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Square Foot Gardening: Lessons from the LA Arboretum


As a twenty-something year old trying to rock the organic life in Los Angeles, things can get tricky sometimes. Yes, I shop at the farmers market each week, and yes, I recycle, and yes, I cook from scratch... but is it enough? I dream of growing my own fruits and vegetables throughout the year, harvesting fennel and zucchini in the spring and perhaps tomatoes and spinach in the summer. To buff up on my organic gardening, I tracked down the Los Angeles Arboretum’s calendar, which is chock-full of classes on green living. First class this spring: Square Foot Gardening. It’s a unique way to grow foods in any location, space and climate. Intrigued? Check out the lessons I learned from my workshop on square foot gardening—and perhaps you and I can both be harvesting tomatoes and spinach by the end of the year.

What is it?

Created 30 years ago by avid gardener Mel Bartholomew, square foot gardening is a simplified method of gardening that produces 100% of the harvest quantity in regular row-style gardening, but it does so in just 20% of the space—and without most of the hard work. Picture a raised bed garden—that is, a garden that is self-contained within a secure structure (usually a rectangular border made of wood) that is raised from the ground. Now, take that raised bed picture and make it into a complete square—say, 4 feet by 4 feet. Now make that square into a perfect grid containing 4 squares, each 1 foot by 1 foot. You now have a perfect square bed, containing 16 small plots for your garden grub. It can be raised from the ground or it can be situated right on top of a yard or dirt plot, but the soil is contained within the wooden enclosure, so it is separate from the rest of the yard's natural soil in the ground. That’s a square food garden. Phew!

What are the advantages?

Bartholomew claims that any gardener, no matter how novice, can master gardening with this easy method. Every plot gets its own square, and those foods share the resources more efficiently than traditional gardens. Square foot gardens can grow twice as much food in half the amount of space! Plus, it’s economical to do so. By reducing the land space, you’re also reducing the amount of compost and other purchased materials you’ll need to maintain the garden. And, oh, yes, you can do it all organically. Experts say that with this type of gardening, pests are naturally less of a problem, so there is a smaller need for any repellant at all. And best of all, this type of gardening is perfect for small spaces (like myself, as an urban dweller), for environs where the soil is depleted or in states where there simply is no soil (hello, desert!). You can also grow foods during months when the weather is less than, shall we say, desirable. Because the plots are small and self-contained, you can grow greens in Chicago during the cold spring months with an easy, cheap covering—something you can’t do over an entire garden bed. It’s a fool-proof way to grow your own food no matter where you live and how much money you have. Diggety.

The ten basics to getting started:

  1. Design the layout. A 4x4-foot garden is recommended for beginners and those with small spaces. For higher yields, choose 4x8 or 12x12 plots.
  2. Make the boxes. Build bottomless boxes out of recycled (but not painted!) wooden planks; this will hold your soil mix inside. For gardens going on a table or over cement (such as my apartment patio), add plywood bottoms and place over bricks for proper drainage.
  3. Add aisles. If making multiple boxes, space them at least three feet apart so that you may walk freely between them to do garden maintenance. Never, ever walk on your garden bed soil!
  4. Make the soil. The ideal soil mixture for your bed should be 1/3 part organic compost, 1/3 part peat moss, and 1/3 part vermiculite. You can find all of these at a good hardware or gardening shop.
  5. Make the grid. The grid is the physical grid to lie over your bed, which indicates how many square plots you have within. Make your grid out of tied bamboo sticks, gardening wire or a sturdy rope.
  6. Care. It deserves repeating: Never step on your soil!
  7. Select the seeds. Place a different food or crop in each of your square plots. Depending on the size of the plant, plant either 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants per square foot plot. See Bartholomew’s site for specifics.
  8. Plant. Save the seeds of heirloom vegetables from the farmers market. Place 2 or 3 seeds per hole, which should be just a pinch deep into the soil.
  9. Water. Keep your soil slightly damp but never soaked, and never let it completely dry out.
  10. Harvest. When you harvest one crop from its square foot plot, add compost and replant with a different crop. Look at you, practicing crop rotation!
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From the Organic Authority Files

Resources for learning more:

Mel Bartholomew’s web site

Wikipedia on square foot gardening

Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

Square food gardening how-to kit

Image: KoryeLogan

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