Life begins the day you start a garden—Chinese proverb
Indeed, and starting a garden has never been easier. You can become the dirt farmer you were meant to be using a new enlightened shortcut approach to raising food – called Square Space (or Square Foot) Gardening which requires just a few square feet of space that you can set up anywhere. And, say, enthusiasts, SSG gives you 100% of the harvest using just one-fifth the space of a conventional garden, uses much less water, and requires no tilling. The charm is obvious but what’s the gimmick?
One, you build (or buy) a simple moveable tic-tac-toe grid (in other words, a raised bed) that you then position over poor soil, on top of concrete, on a sunny patio, you name it. Two, you plant your seeds, and in less time than it takes to drink your morning coffee, you water and weed, and before you know it you’re rolling in carrots, tomatoes, greens, and herbs.
This smart approach to gardening started in 1981 by a retired civil engineer and efficiency expert Mel Bartholomew, author of the must-read book, Square Foot Gardening.
OK, you’re wondering what differentiates this style of gardening from growing rows directly in the ground, the old-fashioned way? A lot!
- SSG is eco-smart. You will have garden-to-table produce in weeks straight out of the ground ( not truck and boat produce that has spent weeks coming to you from a foreign country). Edible garden produce organically grown comes at a much smaller environmental cost. In comparison to the typical grocery store produce that’s sprayed, shipped, and marketed in highly unsustainable ways.
- SSG is low effort and economical. Compared to a single row garden where you must till a large area every year or two, square space (or spare foot) gardening gives you all of the harvest using only 20% of the space, 10% of the water, 5% of the seeds, with 2% of the work, and virtually no weeds, What’s not to love?
- SSG optimizes space. You can grow a lot of edible plants in a small (typically 4×4’) area. With the purchase or construction of a raised bed and the addition of a bottom lining (cardboard also works) you can keep your bed virtually weed-free – all but eliminating the pain-in-the-neck part of conventional gardening,
- SSG is cost and time effective. Think of all the money you’ll save once you’ve covered your startup expenses! And expect to spend no more than 10-15 minutes a day watering, pruning, or harvesting once everything’s up and running.
Here’s the step-by-step.
GET YOUR PLANTING MIX
Most soil experts recommend a soilless planting mix (it means fewer weeds) of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost— for less work and the health of the plants. You can make it or buy a premade mixture at gardening shops or online. To conserve moisture once your seeds are in, add grass clippings or other organic mulch.
PLAN WHAT TO PLANT
Consider the number of plants you need per square, plant the seeds, making sure to space them at healthy distances in the squares within the larger grid.
Consider smaller plants (herbs), bush varieties (beans), and/or crops that will finish quickly, such as radishes. These tend to do better and will stay put in their square. Other good picks include tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, greens (arugula, kale, lettuce, spinach, etc.) also onions, snap peas basil, cilantro, and parsley, for starters. Also mini varieties of common vegetables (look for the words pixie, dwarf, and baby.) You can branch out once you’ve raised a crop or two. Avoid sprawlers like squash, asparagus, and pumpkin.
PURCHASE YOUR BUILDING SUPPLIES OR YOUR KIT
You’ll be creating a grid of 1-foot squares with an overall dimension of either 4×4 or 4 x8 feet. You’ll need:
- 4 wooden boards, cut to the proper length
- Galvanized decking screws (3 per board)plus deck screws
- Drill and screwdriver
- Saw, tape measure
- Wheelbarrow and trowel
Step-by-step instructions can be found online. Not the handy type? For $100 (or less) you can buy a ready-made setup online.
The size of your raised bed is key. Ensure that you can access each square for watering, weeding, and harvesting. First-time gardeners should start with no more than one or two 4-by-4-foot raised beds ( creating fewer than 48 squares), Make the bed no wider than 3 feet.
Where does your garden get the most sun throughout the day? Most plants require at least 6 hours of full sun daily. Plan bed(s) so that they are oriented from east to west lengthwise to capture the sun all day. Placing taller plants on the north sides of the bed means that shorter plants will not be in shade.
A FEW PLANTING TIPS
*First, form holes in each square using your finger (or gardening tool)) correlating to the number of plants you will be growing
*Make sure holes are set up in an equidistant, grid-like fashion within each square, so that plants are equally spaced apart in their correct number – this arrangement will differ depending on the total number. Plant 2 to 3 seeds of your chosen vegetable in each hole. Cover lightly with soil, then water.
*Not all plants get along. Some compete with one another for nutrients or attract harmful pests that can threaten other plant neighbors. Read up on the personality and needs of your seeds. Good news? Some special pairings bring out the best in each other, attract the right insects or pollinators, and create the perfect healthy balance. For example, always plant your onions and garlic on the outer perimeters where they repel invaders.
*Read and research: Before planting your seeds (or transplanting your seedlings) into your raised bed, do the necessary research to determine what grows well in your part of the country and what will get along with what within each square.
*Remember to keep things pruned back so there is airflow; and water your soil consistently. Group all full-sun or partial-shade crops in separate raised bed locations. This ensures that your plants receive enough sunlight. This in turn improves your chances of having a thriving garden and reaping the rewards at harvest time.
*Daily check: Keep up with minimal weeding and check out your beds at least every other day to harvest what crops are ready so they can keep producing.
And when your first harvest is in, here’s what to do with those juicy tomatoes and leafy greens.
SMALL SPACE FRESH TOMATO SALAD
- 3 large and three small heirloom (or other variety of tomatoes), just picked
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped (discard stem)
- Pinch of dried oregano
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 cups fresh leafy greens
Whisk together the olive oil, rice wine vinegar, rosemary and oregano in a large bowl. Add tomatoes and greens and toss until evenly coated. Cover and chill, at least 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt and black pepper. Toss again before serving.