My Journey Towards Square Foot Gardening

Although I am very enthusiastic about square foot gardening, I believe that other gardening methods can also be very productive for the right people in the right locations.  Every gardener and garden site is unique.  If someone enjoys their current gardening method, I’m very happy for them!  I am not comfortable with gardening gurus that insist that everyone should use only their method.

However, I wanted to share comments about the various methods I have tried or observed over the years, and explain what has led to my adopting a modified square foot gardening method.

I have seen many impressive large row gardens over the years.  I tried row gardening for only two years.  I hated to see the bare soil eroding away during the heavy rains that are common here in Virginia, especially as many of our gardens are on sloped ground.  I have seen good soil wash over 10 feet downhill in a single storm.

The clay soil that many people deal with can turn as hard as stone during our hot dry summers, making it very difficult to hoe the weeds or harvest root crops.  This same soil turns to sticky mud during wet weather. This often delays spring tilling or plowing for weeks, and it can make it difficult to weed or harvest the garden during the growing season.

A few people plant rye in their garden over the winter, which is a great way to protect and improve the soil.  But a wet spring will allow the rye to grow very tall and difficult to till under by the time the soil dries out.  Bringing in enough organic matter (leaves, manure, etc.) or creating enough finished compost every year to significantly improve the soil in a large garden is a lot of work.

Most people don’t bother, and end up dealing with very poor quality soil.  Many gardeners believe that this quality of soil is actually normal, and rarely see what excellent garden soil is really like.

A number of my neighbors grew standard row gardens successfully for many years, but just got tired of all the work, and gave up gardening altogether.  Most people I know don’t have the time to take good care of large gardens, and their gardens are full of tall weeds by August.

I have tried a large 3,000 square foot permanently mulched garden. Ruth Stout was an author who highly recommended this method as “no-work” gardening.  Contrary to her claims, I found that it took me a lot of work (and increasingly, a lot of money) to bring in and spread enough straw, hay, or leaves to deeply cover a large garden, and keep it covered.

Planting crops close together doesn’t work well as well with heavy mulch, so a heavily mulched garden needs to be a good size to grow a decent amount of food.  I also developed major problems with voles (small rodents) eating my crops, as the mulch protected them from predators.  And deep mulch can become very moldy, which can cause problems for people with allergies.

I discovered that hay or straw often had a lot of weed seeds that germinated within or on top of the mulch.  This issue became worse when the mulch started decaying.  The result was a lot of hand weeding, as I couldn’t use a hoe in the mulch.  And I had a number of perennial weeds with deep stubborn roots that took months of hand weeding to kill off.  Some of them could come up through a foot of mulch.

This method can work great for some people in some locations, especially if their gardens are small, there aren’t too many voles or perennial weeds, and they can grow or find mulch that has fewer weed seeds.  But in all of my years of gardening and talking with other gardeners, I haven’t found too many people using this method for very long.

Most of my gardens were large intensive raised bed gardens.  Each bed was usually about 4 feet wide x 25 feet long.  I only tried double-digging the soil a couple of times.  Loosening the soil over a foot deep by hand was just too much work, especially with heavy clay soil.   I eventually ended up creating most of these gardens by tilling a layer of compost and organic fertilizer over the entire garden area.  Then I built raised beds with deep soil by shoveling the topsoil from the paths onto the garden beds.

Most of these gardens were only 200-300 square feet.  I kept the paths mulched with bark mulch or sawdust, and lightly mulched the beds with dry grass clippings.   Hand weeding a garden that size isn’t too much work for someone with few physical limitations.

These gardens were usually very productive.  I created and used many of these intensive gardens, as I moved a lot over the last 35 years.  I always saw a significant improvement in soil quality by the end of the first year, even with very heavy clay soil.  Neighbors and friends were surprised by the amount of food that I grew in these small gardens, and they were sometimes shocked that I could pull up my carrots by hand instead of having to use a garden fork.

But I still wasn’t completely satisfied.  I had followed the standard recommendations – beds 4 feet wide and about 25 feet long (if space permitted).  Much as I loved my gardens, it was annoying to have to walk all the way around the bed to reach the other side that was just beyond my reach.

I also kept the paths very narrow, to maximize the garden area.  Many of my crops grew so vigorously that they ended up blocking the narrow paths.  It might have been an efficient use of garden space, but it was very difficult to try to move around the garden when the plants grew large.

I didn’t use anything to support the sides of the raised beds, as I moved a lot and didn’t have much money to spend on my gardens.   Even with a light mulch, heavy rains tended to erode soil (along with seeds and young plants) off the sloping sides of the beds.  In addition, I was rarely able to grow large plants like winter squash.  A single plant could have taken over half of my garden beds.

Moles, though they didn’t eat my plants, accidentally killed many of my small seedlings simply by digging up the soil underneath the very young plants while looking for worms to eat.  And although voles were less of an issue without deep permanent mulch, as I started to produce winter gardens, I discovered that even a small population could cause significant damage to my winter vegetables.

As I explored square foot gardening, I realized that I could use Mel Bartholomew’s method to solve most of my remaining gardening issues.

For my vegetables, I started using small 4′ x 4′ beds spaced three feet apart, making it easier to move around the garden.  Even with this wide spacing, however, some of my plants are so vigorous that they still fill the aisles between the beds.  But with so many wide paths available to move around the garden, this is no longer a major problem, and I don’t really want to make the paths any wider.

Now that I have a long-term garden site, I use mostly wood frames to hold the soil in place.  Four foot beds make the most efficient use of standard 8 foot long lumber, and the clear material for cold frame covers.  At my last garden site where I had rich loam topsoil, moles were a major pest, and when I built the square foot beds, I attached hardware cloth (metal screening) underneath them to keep out both the moles and voles.  I haven’t found a single mole in my new garden, where the native soil is heavy clay, so that is an issue I no longer have to deal with.

With small beds, it’s very easy to use multiple trellises, which allows me to grow even more crops per square foot than I can with standard large intensive beds. As I never have to till my garden soil again and my raised beds warm up and dry out faster, I can start planting my garden in early spring, weeks before my neighbors.  And I can harvest fresh vegetables all winter with the use of simple and cheap unheated cold frames on top of the square foot garden beds.

Because the frames of the beds hold the soil in place and I protect the surface of my beds with a light mulch of grass cuttings from my lawn, I no longer have any problems with soil erosion.   It’s also easier to keep many pests out of small gardens.  And I’ve even learned how to grow mini fruit gardens.  Overall, square foot gardening offers me the most benefits for the least amount of work.

The single biggest disadvantage of any type of intensive raised beds (including square foot gardens) is the need to water the garden on a regular basis, sometimes every day.  You should choose a different gardening method if you do not have a reliable source of irrigation water, or cannot find some way to water your garden on a regular basis.

There are a variety of gardening methods available – biodynamic, lasagna, permaculture, Ruth Stout mulching, biointensive, square foot, edible landscaping, standard row gardening, and many more. There are as many opinions on how to garden as there are gardeners.  The effectiveness of each method will vary with climate, soil, location, regional pests, and each gardener’s ability.

Choose a method that you feel most closely fits with your gardening region, your specific garden site, and your personal needs and limitations – and then get your hands dirty!  After many years of gardening, I have decided that modified square foot gardening is the best gardening method for me in my current location.

The real joy is the daily journey in your garden.  No garden is perfect!  Every year is different.  And you can experiment and try an endless variety of new plants and techniques.  I never find gardening boring because I’m always learning new things.  Enjoy!

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