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Square Foot Gardening

“Square Foot Gardening” was created by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 book.  He made substantial updates to his technique with the latest version of his book.

Square Foot Gardening basically involves growing vegetables in 6-inch deep bottomless boxes made of lumber.  The boxes are filled with a potting mix called “Mel’s Mix,” which is 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 composts from different sources.    Bartholomew states that using this mix eliminates the need for fertilizer, especially when additional compost is added in subsequent years to both fill the settling soil level and to add a boost of nutrition.

Boxes can be set on any surface.  A barrier of cardboard or landscape fabric should be used to block weed or grass from creeping into the box.

Permanent grids are then established to divide the boxes into sixteen 12’ by 12’ squares (square feet).  Each square is then planted with a different type of vegetable.  The number of plants per square depends on an individual plant’s size. Many plants of greens, radishes, beets and turnips could be planted.  Cruciferous (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) would be planted one per square.

Large plants like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are planted one per square, and vining types are recommended. They are trellised up a vertical stake and are placed at the back of the box.  Vining types of tomatoes are indeterminate (vs determinate which stay smaller).  Vining types of squash and cucumbers are those that are NOT bush types.  These large plants should be placed in a northern row (south in the southern hemisphere) so they will not shade other plants.

Vining plants like pole beans and peas are grown vertically on a trellis attached to the back of the box.  Large root crops like potatoes and carrots are grown in a “top hat” box which is a second six inch box placed on top of the first.

With the small beds used in this system, the gardener can easily reach the entire area, without stepping on and compacting the soil.  One advantage of densely planted crops is that they can form a living mulch, and also prevent weeds germinating.  Also, the large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily.

One disadvantage of this, or with gardening in any raised bed environment, is that the bed is going to dry out more quickly, so more attention to watering is needed.

The initial set up for the system is expensive when purchasing lumber and the soil ingredients.  The vermiculite is hard to find and costly. But a substitution of perlite is acceptable.

The book provides information about sequence planting and the details of the amounts needed per person to keep the table supplied.