It’s easy to forget here in spacious West Cork that not everybody has the luxury of a big garden to grow vegetables in. Square foot gardening is a method for helping those with smaller gardens to maximise their space. In square foot gardening, the growing area (typically a raised bed) is marked out into smaller square sections. This helps to plan and create a well planted and neat vegetable garden in minimal space.
Generally, a bed is divided into a grid of 12” sided squares. So for example a 3’ by 3’ raised bed could be divided into 9 squares and a 3’ by 9’ would make 18.
As each square is used for different kinds of plants, a variety of crops is insured. The number of plants in each square is determined by the typical size of the individual plants for that particular crop. The originator of the technique, Mel Bartholemew, emphasises the careful and prudent spacing of seeds and plants so that fewer, but ultimately stronger and more productive, plants are raised. The following table is an example of how many plants fit nicely into a square. Your own experimenting might show different numbers suit as the size of plants depends on various factors such as variety, soil fertility and so on.
When plants are spaced properly, there are a number of benefits. For example, if the space is filled out nicely by the chosen crop, then the ground is covered with a canopy making it more difficult for weeds to germinate and establish. Moisture loss is minimised too as the soil is shaded. For tall or climbing plants, such as peas and beans, it is possible to plant a row along one side of a square using supports such as a trellis or netting. For this, the north edge of the bed should be used so as to not shade out the other plants.
Working with smaller growing spaces often means that it's not possible to grow a wide range of crops. Here, we have to prioritise and choose crops which give us the best return. I believe that one of the first things we should think about outsourcing to ourselves is salad - especially the leafy stuff. Shop bought leaves are pricey, excessively packaged and usually bland in comparison to what you can pick fresh. Fortunately, they are also easy to grow and productive in small spaces. Loose leaved, or 'cut and come again', varieties of lettuce can be harvested as needed through the summer and are suited to closer spacings typical of the square foot method. The same is true for the spicy oriental salad leaves like rocket, mizuna and mustard. A mixed, or 'mesclun', packet of seeds will provide a variety of different colours and types of leafy greens. This is handy as a diverse salad bowl can be created without having to buy and separately sow individual varieties.
I haven't seen many examples of square foot gardens in Ireland. If anybody practices it themselves it would be great to hear about your experience with the method. As the vegetable garden tends to look quite bare this time of year, it would be also be nice to see pictures of how a well prepared, well fed and eager to grow garden plot looks. 'Preparation' could be the theme for our monthly How does your garden grow competition where you can win a €50 voucher for Fruit Hill Farm by sharing your garden story with us.