Roots and Shoots: Start With a Box (Not Too Big), Add a Grid

Square foot gardening

By Pamela Doan

Being a garden nerd, I read obituaries of gardeners even when I don’t know who they are. Gardening inherently involves some kind of legacy and it’s fascinating to learn about people through their approach.

Last week, Mel Bartholomew died. He was the founder of the Square Foot Gardening Foundation and worked for decades to bring his sustainable method of growing food to communities all over the world. The SFG Foundation continues his work with a focus on schools, kids and training volunteer instructors. Locally, the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County offered a class in April to teach people how to do it. They have a square foot garden set up outside their office in Brewster to demonstrate how it works.

Since I hadn’t heard of Bartholomew or this method previously, I turned to Katherine Everitt, the CCE Community Educator, for an explanation and tips on how to get started. Everitt taught the class in April and began planning the garden in January. She is a big enthusiast of the method and said, “I like it because you can get a lot of food from a small space. My brain likes the science and structure. Measure out the garden, mark the squares, follow the formula for how many seeds to plant.”

The square foot garden at the CCE office has 40 squares sown from seed. (Photo by P. Doan)

The square foot garden at the CCE office has 40 squares sown from seed. (Photo by P. Doan)

For anyone who is starting a garden or doesn’t have a lot of time, this is a simple, straightforward plan. Build a box frame to make a raised bed. It shouldn’t be more than 4 feet wide so you can easily reach any plants from the side. You won’t be walking on it. Lumber comes in 8-foot lengths so 4 x 8 foot or 4 x 4 foot is a manageable size that doesn’t involve a lot of cutting.

Once you’ve got your frame, fill it with layers of organic matter. On the SFG website, it says to use 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. You can use other kinds of organic matter, though.

Everitt filled their bed with what they had on hand — non-weedy clippings, vegetable debris, dried grass, leaf mulch, and some topsoil. Either recipe makes for nutrient-rich soil that will hold moisture, and that’s the key to success. This is an organic, sustainable approach to gardening that should use less water than a typical garden, not require pesticides or fertilizers, and it doesn’t require tilling the ground. No tilling means less work, no machinery is necessary and soil microbes aren’t disturbed.

Now comes the fun, math-y part. Measure and mark off the bed with string into squares that are 12 x 12 inches. Everitt said, “Each square has its own plant and you can fit a different amount depending on how much space each one needs.” Depending on the mature size of the plant, grow 1, 4, 9, or 16 equally spaced plants per square foot.

Check the growing instructions. If the space between plants is:

  • 12 inches; one plant per square foot
  • 6 inches; 4 per square foot
  • 4 inches; 9 per square foot,
  • 2 inches; 16 per square foot

Everitt planted the demonstration garden with onions, beets, carrots, peas, baby bok choy, lettuce, swiss chard and radishes. Everitt said, “I planned it out so I can do successive planting. I started with the first day I could plant, made a list of what I could use on that day. Then I counted out how many days each square would take to mature and planned what I could plant next. For example, the radishes will be ready in June and then I can plant carrots that will be ready before the first frost date.” She also got a lot of impact from her choices. She could sow 16 carrots in a square foot.

I appreciated her sensible approach to growing lettuce. She planted the first of four squares on April 15, and then added another square every two weeks. She said, “This way, you don’t have all your lettuce ready at the same time but keep a steady flow.”

Everitt’s final words of advice were about being mindful of placement so that tall plants don’t shade short plants. She said, “Put shorter plants on the west side and taller plants on the east side.” For more information about square foot gardening, visit the demonstration garden at the CCE office or find the website at squarefootgardening.org.

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