My Square Foot Garden: Top row, left to right, Vintage Wine, Brandywine, and Hillbilly tomatoes; middle row, left to right, "little finger" eggplant, rosemary, and Italian large leaf basil; bottom row, "spicy globe" basil, plus room to plant two more crops.
I don't know exactly how it happened, but somehow I came across a series of photos of "square foot gardens" on flickr and, before long, I was completely drawn in. I must have been searching for information on growing vegetables, since I've been wanting to plant them, but have been daunted at the challenge. I'm a completely new to the art of gardening, but when I came across the square foot gardening method, I was fascinated.
Here was a system which not only simplified the process and made gardening more manageable, but works beautifully (using so many flickr photos of bountiful gardens as evidence). Grow 16 different crops in just a 4x4 foot space? Sure! Grow as many as 16 carrots within just one of the tiny squares? Amazing! The garden is a vision of serious outdoor organization. With a place for everything, it's gardening for the perfectionist. And, let's face it, they're also adorable. I was hooked.
The gardening technique, which has apparently been around for a while, is based on the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (there's a companion website too). It seems to have a cult-like following. One of its major attractions is that you use raised beds filled with a very specific growing medium, so there's no worrying about how to prepare your existing soil to make it ready for vegetables to grow. Another reason to try the technique is because it conserves space. Instead of planting in rows, you plant in squares and eliminate a great deal of the spacing required by rows.
Of course, nothing as simple as it seems, and because I decided to create my garden only days before we are scheduled to leave on a two-week trip to Europe, the process became, let's say, very compressed. In addition, because I didn't start this project in the spring, I now needed to rely mostly on transplants, which meant rushing to buy some before the garden centers stopped selling them in the next few weeks (probably when I will be gone).
So, for the last week, I've been racing through the process of setting up my square foot garden:
Step #1: Build the box. The standard box is 4 feet by 4 feet with 16 squares to grow up to 16 different crops. But a number of variations on the basic design are possible. The goal is not to go larger than 4x4 or you will have difficulty managing the plants in the middle. With limited space, I made two 3x3 boxes (each containing 9 squares). I bought 1x6 pieces of pine and strips of lattice to go on top and had them cut down to size at the store. I screwed them together at home and lined the bottom of each box with a weed barrier.
Step #2: Into the boxes go a prescribed mixture of one part compost, one part peat moss, and one part vermiculite. Sourcing vermiculite ended up being one of the most difficult steps (and could be a post in itself). I mixed together 9 cubic feet of all this stuff on a humongous tarp and filled the the boxes. The grids go on top to keep the plot organized into square foot sections.
Step #3: Put your plants in the box. I purchased a variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, "little finger" eggplant, rosemary, and oregano. That leaves some extra spaces for more crops. I'm going to try planting seeds for red chard, radishes, carrots, arugula, frisee, and broccoli rabe. It might be a disaster to still try to plant from seed so late, so do tell me if I am going about this all wrong. That brings the total to 18 crops. Ta-da. Instant farm!
The next step is to create a permanent trellis (he skinny bamboo stakes for the tomatoes and cucumbers are only temporary). I will need a taller, much stronger structure to support the vines as they grow (up to 6 feet high or more!). After some preliminary searching, there are many different types of plant supports, few of which are both effective and aesthetically pleasing. Since we are about to leave, I'm leaving this to figure out when I return.
This experience may turn out to be a complete disaster, but hopefully, with regular watering by my neighbor, I'll come back in two weeks and see things still growing. This should be an interesting adventure. I'm posting photos of my progress to a set on flickr if you want to follow along.