Going deeper with square foot gardening

In my article last week, I provided some basics about square foot gardening. This week, I want to share more details, plus some ideas to help set up your square foot garden.

You can start really simply with just one planting box; It depends how much you want to grow. The best wood to use is cypress, the same wood that is used in mushroom houses for its rot resistance. Alternatively, you can use regular pine or cedar deck board, but stay away from treated lumber if you’re going to grow veggies.

It’s important to reinforce the corners with additional pieces of wood, attaching these on the outside corners. I learned from experience that reinforcements rotate faster on the inside. If you don’t have tools, kits are available, for both the boxes and individual corner supports.

I keep my planting boxes 4′ x 4′, which gives me easy access to the center of the beds and allows me to standardize the vertical growing supports that I use for tomatoes, cucumbers, and pole beans. Another advantage to making the beds the same size is that if you build or buy a cold frame to extend your season it will fit onto any of your beds.

To make planting easier, I designed and built three 1-foot square pieces of plywood with dowels hot-glued onto them to poke holes for seed planting. On one square I spaced four dowels 6 inches apart (4 plants per square), on another I spaced 9 dowels 4 inches apart (9 plants per square), and the last twelve dowels 3 inches apart (12 plants per square). When it’s time to plant, I just push the square down into the prepared planting box and the spacing for my plants is set. A tomato plant takes a full square foot of space, but plants like lettuce can fit 4 per square. Beets and carrots fit 12 per square. You can intermix plant types in a raised bed, and be sure to rotate your plantings year to year.

What to grow? Firstly, grow what you like to eat! If you like tomatoes, set up a vertical support system with tall stakes that you can screw directly into the side of the raised bed. Then just screw horizontal stakes between the vertical stakes. I add a short diagonal support to be sure the stakes don’t get blown down in a storm.

Square foot gardening helps resources. For instance, you can water directly onto the raised beds, not the entire garden. The same is true for mulching—you just mulch around the plants, not the spaces between the raised beds. I use mushroom soil for mulching. It really holds in the moisture and keeps the plants warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. As it breaks down, it also adds valuable organic matter to the soil.

We feel fortunate to have Rohrer Seeds fairly close by in Lancaster County — it’s like a candy store for gardeners! My wife and I look forward to our annual trip there every March. Buying locally sourced seed gives you the advantage of growing plants that are adapted to our local climate.

A few other things: One of my favorite tools is a vibrating seed planter. This is a small scoop with a clicker that releases just a seed or two at a time. Another favorite is a garden “weasel.” This is a cultivator/weeder with points that rotate into the soil as you push it. The three rotary blade wheels can be adjusted for weeding in tight spaces. You can find these tools at garden supply stores or online.

Finally, most of all, enjoy your time in the garden. Square foot gardening takes a lot of the work out of it, and also gives you great food.

Note from Pam Baxter: As I recover from hand surgery, several readers have accepted my invitation to fill this space for me and share their own garden experiences. Many thanks to Don Knabb for this week’s guest column. I’ve visited his garden several times and find it incredibly inspirational.

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