Square Foot Gardening

We have now built two retaining walls in our sloping back garden using the sleepers we got for free from a freight yard in Manchester.  They have been sitting idle for over twenty years so I’m hoping any leaching they had to do has long been washed away by Manchester’s rain.

We’ve got loads of sleepers left over so we thought we’d make a raised bed on the cobbles at the front of the house where I’m going to have a go at square foot gardening.  Unlike the rest of the garden this bed will be in full sunlight all day long but is sheltered by the generator room and woodstore.

Square foot gardening is the brainchild of Mel Bartholemew who pioneered this approach to raised bed gardening in the 1970s.  The idea is to intensively raise crops in a bed that is only six inches deep and four foot by four foot.  The bed is marked out in square feet and a different crop is raised in each.

I’m not entirely convinced that square foot gardening represents a revolution in horticultural techniques and suspect it is more of a ‘cute idea’.  The use of a square foot seems a little arbitrary, but it scans, it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than forty-five centimetres by forty-five centimetres gardening – which strikes me as a slightly more sensible idea.  Nevertheless I don’t think square foot gardening is necessarily out of kilter with other organic gardening techniques and so in the name of poetry if not science I’m going to give it a go!  And I’ve got to say like all good poetry it has got me thinking and seeing things in a different light already.

A square foot seems awfully small and my first thoughts turned to veg that was narrow and cylindrical such as leeks, spring onions and carrots.  Most brassicas like a spacing in excess of 45cms but then I thought of the kohl rabi I grew last year.  This was a great success, highly versatile in the kitchen (more so than cabbage) and quick to mature.  Perfect for square feet I reckon and I bet I can get four into each square.  I love sprouting broccoli but that doesn’t only like plenty of space but it takes up space over a long period of time, at least two seasons.  This year in its place I’m going to try something called broccoli ‘raab’, I’ve never grown this or eaten it.  From what I can tell from the packet it yields smaller more loosely formed spears of broccoli flowers.  It doesn’t require anywhere near the same amount of space but more importantly it promises to make the journey from seed to maturity within ten weeks.  Not all of my plans are in place yet, I find that every spare moment I’m drawing grids and filling them in with my imaginary produce!

Berfore planting however, we had to fill our enormous bed with some sort of growing medium.  Our sleepers actually give us double the recommended depth but I’m pretty certain this isn’t a drawback in terms of plant performance.  We wanted to minimize the effort involved in cutting up sleepers up so have just used the full lengths and then one cut in half for the shorter sides.  This actually means my ‘squares’ measure 32.5cm by 34cm.  We don’t have access to Mel’s miracle formula growing medium so we made things up ourselves.  The bed was lined with cardboard, The Man chucked a load of grass clippings in for no other reason than it was expedient at the time and then we emptied out absolutely everything from the compost bins into it.  It was still only a fraction full!  There was nothing for it but to dig.

There has been a strange mound in the back garden ever since we came here. It seemed like a good time to discover what it was.  Helped by my lovely sister-in-law who tells me she misses the hard labour back on her family’s farm in Brazil (really!) we dug up and sieved enough top soil to fill two bulk bags.  We used the chatter and debris (the mound was as I suspected an old rubbish dump) for the much needed infill necessitated by the retaining walls.  The top soil once sieved was lovely, we couldn’t help picking it up as we sieved it and letting it run through our hands.  The mound became a crater.

A Formal Apology To My Dog

Regular readers will know that Willow follows me everywhere and generally gets underfoot in the most inconvenient manner.  I responded to her faithfulness as she peered down at me in the crater by remarking that not only had we got some lovely top soil and some useful infill but that we also had a hole just the right size for a dog’s grave.  This was a terrible thing to say, you have every right to stare at me reproachfully!

Having eventually filled the bed we covered it over as the weather was still very dry and windy.  Perfect conditions for soil erosion, after all that effort I didn’t want to lose a single particle.  Hopefully in the not too distant future I will have finished drawing grids, planted this up and have some nice patchwork pictures of my square foot garden to show you.  (visit the square foot gardening progress report.)

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6 comments to Square Foot Gardening

  • This is brilliant Goo!! You’ve totally inspired me. This is the push I needed. I’ve been banging on for years about growing my own stuff but apart from the odd tomato plant and herb garden, I’ve, thus far, never got my backside into gear.

    I do have my name down on an allotment waiting list but it would be so much easier in my own back garden. Thanks Goo. :)

    And Willow is gorgeous.

  • goo

    Hi Earthpal, yes Willow is gorgeous, you’ve made me feel even more guilty!!! Glad to hear you will set something up in your garden, you’d be surprised how much stuff you can grow in small or awkward, unpromising spaces. By the time you do get your allotment you’ll already have a good idea of what works for you, best of luck with your gardening endevours.

  • Hi Goo, Like you this is my first year trying out Square Foot Gardening. It’s not a whole lot different from what I was already doing, but more of a tweak to my existing raised bed method. I like it so far. In fact I like it enough that I’m in training to teach.

    Now I get to make you jealous; I’m already enjoying radishes, lettuce, and bok choi from my first planting.

  • goo

    Hi Alison, that’s great to hear – yes you’re definitely making me a little envious – so far we’re only eating salad thinnings, nearly there though! Bok choi sounds wonderful, do you eat that as baby leaf or allow it to mature? Good luck with your training and please feel free to come back and share any insights.

  • I once knew an eccentric woman who filled her 13th floor tower block balcony with topsoil and grew onions and runner beans with great success – she probably had about 8 square foot to play with. I have to say, I was secretly terrified that the added weight would see her balcony plummet to the ground killing scores of people. I like your version more.

  • goo

    Thanks Bird, we do aim not to kill people! I can’t help admiring the lady on the 13th floor though, I guess she wasn’t superstitious!

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