In today’s post, I decided that we would take a look at Square Foot Gardening or SFG for short. We could spend days discussing SFG but I thought that we would briefly look at it and then I would give you some resources to help guide you further. Let’s start by looking at what exactly is a Square Foot Garden.
When most people think of Square Foot Gardening, they think of Mel Bartholomew. He’s the brainchild behind SFG. Sure other people put boards around their vegetable gardens before Mel but he is the one who truly perfected it. He even has a book, All New Square Foot Gardening, that spells out every detail of the construction and planning as well as Mel’s Mix. If you’re not sure what Mel’s Mix is, it’s 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 coarse vermiculite and 1/3 blended compost. In a nutshell, SFG consists of raised beds that contain Mel’s special soil blend. If you build a 4’x4′ bed, you have 16 square feet of growing space. Mel’s book gives extensive lists of how many plants you can fit per square foot. He also talks about growing vertically as well as extending the growing season.
One of the main reasons people choose Square Foot Gardening is that they have really poor quality soil. I don’t mean poor quality as in not fertile enough…I mean that they have rocks for soil. Or they have hard red clay that is either swimming in water or is dry as an adobe brick. SFG is perfect for this situation – you can even put a Square Foot Garden on a concrete driveway or patio. Another reason that people choose this gardening method is that it is easier on the back; there’s no tilling to prepare the soil and there’s very little weeding that has to be done. I think one of the more clever reasons to SFG is because you need to be mobile. Say that you live in an apartment or are renting a house; who wants to invest all of the time it takes to establish an in-ground bed just to have to leave it behind at a later date. By unscrewing some screws and putting the soil mix in some buckets, you can have your Square Foot Garden in the moving truck in an hour.
We put in six 4’x4′ beds last year in our veggie garden and I was very pleased with them. Here are the advantages that I found:
- Very easy to plant in – you can dig the planting holes with your hands instead of a shovel
- The grid pattern, which Mel insists that you have to have for it to be a real SFG, helps you figure out where to plant and allows you to maximize your growing space
- No or very little weeding!
- The soil in the SFG seems to warm much faster than the ground so you can get a little jump on the growing season
- Very easy to install row covers or plastic to extend the growing season
- The electrical conduit trellises that Mel recommends are bullet-proof
Where there are advantages there are always disadvantages. I want you to know that I will always tell you the truth about my experiences with different products and methods and this is no exception. Here are the disadvantages that I found:
- There is a pretty substantial upfront cost to installing them. The most expensive part of the process is making Mel’s Mix. Bales of peat moss are relatively expensive and it was virtually impossible to find vermiculite in the stores. Keep reading and I’ll give you a link to an innovative Mid-Atlantic Gardening reader who has solved this problem for you.
- The depth of the beds that Mel recommends is rather shallow. We made ours 10″ deep and I think that was perfect.
- Mel recommends putting down a weed barrier under the beds, but as a horticulturist, I have seen the way that weed barrier can destroy the texture of soil underneath it. Weed barrier will keep annual weeds from germinating but so will the 6″ to 10″ of Mel’s Mix that you have on top of the ground anyway. We just put down two layers of paper grocery bags on the bottom and they worked perfectly. Plus, I want to encourage earthworms and other delightful soil creatures to enter the SFG and till the soil for me.
There is a wealth of information on the web about Square Foot Gardening, but I want to recommend a couple of resources for you. The first comes from a reader, Kim Roman, of www.SFG4U.com. They are a Baltimore, Maryland area based company that teaches SFG classes, can help you set up your gardens for you, and they offer blended Mel’s Mix. Hooray! As I noted in my disadvantages, it is really hard to find vermiculite in stores but Kim and Jerry have done it for you. Unfortunately, they only deliver locally but I am hopeful that other SFG enthusiasts in the Mid-Atlantic region will pick up where there delivery area ends. Kim has been nice enough to let us know of a free SFG class that she’ll be teaching at the Maryland Home and Garden Show. Join her on Saturday March 3rd at 2:00 PM or Sunday March 11th at 12:00 PM. If you are in the Baltimore area that weekend, stop in and tell Kim hello from everyone over at Mid-Atlantic Gardening!
Another resource for you is the Square Foot Gardening Foundation’s website at www.squarefootgardening.org. There is a ton of information there, including locating certified SFG teachers and ways to become a certified SFG teacher. They also have a very active forum where you can ask questions or just read what others are doing. I’d love to hear what you think of Square Foot Gardening. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy square foot gardening!