When I read the intro to Mel Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening, I encountered the story of my experience a few summers ago. With a zealous, optimistic heart, I helped begin a community garden. Having grown up a city mouse, I looked forward to a TV-free summer with my children, getting dirty, toting watering cans, working up an honest sweat and enjoying the sweet and savory fruits of our labor as we sketched and designed our first garden. Visions of luscious cherry tomatoes, flowering zucchini, aromatic rosemary, and edible flowers danced in my head. At last, I’d be fulfilling that fantasy of being one of those skilled women, in touch with nature, who grows good food to nourish her loved ones.
The first few weeks were great…we prepared the soil, picked our seedlings, and found stones to outline the garden area. We placed our plants with care, learned all sorts of new words and phrases; I loved most the idea of giving plants a deep watering. It seemed so loving. I also heard a few other words and phrases often: weeding; bolting; thinning; Mom, when are we leaving?; I’m hot!; This isn’t fun! Layer on top of that the 10 minute commute to the garden, the need to bring our tools each time, the required perfect storm of workable weather, the right pockets of time, and decent attitudes, and — well, you get the picture. Our good intentions went to seed.
This is exactly the scenario described in Bartholomew’s book — how, year after year, he witnessed robust groups of would-be community gardeners dwindle down to the diehard few over a matter of weeks. Wanting to find a way to encourage lay gardeners, after much research, he developed an approach he calls “square foot gardening.” A friend of mine, who grew kale leaves bigger than her face last summer and hosted a wonderful veggies and dip get-together featuring her bounty, heartily recommended this technique, and this is what I’ll undertake (with or without my kids’ help) this spring, summer and fall.
In a nutshell, the heart of the technique is creating 4′ x 4′ raised beds, and sectioning these beds off into square foot units, i.e., 16 units per bed. You can then use however many of these units to grow different plants of your choosing — a different plant per square or the same plant in multiple squares. Bartholomew teaches that this is a far more efficient and effective way to garden, with benefits that include:
- Minimized time expended weeding, thinning and caring for soil
- Production of desired harvests instead of a wasteful overabundance of produce that won’t get eaten
- Less wasted seed: You plant what you need and want instead of dumping the whole pack in a row, saving seeds for future usage.
- Attractive, manageable gardens that can be maintained close to your home, in the backyard on your patio or, for urban dwellers, the roof top.
While this technique limits a lot of the problems of traditional row gardening (an approach that comes from commercial gardening), there are virtually no limits on the amounts and varieties these gardens can produce. You can create as many of these boxes as you want based on your needs. Space can be saved by training vining crops such as squash and cucumbers to grow vertically, thus increasing your garden’s real estate. Also, once you harvest your reasonably sized crop, those now empty squares will entice you to plant something new, encouraging succession plantings, and continual harvest.
This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you’ve done this kind of gardening, how has it worked for you?