You might have noticed that I misspelled the name row-to-tiller. That’s because with this spelling it really shows all the work involved. It’s for row gardening, which we don’t do anymore. Save that for farmers if they want to keep doing that. You don’t need rows and you don’t need a row-to-tiller in your home garden. Your row garden would be way out back, taking up so much room. Condense it down to a Square Foot Garden and it takes only 20% of the space. Not only that, but you can put it right next to your backdoor. It’s convenient, quick, and easy. You will see it more often, so you will tend it more often. It will do much better right under your wing.
Now beginners ask, “Why don’t you have to dig up your existing soil? The answer is very simple…Because we don’t USE our existing soil. First of all, it’s unsuitable around most of the country in fact most of the world for growing crops. It will grow great weeds and it’s filled with weed seeds. No matter where you live those weed seeds go down fairly deep. They have been buried there for quite a while. When you row-to-tiller up your soil you are going to expose all those seeds every time you do it. Every spring when you see those guys out there with row-to-tiller, what they are really doing is not loosening or mixing their soil, they are turning up some new weeds seeds to grow.
Let’s get back to why we don’t dig up our existing soil. The answer is because we don’t use it. We start with a perfect soil. After all the years of toiling and digging and experimenting, I realized that you don’t have to do it. Then I experimented and found out how deep your soil has to be if you start with perfect soil.
What’s a perfect soil? It’s certainly not your yard soil. It’s soil you make from natural material. I am sure you know the formula for Mel’s Mix – it’s very simple. It’s 1/3rd or equal parts of peat moss, blended compost and coarse vermiculite. We’ll get into why that is a perfect soil later. Basically, it’s a soil that stays loose and friable, it drains well, and it holds a lot of moisture. Because it uses compost blended from 5 different sources, you will have all the nutrients or the NPK that you want. It also is just at the right pH. Don’t let those words scare you, we even don’t know how to spell pH in Square Foot Gardening. We don’t even know whether NPK is capitalized or not! That’s for all the experts to learn. What I found out was that in a perfect soil you can grow just about every plant in six inches of that soil. That’s all you need.
Experts say, “Don’t the roots go searching down six, eight, even ten feet?” I ask them, “What are they searching for?” “Well, moisture and nutrients.” And I say, “What if that was all in the first six inches?” “Well I don’t think it’ll work,” they say. But it does work. If you go to a commercial greenhouse, on their benches they’ll have boxes that have four to six inches of soil, perfect soil and they grow all their plants in that.
When I first started way back when in the 80’s, and even the 70’s, of experimenting with how good is compost, homemade compost, I found out you can grow most of the crops in just four inches of compost.
In fact, I’ll include a picture here. You can see what a patio garden with a plywood bottom, set on sawhorses for sit down gardening, can do. Those are 1×4 sides, so it’s actually only three and a half inches of perfect soil, and that wasn’t even the perfect soil, that was just compost. That’s what we use overseas: pure compost, homemade compost that helps clean up the environment.
You can’t grow 12-inch carrots in six inches of soil. In fact, I have a funny story about that, but I’ll tell you that later. Actually, the solution to growing 12-inch carrots in six inches of soil with the Square Foot Gardening system is just so simple and easy. We add six inches on top of our regular boxes. We put a 12 inch by 12 inch box, we call it a top hat, and put it on top of one square, fill it with Mel’s mix, and now you have 12 inches of perfect soil.
When your carrots are harvested, you move everything so you have continuous crop rotation. Isn’t that simple and easy?
If just about all plants can be grown in six inches of perfect soil, why would you want any more? I know beginners say, “You need a lot of soil. I’m going to make my boxes 12 inches deep.” Some put them two feet deep just for extra. Extra what? Extra work, extra cost. Stop making it so deep.
There are two things to consider when you have a shallow soil like that. It will dry out faster so you have to water more, or use mulch on top of the soil to keep the moisture in and the sun out.
Since you don’t walk on your growing soil in a Square Foot Garden, you reach into your boxes, then the soil stays very loose and friable. For tall heavy plants that means they don’t really anchor in like they do in your tough, backyard soil. Sometimes we have to provide some extra kind of support, but I’ll show you that later. It’s very easy to do.
I have to tell you, the rototiller companies don’t like me going around telling you all this. I’m sorry to spoil their business, but you don’t need a rototiller. You don’t even need to hire anyone with a rototiller and you don’t need to hire anyone with a plow. You don’t dig up your existing soil. That eliminates all that work and expense. And that’s just one of the advantages of Square Foot Gardening. Here’s some more.