square, don’t let it sit empty — mix in a trowel full of compost to refresh the nutrients, and plant something else. Grow 9 spinach plants in spring, and when they bolt, take them out and plant a pepper. After you harvest that, plant 8 peas or 4 swiss chard plants.
You can plant from seeds or buy transplants from the nursery — whichever you prefer. You probably won’t use a whole packet of seeds, but you can keep them tightly sealed somewhere cool and dry, and they’ll last a few years. And of course, you can always get free seeds from your local seed lending library.
Square foot gardening tips:
- Many people make permanent guide lines with string or trellis materials. You don’t have to, but it does keep things tidy.
- Plant the tallest things towards the back of your bed (the north end in the northern hemisphere, south end in the southern hemisphere) so they don’t shade the shorter things.
- Plant things that you pick often — like salad greens for dinner — around the edges, where they’re easiest to reach.
- Don’t make your beds more than 4′ deep, or you’ll have a hard time reaching the middle squares.
- If you’re putting your bed against a wall or fence, don’t make it more than 3 feet deep. I like 3′ by 5′ beds, with a trellis along the back.
More info on square foot gardening:
Mel Bartholomew’s classic book Square Foot Gardening is still my go-to reference, except that I lent out my copy and also my loaner copy. Mine are older editions, so I can’t say whether there’s anything especially valuable in the newer ones. One thing: I’m not crazy about his “Mel’s Mix” recipe for planting mix — it’s equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and compost, and there are serious environmental concerns about peat moss and vermiculite.
Disclosure: that’s an affiliate link, meaning I earn a few nickels if you buy books through it. But Square Foot Gardening has been around for ever, so you can probably find a cheap used paperback of an earlier edition (at your local independent used bookstore) without looking too hard. Any time I see one that’s only a few bucks I buy it, because I keep lending mine out or giving them away. It’s no way to earn affiliate commissions, but that’s how I roll. Oh, and your local library should also have these books, but they might all be checked out — it is springtime, after all. Also, the librarians might be angry if you bring theirs back with muddy little fingerprints all over it.
But if you want a shiny new copy of your very own, or any other books that I’ve mentioned, and if you’re going to shop online anyway, you may as well do so by clicking one of these links.