As a suburban homesteader, the one thing I am most lacking (other than chickens) is space. So in order to make the most of the space I do have, and in order to control my need to fill every open area of soil with plants (to their detriment). This year I have committed to attempting square foot gardening.
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What is square foot gardening?
If you’ve done any research on square foot gardening then chances are you have heard of the guy who created it, Mel Bartholomew. He is was civil engineer, who took up gardening in his retirement. He found the standard way of gardening inefficient, put on his thinking hat and the rest is history. If you want to go right to the source here is the newest edition his book. It meant to be organic, with no use of fertilizers, insecticides, or pesticides. It really is the best way to make the most of every square inch of space. So let’s imagine you have a garden that is 4×8. Congratulations, that means you have 24 square feet of planting space!
Does square foot gardening really work?
Yup it does. I don’t think it hurts that the method was though up by an engineer (generally very smart people). The basic principle is that you are giving each type of plant the spacing they require, without wasting any space. So it’s pretty much the garden equivalent of having your cake and eating it too.
Square foot gardening pros and cons
As with anything there are always going to be pros and cons. Square foot gardening requires plants to be put closer together than in “normal” gardening. On the plus side this means it is easier to squeeze out weeds. On the negative side you have to be on top of water, make sure your plants have enough nutrients and making sure to be very careful with companion plantings (more on that further down).
What soil to use
Square foot gardening typically calls for a lighter soil mix. You can easily purchase a pre-made product but it is easy enough to make yourself. The soil mix is usually made in a 1:1:1 ratio of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost. I like to make sure the compost is my own so that I know what it going into it. If you don’t already compost it is super easy (and beneficial) to get started making your own compost.
If you don’t have one of these amazing inventions already then you need this in your life. It’s called a seeding square. I had been planning on making my own square foot gardening squares. But this is a lot easier. Currently I work a full time job, have another side hustle making purses and I still have to take down our deck and revamp the backyard. So given all that, this seemed like the path of least resistance.
Set up your grid
There are many ways that you can set up your grid. One option is to use twine to mark off all the squares. You could also use sticks or stakes…or just eyeball it (but I wouldn’t recommend this). Another option if you want to get all fancy would be to make a PVC grid. In one of my Pinterest binges I came accross a PVC grid could be hooked up to the hose and there were holes drilled in. So it had double duty as a grid for planting and a watering system. I may tackle this DIY in the future, but for now I am just using my seeding square as a guide and then marking off the edges between the rows.
Raised Beds or Containers
Square foot gardening was made for raised beds as they can easily be made to an exact size. Typically they range from 6” to 12” in height, but it’s up to you really. But you can also use it in containers or (as I am doing) right in the garden. I do plan to turn my current garden into a raised bed, but that will have to wait for next season.
What can you plant using square foot gardening
When you start square foot gardening, one of the most important things (other than setting up your grid) is knowing how many of each plant to put in the designated square foot. Once you know that, you just have to make sure you stick to the amount of seeds that are recommended for each type of plant. If you don’t you will most likely undermine the benefit of this method. More seeds/plants doesn’t lead to more yield, but the right amount per square foot will give you higher yield. Below is a general guideline…
- Squash – 1 per square foot
- Tomatoes – 1 per square foot
- Peppers – 1 per square foot
- Onions – 16 per square foot
- Corn – 4 per square foot
- Peas – 9 per square foot
- Beans – 9 per square foot
- Carrots – 16 per square foot
- Lettuce – 4 per square foot
Square foot gardening and crop rotation
In order to ensure that you square foot garden is healthy and growing at its best you need to make sure you include crop rotation. This involves making sure that you do not plant the same crop in the same place year after year. Different plants interact with the soil differently. Some add to the soil and other strip it of nutrients. So by employing crop rotation you have the best chance of ensuring a good balance in the soil. It also helps to improve the structure of your soil and mitigate pests and diseases. This is a very important topic that deserves its own post, so stay tuned for one in the near future!
What to plant together
Given that square foot gardening leads to plants being put closer together than “normal” planting, it is doubly important to plant friends together. This is my lead in to talking about companion planting and we’re going to spend awhile here because it’s so very important. Below are some of the benefits that come from paying attention to who is where in the seating plan…it’s important at weddings and also in your garden.
