I get a lot of questions about the early days of Square Foot Gardening. It seems people would like to know how I went about creating the SFG method, so I figured I would share that today with you all.
I started by testing a lot of different methods and strategies. As time went on, I found these things to be true:
- A soil mixture of equal parts of coarse vermiculite, peat moss and compost, will provide a perfect soil for plants.
- A good homemade many-ingredient compost will provide all the nutrients and trace elements plants will need for strong growth.
The Size of a SFG
Using the above formula all plants will grow in only 6 inches of this perfect soil mix. Then I thought, “If this mix is never walked on or trampled down, it will stay loose and friable without any digging from season to season, and from crop to crop.” If we plant the small portion of just one crop, but do it continually as the weather permits, we will then eventually have a harvest a little at a time, but continually. If we are reaching into our garden from our aisles, we will never have to walk or lean on our growing soil. If the aisles are used only for walking, we never have to improve that soil, and we never have to water or fertilize it.
Natural soil that is unwatered and unfertilized will grow very few weeds and will be very easy to maintain an attractive ground path. If we determine that the maximum reach of most people is two feet without becoming unbalanced or straining any muscles or joints and you could walk down both sides of your garden bed, then the bed would be four feet wide. If you wanted to walk all the way around the bed, then it would become a 4×4 square.
That’s the logic I used to come up with the standard 4×4 size for a Square Foot Garden, but that’s not the end of it. That’s only part of what makes a SFG! I then had to think about where to place the gardens and eventually come up with the grid system.
Grids and Varying Plants
If the garden bed was against a wall or fence, where you could not walk all the way around it, the widest it should be is two feet wide. Either a two foot wide bed against the wall, or a four-foot bed out in the open can be any length as long as it’s only four feet wide. The maximum length that the average person will find convenient to use is between 12 and 16 feet. Any longer than that, the gardener becomes impatient of having to walk all the way around to get to the other side.
They will eventually try to take the short cut of trying to step over the garden and eventually they will end up walking in the garden. If the bed of any size 4×4 or 4×12, is divided into individual square feet, and a very visual divider is laid down on the ground, something that is very visual like reused Venetian blinds or wood left painted white. The individual square feet of the garden is highly visible and pronounced. If each one of those square feet is planted in a different crop, the garden will be composed of a very diverse combination of plants.
If many of the same plants are located in the same area, they will provide a stronger attraction for insects and pests. By spreading the same plant out into different squares of the garden, you there by provide a natural protection. It would be almost be like playing hide and seek and if everyone with red sweaters all got together in the same place and those with white base ball caps together in another place, it would be very easy to find them.
Watering a SFG
If we water the plants by hand, ladling out a cup from sun-warmed bucket of water and apply that water to each individual plant, we not only conserve water, we apply the water to the root area, which is where it is needed. This eliminates placing water on the paths hence eliminating the weed growth. It also eliminates watering the tops of all plants. If we water using this system, we save additional water by applying very little to young plants and much more to larger plants. We call it nurturing. It’s just like feeding children. You wouldn’t feed a teenager the same way you do a baby.
Plant Spacing and Seeds
Within each square foot, if we knew the proper spacing for that particular plant and we then placed those transplants or seeds in that exact same spacing we would eliminate the need to plant extra seeds and do any thinning when they all sprouted. If we plant just a pinch (2 or 3 seeds) in each hole, if they all sprout instead of trying to transplant or rip out the extra ones, we merely cut them off leaving just one good plant at each spacing hole. We eliminate the disturbing of that one plant that remains. If this method saves 80% of the wasted space of the typical single row garden, it means our SFG can be extremely small, allowing us to locate it anywhere around the property.
This in turn allows us to protect it much easier from adverse weather and pests. It also allows us to bring the garden much closer to the house and the patterns of traffic. This in turn means you pass the garden more often thereby noticing it both the good and the bad. If it’s bad you tend it right away. If it’s good you get to admire it, harvest it, and appreciate it more.
If your soil never needs turning over, never needs fertilizing, thing of all the tools you no longer need. In fact, the only tools you really need are a trowel for planting, scissors for harvesting, and a pencil for poking holes in the soil and planting. All other types of tools, especially the heavy-duty ones are there by unnecessary and no longer an expense. This means the old adage of if you’re going to buy tools, spend a lot of money and buy good, strong, durable, well made tools, no longer applies and is totally unnecessary.
Because your garden is so small and concise you can locate similar weather required plants together, thereby offering easier protection. Also because your garden is so small and condensed, it can be easily protected in the early and late season. Thereby extending your gardening activities and hence, your harvest a considerable percentage of time.
Since your original soil mix contains no weed seeds, there are no weeds to pull in the garden and the few that blow in and sprout are easily recognized because of the precise pattern of plants in each square foot and weeds are easily identified when they’re tiny and small and because the soil is so loose and friable, they’re easily pulled out with two fingers, roots and all.
With the elimination of weeds, which in effect are really plants that need moisture and sunlight and are native and aggressive growers, you eliminate a huge competition for your plants that are normally found in a single row garden.
Because your garden plant selection was planted just a few at a time, you are never overwhelmed with a large harvest which then would continue growing until you could get to it, and in effect you will never be burdened with over grown plants or tough bitter tasting vegetables.
Once the rhythm is developed, usually between 1-2 years, the gardener can judge how often and how many to plant, depending on their family’s tastes and desires.
This eliminates over planting which in most cases meant over work taking care of something you don’t really need but you didn’t find that out until it was time to harvest and you became overwhelmed with so much produce all at once.
Time to Ask Some Questions
- If the plants only need 6 inches deep of perfect soil why would we provide any more?
- Why would we even think of trying to improve our existing soil with a lot of hard work and heavy tools if there is no need for it?
- Why would the plants send roots out for many feet searching for moisture and nutrients, if they have it all within those 6 inches of perfect soil? They won’t.
- If you never have to turn your soil over or do any heavy work, why would we want to keep a garage filled with heavy-duty tools?
- If we could visualize the harvest as we do the planting, thereby eliminating over planting why would we plant too much of one vegetable at once?
- If we were going to contain our gardening into the four-foot wide beds, why would we even think of improving the soil in the aisles?
- Why would we ever think of watering the soil in the aisles if we didn’t want weeds to grow?
- If all we need for watering is a few recycled buckets, why would we need a bunch of expensive hoses and sprinkling systems or even automatic watering systems?
- If all this works so well, why would we want to complicate gardening?
- If we only want a few things at one time, why would we plant an entire packet of seeds, and then have to come and rip out 90% of them when they sprout?
- If you were afraid to start a garden because it was too much work, too many weeds, too expensive, took up too much space, took too much time, cost too much every year, required too much knowledge, why would you plant a row garden?
- If gardening became so simple, easy and enjoyable, wouldn’t everyone start gardening?
So…why doesn’t everyone in the world have a Square Foot Garden?!