“Square Foot Gardening” – photo from Robert Goodwin‘s Flickr photostream
Developed in the 1970s by Mel Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening produces the same amount of vegetables and fruit as traditional single-row gardens in a fraction of the space. These small, raised beds are popular among urban dwellers with limited space, particularly since they do not require digging–they build up rather than down–and can survive well in areas with poor soil. Furthermore, Bartholomew explains in his original text (there is now a second book) that this design “conserve[s] the amount of water, soil conditioners, and labor,” making it economical in a variety of ways.
The first step in creating your own square foot garden is to obtain or create a “box,” either of wood, brick, or stone.
Although wood is perhaps the most common material used in this design (they can be found in yards all around West Asheville, for instance), some gardeners are wary of rotting and prefer brick or stone for that reason (this raised bed kit made from recycled materials and sold by Sam’s club is perhaps another option). The size of your garden box is, of course, dependent on location and the amount of available space; however, the default measurements for first-time square foot gardeners is 4′ x4′. It is important to be able to reach across the garden without having to step inside the box and onto the soil, so take that into consideration as well. For those with bad backs and/or pesky pets, try a table top design.
Once the box is complete, create a grid with whatever material you prefer–string, wood, metal, etc.–of 1′ x 1′ squares. There are several factors at play in determining the plants suitable for your garden, including climate and sunlight, but once those details are squared away (punny, right?) then you are ready to plan(t)! Honestly, a large amount of planning is involved in square foot gardens, but they are worth it. Be sure to allow enough depth for crops such as potatoes, provided trellises and support for tomatoes and vertically growing runners such as cucumber, and place the appropriate number of plants in each square foot (for instance, one broccoli plant per square, but up to sixteen plants for onion).
All of this information is available on the web. There are many websites, blogs, and forums dedicated to square foot gardening, and, of course, Bartholomew’s books are invaluable. Although I grew up in a rural area of North Carolina, I’ve been an urban apartment dweller for the last five years and have been limited to container gardening. My tomato and sunflower plants grew taller than me (not a great feat, really, since I’m barely 5’1″), but it still did not feel enough like gardening to please my little rural heart. This summer, however, I move into a house in West Asheville, and my first major project involves constructing a square foot garden. I cannot contain my excitement (buh-dum-bum)!