Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Real Dirt on Dirt

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is a proven method for growing a lot of food in a small space. To support such an intense production, the growing medium needs to be top notch.

Qualities Of Good Growing Soil
One of the reasons why SFG works is because Mel developed a formula for the growing medium that provides all the benefits that a successful vegetable garden needs:

  • good drainage
  • air circulation around the roots
  • a steady supply of nutrients for the plants. 

No matter where you live in the country, the dirt in your backyard will not be sufficient for a successful vegetable garden.  You're dealing with clay, sand, rocks, and other lifeless stuff.

Mel's Mix
The first SFG book that Mel published contained a formula for building the needed growing medium. Mel suggested 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost.  Over the years, many people have had great success with this formula.  SFG'ers that have failed typically try some variation on this formula and mixing it into the existing dirt, thinking that clay, sand, and rocks are somehow still good growing mediums.  Bad idea.

Now Even More Convenient
Several years ago Mel started selling bags of Mel's Mix. This makes it easier than ever to start your vegetable garden with a successful growing medium. No more hassle of trying to find vermiculite in the small quantity needed for your first SFG.  The compost component of the Mel's Mix bags contains at least 5 different ingredients including bat guano, worm castings, and dried kelp. Why mess with any other brand of potting soil when you know that you're getting the proven vegetable formula straight from Mel?

The garden beds do not need to be deep, just 6" will suffice for most crops. So building a shallow raised bed and filling it with the proper growing medium is not an expensive venture.  A 4'x4' box just 6" deep is 8 cubic feet is volume.  Mel's Mix comes in 2 cubic foot bags, so 4 bags will fill your 4'x4' box.

The Cost
Building a 4'x4' 6" tall raised bed costs about $20-$25 in raw materials for a DIY project.  The expense of $15 per bag of Mel's Mix may seem high at first.  But consider this: The one-time investment of $85 will provide $150-$200 of food per year.  So with a 6-month break-even point, and a garden that will last several years, you will save 10 times the initial investment, not to mention the health benefits of your own organic vegetables that haven't been warehoused, trucked, and touched by countless germy grocery store customers before you.

If you've had a brown thumb in the past, make the small investment to start your SFG garden bed properly.  Learn what to sow, and when to sow, for your area. Follow this proven method of vegetable gardening and you will wonder why you waited so long.

Questions about your garden?  Trying things that are working? Not working?  Need to talk?  Am I asking too many questions?  Chat it up below ...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Extending Your Growing Season

Protecting plants from extreme seasonal weather changes is one of the best ways to extend your growing season.

If you have 4'x4' garden boxes, here is a simple way to build a PVC frame.  The materials should cost less than $20.

The Protection Frame:
Materials List
  • 2ft rebar (4)
  • 4ft PVC (5)
  • PVC T-joints (2)
  • shade screen (summer)
  • painter’s drop cloth (winter)

  • Using a mallet, drive a rebar into the ground just outside each corner of the garden box. Leave at least 6" of rebar exposed.
  • Place a 4' section of PVC on each rebar
  • Bend two of the adjacent 4' PVC pipes towards each other and hold them together with the cross section of a T-joint. Position the branch of the joint so that it is pointing across the top of the garden.
  • Repeat on the other side of the garden with the other two PVC pipes and T-joint.
  • Put the last piece of PVC between the two T-joints.

In the summer, cover the frame with shade screen during the hottest parts of the day. During the Fall, Winter, and Spring you can protect plants from frost and snow. You can add an additional 4 weeks of frost protection on both sides of the winter season.

Here in Phoenix Arizona, our frost dates are December 15th through February 15th. That's only 8 weeks, meaning that we can grow vegetables throughout the winter here. For both Summer and Winter protection in Phoenix Arizona, I've used old sheets over the garden bed with great success.  

Other parts of the country may require a sturdier frame to support snow. Perhaps having loops every 2' rather than 4' would be sufficient. Or a second identical frame as described here, turned 90 degrees, would certainly be stronger. Another modification might be to add a center pole to support the 4' span across the garden box.

The benefits of building a protection frame like this will far outweigh the one time expense of gathering the supplies. I hope you consider extending your garden's growing season with a similar project.

How have you protected your vegetables and extended your growing season? Please share links, pictures, and comments below.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Here's The Poop On Compost

Maintaining a compost bin is one of the best things you can do for your garden. The pile does not need to smell if managed properly.  The benefits far outweigh any perceived hassle of making compost.

