Let’s talk about Square-Foot Gardening.
This is a technique, created by Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer and efficiency expert who lived in San Diego much of his retirement years.
I have mixed feelings about its usage in the low desert. My main concern is for our warm-season crops. When we plant in raised beds, we need to plant about 12 inches from the sides to avoid the late spring and summer heat of the bed structure. It is also the soil area that dries out first. Because of that, I would advise you to use the technique only for your cool-season gardens. Your garden can thrive with this technique for those cool-season vegetables.
WHY IS IT DIFFERENT?
Square-foot gardening can be more productive and more efficient than simply fitting in veggies into our raised beds where there is space. The planting in Bartholomew’s plan is closer together, more intense. Therefore, it can produce more food if properly maintained.
Hopefully, in your current beds, you are considering needed space for the veggies at maturity, similar water needs, and companion planting – planting veggies in the same bed that complement one another. (Next week I’ll write about companion planting).
The main technique is to break up your raised bed into 1-foot squares then plant separate veggies into each square foot according to the spacing Bartholomew suggests. Use wood strips, string, PVC pipe or any other straight items you have to create the squares visually. One tomato would take one square, for example. Six carrots would fit into another square. (See the chart provided). Trellis any vining plants so they don’t spread over the other squares and make sure you place the trellis, vining plants and taller plants to the north of the bed so you won’t shade the shorter plants.
CAN HIS SOILLESS MIX WORK?
I am a little concerned about Bartholomew’s soilless bed mix: 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost (mixed varieties). The compost helps, but it will require more fertilizer to add to needed macronutrients and micronutrients since only 1/3 adds organic material (the compost). Most die-hard square-foot gardeners swear to the effectiveness of the soilless mix, however.
My suggestion: I would cut back on the peat moss and vermiculite and add some raised bed soil when doing this technique in our low desert.
Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer (the three numbers would be the same on the bag: 15-15-15 or 10-10-10, for example). Also, mulch heavily because one problem with this technique is that everything grows so close together that it is hard to weed. You might also experience some fungus or bugs that like shade around the large plants because there isn’t as much room for air.
CROP ROTATION IS KEY
It’s very important to rotate your crops to prevent disease and help restore nutrients. This is a great practice for every garden, but it is even more important for the intense square-foot garden. I use Root, Fruit, Bean, Green. Roots and green vegetables don’t use up as much nitrogen as fruits (tomatoes, green peppers, etc.). Beans (legumes: green beans, peas, etc.) add nitrogen to the soil, so it restores the nitrogen used up by the fruit.
I have tried this technique occasionally and like the look of order, but after using it for a while, I discovered that I automatically plan my gardens and spaces in clusters anyway. They aren’t necessarily in square-foot sections, however, so Bartholomew cautions it isn’t really square-foot gardening.
If you are a novice and simply are curious about if it produces more or not, give it a try next fall – just not in this warm season heat.
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