I first discovered square foot gardening a little over 10 years ago. We had moved into a new house with a larger yard and up until that point, I had been planting my vegetable gardens the same way my parents had planted theirs. Rows straight, wide walkways and plants definitely not touching, as if they were afraid the vegetables would start whining like their kids did when crammed into the back seat of the car. I had also been disappointed in my past garden yields. For all the work I was putting in, I’d get a few vegetables and more weeds than I could keep up with. I decided there had to be a better way, so I started reading whatever I could find on gardening. In that search, I came across an article on Square Foot Gardening and its author Mel Bartholomew. I purchased the book and started reading.
Luckily it was winter when I discovered Square Foot Gardening because I had plenty of time to read and prepare for the next growing season. I started by building the square foot beds. Using conventional lumber, I built beds 4 feet by 4 feet and attached wooden strips in the required grid pattern to make my square foot gardens. I was excited, envisioning the abundance of produce I would have that summer! When the weather warmed a bit, I placed the newly built beds into place in what would be my new garden, filled them with a garden soil/compost mix and waited for the time to plant.
Planting day finally arrived and armed with my copy of Square Foot Gardening, grid paper, transplants, seeds and garden tools, I went into the garden to get started. Tomatoes and peppers were the first to go in after looking up the recommended spacing in the book. Amazingly, the tomatoes and peppers are planted with the same spacing, 1 per square foot. Based on the pictures in Mel’s book, each of the square foot beds were a mix of different plants so I planted 4 tomatoes and 2 peppers in each of 4 beds using 6 of the 16 squares in each box. As I planted, I made careful notes on the grid paper so that I would know what varieties were planted where in the garden. Beans were next. I looked up the spacing and couldn’t believe what the book was recommending! I was planting bush beans and according to Mel’s spacing requirements, I should plant 9 per square foot. Wow! Taking what Mel recommended on faith, I planted 9 beans in each of 4 squares in the 4 beds. I continued planting veggies using Mel’s spacing recommendations until the beds were mostly full. As the summer passed, the garden grew and the fresh veggies were amazing!
The results from that first summer were promising. I did have fewer weeds, the beans did amazingly well and I harvested more vegetables than I had in previous years. I also continued reading as much as I could on gardening and discovered that Mel’s method of gardening was a mix of two gardening methods, intensive planting and interplanting. Since that first summer, I have added a couple of additional techniques to help with reducing weeds and increasing harvests. I now mulch with straw, putting it down immediately after planting transplants and once seeds emerge, and rotate crops to reduce pests and diseases.
After many years of gardening, I still use Mel’s book to guide me on plant spacing and the grid paper to record what I’ve planted. I’ve also added a bound notebook, my garden journal, to make additional notes on when seeds were started, how well certain varieties germinated and grew, weather observations, pests and diseases that were a problem and what veggies we liked the most. I’ve learned many things from these notes, like beans do well planted 9 per square (!), Early Girl variety of tomatoes almost always produce round, juicy tomatoes perfect for topping a burger in time for the 4th of July picnic and snow peas will never make it into the house because they taste the best when eaten while working in the garden!