Square Foot Gardening

Picture your garden: Is it overgrown with weeds? Is it ugly and embarrassing? Are there any edible plants at all?

Now imagine a new garden without these common ailments. Upon first look, the garden of your dreams has a slightly different appearance: divided evenly into sections, it has a beautifully landscaped area with more diversity foot-for-foot than typical gardens.

This is square foot gardening. Mel Bartholomew, the originator of the system, believes that square foot gardening is more than just a new method of gardening--it's a different psychological approach.

What Is It? Bartholomew, a retired engineer, created the method after he saw rundown gardens and realized that most gardening methods are geared toward large-scale growers. He set out to develop a method that would work in a small space for anyone who wanted to garden. "I came up with the idea that we could eliminate all the bad things about single row gardening and turn it into square foot gardening," says Bartholomew.

While traditional gardening involves planting seeds in rows, square foot gardening divides the garden into a series of squares. Each twelve-by-twelve-inch square holds a different vegetable, flower, or herb, with each square the same distance apart in all directions. The resulting square foot system takes little work, keeps gardeners from overplanting, and uses 80 percent less space than a traditional garden.

Square foot gardening also produces five times the crop as a traditional garden. "Part of the beauty of square foot gardening," says Bartholomew, "is it allows you to grow more of your own food, which helps with your budget."

The Method To start a square foot garden, first pick an area that gets a lot of sunlight. Bartholomew suggests keeping the garden close to your home so it's easy to see and take care of. Decide how many garden boxes you want to create. You can create just one box, or as many as you please.

Now follow the steps of square foot gardening:

1. Layout. Lay out four-by-four foot planting areas with walkways in between.

2. Boxes. Build garden box frames no wider than four feet, and about six to eight inches deep. Length is not important, but a good size is four-by-four feet. Make the frames from any material (lumber works great) except treated wood. Fasten the boards together with deck screws.

3. Aisles. If you're planning for more than one garden box, space boxes three feet apart to form walking aisles. Make them large enough to kneel in.

4. Soil. Fill each box with Bartholomew's mix of one-third compost, one-third peat moss, and one-third coarse vermiculite. If you're placing the boxes over grass, you can cover the grass with cardboard or landscape cloth so weeds won't grow through the soil.

5. Grid. The most important part of the system is a grid is placed on top of each box and divides the box into one-foot squares. The grid should divide the box frame into sixteen spaces for up to sixteen kinds of crops. You can make the grid from any material such as wood, plastic strips, or old blinds. Attach the grid pieces where they cross with screws or rivets. The grid organizes your garden and makes it easy to manage.

6. Care. Don't walk on the soil. Tend the garden from the aisles.

7. Select. Plant a different flower, vegetable, or herb crop in each square foot, placing one, four, nine, or sixteen seeds per square foot (check the recommended plant spacing on the seed packet). According to Bartholomew, the easiest crops to grow are beans, beets, swiss chard, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, squash, and tomatoes.

8. Plant. Make holes with your finger; plant one or two seeds in each hole and cover. Store extra seeds in the refrigerator. Do not overplant.

9. Water. Water often by hand from a bucket of sun-warmed water.

10. Harvest. When you finish harvesting a square foot, add compost and replant it with a new and different crop for crop rotation.

Both beginners and experts can take to square foot gardening. Bartholomew suggests making it a family affair by getting kids involved with creating their own gardens.

Bartholomew believes that square foot gardening helps accomplish President Kimball's advice to "grow all the food that you feasibly can on your own property" and to "study the best methods of providing your own foods."

"President Kimball said to find the best, most efficient, most attractive method of gardening and to practice that," says Bartholomew.

--- Making Your Garden Last . . .

Now that you've grown your own beautiful garden, are you overwhelmed by its success? Canning is the perfect way to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor all year long. Here are some quick tips to help you get started.

Check your supplies. Inspect all your jars, lids, and rings to make sure there aren't any defects.

Make some space. You're going to need a lot of room for your canning project, so clean up your kitchen counters before you start. One way to have ample space is to purchase an outdoor stove, such as the three-burner stoves available from Camp Chef (campchef.com). Another benefit of using an outdoor stove is that your house won't be uncomfortably warm and filled with steam.

Start with tried and true recipes. Ask friends and family for their best canning recipes so you have a good experience with your results the first time through. Later, you can get creative.