Provides shielding: One way companion planting helps is that it can provide delicate plants with shelter from the wind or sun. This is achieved by growing them beside another plant with a natural defence against the harsher conditions. One way I am using this in my garden is to use a cucumber trellis (like this) and planting my lettuce underneath. The cucumber benefits from the sun. The trellis makes it easy to find and harvest the cucumbers (as they hang down through the grid). And the lettuce underneath gets shade from the cucumber plants above. Win-win!
Positive hosting: If you’re going to be stuck in close proximity then you wants to make sure you are surrounded by friends. Taking this into consideration ensures that you get the most out of your efforts and that you aren’t unknowing sabotaging your own success. I’ve covered many of the basics below, but there are so many more!
- Dill – Should not be planted near tomatoes or carrots. It is however good for brassicas, and great for corn, cucumbers, lettuce, and onions.
- Cucumber – This is one plants that definitely plays nice with others. You can comfortably plant it beside tomatoes, dill, beans, brassicas, peas, tomatoes, celery, corn, lettuce, onion and radish. Just keep it away from sage and also potatoes.
- Corn – Companion to beans, beets, cucumber, dill, melons, parsley, peas, potato, soya beans, squash, and sunflower. Avoid planting next to celery or tomatoes.
- Celery – Good partner for beans, Brassicas, cucumber, garlic, leek, lettuce, onion, and tomatoes.
- Carrots – Plant with beans, Brassicas, chives, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, peppers, pole beans, radish, rosemary, sage, and tomatoes. Avoid planting with dill, parsnips, and potatoes. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to keep some space between root crops so they don’t compete for available phosphorus. Carrots planted near tomatoes may have stunted roots, but will have exceptional flavour. Chives also benefit carrots.
- Brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage etc) – Herbs are their best friends, they will benefit from being planted near sage, dill, rosemary, mint and chamomile (but be careful as both of there will SPREAD). Keep them away from plants that need like acidic soil (tomatoes, eggplants and peppers to name a few).
- Beets – You either love them or hate them, but if you are planting them in your garden then keep them with bush beans, brassicas, corn, garlic, leeks and lettuce. You can also add chopped up mint leaves as a mulch for them. Just make sure to keep them away from your pole beans as they will stunt each others growth.
- Bush & Pole beans – All beans fix nitrogen in the soil, this makes them great for planting with carrots, celery, corn, cucumber, eggplant, peas, potatoes, radish and strawberries. They will not benefit from being near members of the Amaryllidaceae family which includes chives, garlic, leeks, and onions.
- Basil – We all know that basil and tomatoes go together in the kitchen, but the same is true for in the garden This garden favourite naturally improves the flavour of tomatoes, but it also helps them grow! Basil helps repel a number of garden insects such as aphids, asparagus beetles, mites, flies, mosquitoes, and tomato horn worm (I had a few of these guys last year).
- Lettuce – A garden staple which does well with just about everyone. This includes beets, brassicas, strawberries, carrot, celery, chervil, cucumbers, dill, garlic, onions, radish.
- Onions – Onions do well with beets, brassicas, carrots, leeks, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes. If you want to improve the flavour of your onions then make sure to plant them near chamomile (remember this will spread) and summer savory. The big no-no for onions are peas, so keep these two far from each other.
- Peas – BFFs with beans, carrots, celery, corn, cucumber, eggplant, parsley, peppers. potatoes, radish, spinach, strawberries and turnips. As mentioned above these guys hate onions, they don’t like to take about. So just keep them apart.
- Peppers – Pepper, one of the “dirty dozen”, so it’s important to grow these yourself. In order to make sure they do well then keep them close to basil, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant, oregano, parsley, rosemary, Swiss chard, and tomatoes. Keep them away from beans, brassicas, or fennel (more on this guys in a second).
- Potato – I do love me some potatoes, mashed, baked, fried, I just like them in my belly. So these are always in my garden. If you are planting them, make sure keep them close to bush beans, celery, corn, garlic, marigolds, onions, and peas. Don’t plant potatoes too close to brassicas, carrots, cucumber, squash, sunflower, or turnips.
- Tomatoes – As mentioned above, tomatoes like basil. But they also do well near beans, carrots, celery, cucumber, garlic, lettuce, onion, and peppers. I’m sad to say that corn can attract tomatoes pests so it should not be put close to them. Also potatoes may spread blight to tomatoes, so keep some space between them.
One thing to keep in mind is fennel…. It is an insect magnet, and not the good kind. So if you do want to plant it, make sure to keep it out of the main veggie garden and give it a place of its own. Who knew?
Have you tried square foot gardening before? How did it work out for you?