Square Foot Garden Project: Step 1

| 4/3/2011 3:20:22 PM

A photo of Allan DouglasLast year when I put the garden to bed for the winter I pulled out all the nightshades for burning, then tilled everything else under and covered the dirt with a blanket of the fall leaves and grass clippings.  Over the winter we added kitchen scraps and ash from the fireplace.  There was nothing scientific about this, just toss it all in there somewhere.

Changes in the Offing

I was going to need to make major changes to my little garden plot this year; there is too much slope and heavy rains wash away my top soil and re-arrange my crops.  They don’t like being shuffled about and some of them decided they’d rather just die than live an integrated life style.

My first thought was to build several retaining walls of landscape timbers and terrace the garden to level out the growing areas.  Even at the beginning this did not seem like a perfect solution: Some of the retaining walls could get to be around 3 feet tall.  Those would require tie-backs to keep the dirt from pushing the walls over.  If I curved the walls, it would help but making curved walls from straight timbers is a bit problematic itself.  Digging (or drilling) pits for concrete anchors and burying steel tie-rods between anchors and walls is a fair bit of work, and the rods will interfere with tilling.  Then there is the issue of water retention.  Someone who knows this stuff warned me against this plan because water would just drain out the bottom by the terrace walls.

So I began looking for a better solution.  I came across several mentions of Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method, and it seemed like a good alternative.  This system has been around since 1981 and still has many devotees.  This method uses raised boxes filled with a special “dirt” mixture and a grid-work planting lay-out instead of planting in rows.  I decided to give it a whirl.

Building the Boxes

 A couple of weeks ago I borrowed a monster 8 hp rear-tine tiller and worked the garden again.  I won’t use that soil right away, but it will come in handy later.

Then we went to Lowe’s and bought the lumber and deck screws.  I’m going to start with six 4’x4’ boxes, so I bought twelve 8 foot 2x6’s; untreated, and a box of 2½” deck screws.  Total cost $96.00.  I knew I would need 72 screws, but the boxes only give a weight, not the count of screws contained.  They had one pound boxes and 5 pound boxes.  I decided to play it safe and buy the 5 pound box.  I could have used cheaper screws - this box set me back $30, but I was afraid cheaper, interior use screws would rust out and the boxes would fall apart.

Bruce Engel
4/15/2011 12:29:34 PM

Allan nice article. I mostly row crop but I have been experimenting with raised beds and I like the results. Economical materials to build with is my major hurdle at this point. I don't like railroad ties or treated, but untreated is too expensive for the lifespan of the wood. If I were you I would have went with cheaper screws as they will probably outlast the wood anyway.

Nebraska Dave
4/5/2011 9:15:14 AM

Allan, you are on the right path to success. Many years ago I discovered Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method. I read it cover to cover many times since then. My gardening methods are a combination of several methods but I still plant according to the square foot method. Some plants require a little more room than the book indicates but in most cases the information is good. The Grit garden planner is the best digital garden planner that I have come across and it basically plants according to square foot methods. I've used the planner since it was invented last year and have only high praise reports from my use. You can make your beds as big or small as you like with the planner and it will give you an indication of how many plants will go in that space and how far apart to plant them. Have a great day with Mel in the garden.

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