So let's jump into compost with both feet and talk about the benefits, uses, getting started, and ongoing maintenence of your compost.

Benefits of Compost
Finished compost can feed your plants with needed nutrients without too much risk of burning up the plants if managed properly. You can avoid using chemicals to fertilize your vegetables if you have compost on hand.  You'll also be doing your part to reduce the burdon on your community's land fill. If 10% of your trash is composted, you won't make a noticable dent in the city service.  But consider the impact if enough members of your community did their part to compost.  Think of all the organic food that your entire community could be enjoying if more people implimented a small square foot garden.

Uses of Compost
If you are growing vegetables using the Square Foot Gardening method, you need to provide a steady source of good food and nutrition to your vegetables.  There are two ways that you will use compost in your Square Foot Garden:

  • As you are preparing a 12" square for planting after harvesting, you'll turn the soil in that square with a hand trowel, break up any clumps, then smoothen out the top of the square.  Next, you'll add a trowel full of compost to the square and work it in to the top inch or two. Now that you've "amended" that square, it's ready to be planted with a new crop. Remember to choose a different crop than the one you just harvested from that square, which is called crop rotation, and designed to keep from depleting too much of the same nutrient from the soil. 
  • Once your plants are well established, you will feed them once a week with a "compost tea" besides your normal watering schedule. Make the tea by placing a trowel full of compost in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket. Fill the bucket with water and let the tea steep throughout the day.  In the evening, gently pour a measured cup of compost tea on each plant.  When you get to the bottom of the bucket, you can either put the compost sludge back into your compost bin or you can use it to top-dress a few of your heaviest feeding vegetables.  I stop feeding root vegetables with the compost tea about 2 weeks before their harvest.

Getting Started With Compost
If you started your garden with bags Mel's Mix, you already have a good compost built into that growing medium.  You will still want to start a compost bin so you can keep the vegetables fed on a regular basis.

For the city gardener, I suggest using plastic trash cans and a 5 gallon bucket for your compost system. One of the trash cans will have finished compost in it, one will be a "work in progress" and an optional third trash can will be used for turning your compost. The 5 gallon bucket is needed to make tea.

To give your compost system a quick jump start, purchase some finished compost.  I visit a few nurseries, purchase different types of compost, and blend.  Buy one bag of deoterized cow manure and a bag of worm castings. You may also want to add a bag of chicken manure.  Simply blend the purchased stuff in one of the trash cans and you're ready to go.

Ongoing Maintenence of Your Compost
In the second trash can, I begin keeping garden and kitchen scraps that are appropriate for making compost.  Any non-diseased vegetables and garden waste can go in your compost bin.  Keep used coffee grounds, banana peels, and hard-boiled egg shells.

Avoid adding any meat, fat, dressings and broths, uncooked egg, dairy, etc. to the compost.  Do not add your dog and cat manure, nor the grass cuttings from your yard if you have a dog.

Just about everything that I've mentioned so far that you can put in your compost bin is considered "green", even if it's dried out and has turned brown.  It all really is still green stuff that is simply dehydrated.

You will need to add about twice as much "brown" as green to your working compost bin.  Brown products include shredded paper towels and paper plates (again being careful not to include any animal products), cardboard, chip board, etc.  Think of it this way, if the compost bin smells nasty, add sufficient shredded cardboard to absorb the odor.  In a day or two, the pile will smell sweet rather than sour.  That's how you know if you've added enough brown to the pile.

It can be difficult to reach into a trash can and turn the compost, which needs to happen on a regular basis.  So I find that having an empty trash can available helps.  As long as I keep my working compost bin small enough to be able to pick up, I can dump it's contents into the empty trash can and the compost turning is complete.

You also want to keep the compost moist but not flooded.  It helps to drill small drainage holes around trash cans that you've dedicated to composting.  The holes also will help with needed air circulation. A good working compost bin is "aerobic" rather than anaerobic. Oxygen is required for the process to work.

So there's the poop on compost.  As a minimum, you need to have purchased compost on hand so that you can feed your vegetables organically on a regular basis.  I hope that you decide to create your own compost too.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Extending The Harvest Of Leafy Greens

I'll keep this post really short and to the point.  A simple technique does not require a complicated blog post.

Actually this is two techniques. They each work great by themselves. Combined, these two techniques will make the most of the space you dedicate in your garden to leafy green vegetables.

  • Succession Planting - Sow small batches of a crop on a regular schedule.  When square foot gardening for instance, four heads of lettuce fit in one 12" square.  Only plant the number of squares that your family can eat in two to three weeks. Wait a couple weeks and plant that small quantity again. You'll be harvesting at the same rate that you planted.
  • Harvest by Trimming - One of the best ways that I've learned to extend the harvest of leafy green vegetables is to trim one large mature leaf from the outside of a plant rather than killing the entire plant at harvest time. Always use the sharpest pair of scissors that your mom will let you have, and trim an inch or two above the dirt line.  Only take one leaf from a plant, and don't trim from the same plant two days in a row. 

Taking this just a step further, consider growing a variety of different leafy greens so you can enjoy a variety of raw salad options.

Beet tops, radish tops, and carrot tops add even more variety to salads, soups, and stews.

If you are still faced with a large harvest, or if a crop is just about past it's prime and ready to bolt, dehydrating is a great way to preserve leafy greens.

Did you find this helpful?  Do you have another suggestion to share? Let us know below.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Much To Plant?

"How much food should I plant?" I hear this question all the time.

If you are new to square foot gardening, or new to vegetable gardening in general, you won't have a good sense yet of how much food to plant. Without any guidance, most people will tend to put in too big of a garden and produce too much food.

You don't want to waste precious yard space, time, energy, or money.  All of these resources are expensive. You should keep the garden as small as possible, yet be sufficient in size to feed your family.  A good goal, therefore, should be to grow just enough that you can use everything that the garden produces without needlessly wasting space, time, energy, and money.

From The Other Angle
Rather than focusing on how much to plant, I want you to consider the other end of  the crop's life cycle.  How much will you harvest during a two to three week window of time?  That is the amount you should consider planting in one sitting. Then wait two weeks and plant that much again.  Wait two more weeks.  Plant again.  Rinse and repeat.

The fancy term for this type of planting schedule is SUCCESSION PLANTING.  It is a strategy that helps produce a steady supply of food to harvest, yet helps you not be overwhelmed with too much work and food at any one time.  If you are accustomed to traditional gardening, you'll want to fill the entire garden rather than initially see all that empty space.  Patience is a virtue.

Still difficult to visualize how much food to plant, I admit.  So let me give you a simple formula.

Start with the correct size garden.
For your first square foot garden, plan on a raised 4'x4' box for each adult in your household. Add an additional 1/2 box for every child under the age of 10 or 12, you know, the age before they eat you out of house and home. When a child reaches that hungry teenage point, plan your garden space as if they are another adult in your household.

The garden does not have to be exactly shaped as a 4'x4' box, but 16 squares per adult is small and manageable yet plenty big enough for this intense use of space.  Since most lumber is readily available in 8' sections, creating 4'x4' boxes requires a minimum number of cuts and virtually no waste. This is an easy and inexpensive Saturday morning DIY project.

Then follow a simple sowing strategy.
Now that you have an appropriately sized garden for your family, develop a planting calendar.  By sowing 1/6th of your garden every 2 weeks, you will be harvesting at roughly the same rate when these crops mature. Plan on sowing a wide variety of vegetables and just one or two squares per crop each time you sow.

Your county extension office should have a guide to help you choose seasonally appropriate vegetables for your area, broken down by month. Simply refer to their calendar every time you sow to improve your success rate and add even more variety to your garden.  If you are in Phoenix Arizona, use Maricopa County's vegetable guide found here:

Following this strategy, you will fill your garden in twelve weeks.  You will have a variety of crops at various stages of maturity.  Some of the older crops will have already matured so you should have already enjoyed fruits of your labor. Literally.

Before the twelve weeks is over, you will have most likely already harvested some of your earliest squares.  As you empty a square, you simply
  • amend the soil in that 12" square with a trowel full of compost 
  • sow a different crop than the one you just harvested from that square, giving you an automatic crop rotation within each 12" square.
A sample average family
If your family has the average 1.8 children, let's see how to apply this garden sizing and sowing schedule:
  • You and your spouse each need a 4'x4' box
  • Your two children each need a 2'x4' box
  • That's a total of 3 4'x4' boxes (16 squares each) for a total of 48 squares. 
  • Divide the 48 squares by 6 plantings (over a 12 week period) and the result is 8.
  • That means you will plant 8 squares now, 8 more squares two weeks from now, etc.
Does eight small squares (2'x4' section) seem too small?  Compared to traditional gardening you would be correct.  But let's take a look at how much food you can put in a 2'x4' area using the square foot gardening method:
  • 4 heads of lettuce
  • 9 spinach plants
  • 9 beets
  • 16 carrots
  • 16 radishes
  • 1 pepper plant
  • 1 tomato plant
  • 16 scallions
Not a fan of beets and radishes? I encourage you to still grow these crops for their greens. 

Two weeks from now, you may decide that 16 scallions and 9 beets are enough for a month, and you have a second variety of lettuce that you want to try.  So your next 2'x4' section in the garden might look like this:
  • 8 heads of lettuce (4 each of 2 varieties)
  • 2 kale
  • 16 carrots
  • 16 radishes
  • 1 broccoli
  • 1 pepper (a different variety from your last planting) 
Another 2 weeks out, you will plant yet another 8 squares.  At this point, you may be enjoying a radish or two from the first planting, and maybe a few tender leaves carefully trimmed from the lettuce. 

Can you see how this strategy:
  • gives you the perfect size garden for your needs?  
  • creates a sustainable garden through soil amending and crop rotation?
  • will not overwhelm you with a large harvest through succession planting?
  • doesn't waste your family's precious resources?
  • can easily be adjusted as your family's needs change?

Monday, October 27, 2014

What Fits In A 12" Square?

The Square Foot Gardening method, developed by Mel Bartholomew and initially published in his 1981 book, calls for dividing your garden into 12" squares, then sowing individual seeds in a pattern within each square based on the amount of room that each plant will require when it's mature and ready for harvest.

  • Small plants can be sown 3" apart. If planned properly, you can sow 16 of these seeds in a square foot. These include radishes, green onions, carrots.
  • Medium plants are sown 4" apart. If planned properly, you can sow 9 of these seeds in a square foot. Medium size crops include spinach, onions, beets.
  • Large plants need to be spaced 6" apart. If planned properly, you can sow 4 of these seeds in a square foot. These crops are lettuce, swiss chard.
  • Extra large plants require an entire 12" square all to themselves. Give this much room to peppers, broccoli and cabbage, kale, tomatoes

  x     x
  x     x
x   x   x
x   x   x
x   x   x
x   x   x   x 
x   x   x   x 
x   x   x   x 
x   x   x   x 

Friday, October 24, 2014

What is Square Foot Gardening?

The Square Foot Gardening method is a way to grow vegetables in a very small space.

Guiding Principles
There are several guiding principles that you follow when using the SFG method:
  • Rather than planting seeds in traditional rows, you organize a raised garden bed in 12" squares. 
  • You only sow as many seeds as you plan to harvest, and you plant in small batches every couple of weeks. You won't be overwhelmed with too much food at one time, and succession planting and crop rotation happen almost automatically.
  • By sytematically amending the soil with compost, and routinely feeding your vegetables with a homemade compost "tea", your garden remains organic.  Pest and weed management is done naturally, no chemicals if at all possible.
  • Think of plants as being small, medium, large, and extra large. The size of a mature crop at harvest time is what determines the amount of space you allow when sowing seeds.  1, 4, 9, or 16 seeds are sown per 12" square accordingly. This in turn maximizes how many plants of each crop are grown in a 12" square.  
  • Because of this tight sowing pattern, there is virtually no room for weeds, and no wasted water.
  • You only plant one seed per hole. That avoids a dilema that many gardeners face, unable to bring themselves to "thin" the seedlings and kill those innocent young lives, wishfully thinking that all those plants can avoid choking each other out.  
How much room do you need for all this?
The original square foot gardening book written back in 1981 suggested that one 4'x4' box (16 squares of 12" each) is enough garden space for one adult to enjoy a small dinner salad most evenings throughout a growing season.  And there is a planned method for increasing the number of 4'x4' boxes that you can expand into if needed.  You can always add more garden later, better to start small and learn the system before taking on too much.

The second edition of the book, published in 2005, had some major improvements to the system, including the suggestion to build raised garden beds.  Many people, including myself, had already been doing this for years.  The days of back breaking labor are over! The only garden tool you will ever use again is a 6" hand trowel if you construct the garden boxes to be reached from all accessible sides.  And speaking of accessibility, these garden boxes can be made into table top gardens with room for a wheelchair underneath. 

Where is this blog heading?

Here is a "map" that shows my initial thoughts of how I will organize my blog entries. I know that is a lot to chew on.  So think of today's blog post sort of like a table of contents.  Future blog entries will explain each of these facets in more detail, and we will cover many more topics as well. 

Please Comment Below
Are you a gardener?  Are you here in the desert Southwest? Do you currently use the SFG method?   Successess, failures?  Bring it.