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Upgrade Your Garden Mojo with Square Foot Gardening

Mel Bartholemew teaching seniors Square Foot Gardening — a method for growing more in less space.


Vegetable gardening in the Northern Rockies is not for the faint of heart. Our native soils are alkaline and not especially conducive to growing nutrient-rich food. Our growing season is painfully short, to a point we must read seed packets carefully to ensure the seeds we plant will have adequate time to reach maturity between last frost (mid-May) and first frost (mid-September). And, our changing climate is infamously moody (it can be hot one day, snowing the next). Despite this, many gardens flourish here. 

Successful Gardeners Are Always Learning

The characteristic that links the most successful gardens here—from the creative container boxes that grow the best tomatoes for BLTs to in-ground beds that produce enough zucchini to feed an army—is the gardener’s ability to pivot to the daily challenges of growing here. 

I’ve observed how master gardeners amend native topsoil soil with compost, organic material, patience, and love. I’ve watched them coax a melon to maturity, and I’ve helped them prepare for an early frost by installing protective blanket forts over their garden plots. 

Every successful gardener around here is always learning, interested in trying new techniques and gardening tricks, until they figure-out their own garden “mojo” or magic. 

Recently, I decided my gardening mojo required an upgrade. Growing seeds in raised beds and in-ground plots, I have always used a conventional row system. 

Last year, I found myself frustrated by the tedious and wasteful process of thinning carrots and noticed many of my cool-weather greens like lettuce, arugula, and kale never flourished because they were overcrowded. 

Taking a cue from my garden mentors who have discovered garden magic through trial and error, I decided to look into a dynamic gardening technique called Square Foot Gardening (SFG).

Growing More in Less Space

Square foot gardening is nothing new. Former engineer Mel Bartholomew came up with the concept in 1975 to make gardening more accessible, efficient, and successful for every level of grower. 

His rallying call was, “Grow More in Less Space,” and, in addition to simplifying soil mixtures, he suggested building a 4-foot-by-4-foot square gardening bed, to allow gardeners access and reduce wasteful pathways that compact soil and encourage weeds. 

Once a bed is constructed, SFG has the gardener divide up the space into square-foot grids, using string or permanent structure to guide planting.

Bartholomew asks, “Why plant hundreds of seeds in one long row, and then turn around when they sprout and thin them out to every six inches?” 

The SFG system prevents overcrowding and expensive overseeding, by encouraging gardeners to plant within the square foot grids. 

“If plants should be thinned to 12 inches apart, then we should plant one per square foot,” says Bartholomew. “If plants should be thinned to four inches part, then you can grow nine within the space of that one square foot. If plants are thinned to 3 inches apart, you can grow sixteen in that same square foot”

SFT suggests plants like tomato, broccoli, cabbage, and pepper should be planted at the center of square-foot box, while you might fit nine spinach plants into their own square-foot box and 16 carrots in theirs.

Another important part of SFG technique is using vertical supports to help climbing plants like gourds, tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, pumpkins, summer and winter squash, gain light and space in a garden plot. 

Made from fencing, PVC pipe, wire, or string, vertical scaffolding adds a pleasant aesthetic to all gardens. 

Experts suggest factoring placement of any vertical frame that could shade plants like lettuce, while ensuring other plants, like sun-loving eggplant, still get their light. 

With the construction and placement of the vertical frame, gardeners can train their plants up around netting or fencing, until the plant has reached the desired height.

Referencing Bartholomew’s recent book, All New Square Foot Gardening, I’ve laid out plans for my 2022 garden bed. I am most excited about vertical gardening and not thinning my carrots. 

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, we’re past the last frost here in my valley in the Northern Rockies, but our local meteorologist is predicting snow this week. Growing vegetables around here isn’t for the faint of heart, but I am making my own garden mojo by pivoting, incorporating new techniques heralded by the experts, and always bringing patience and love to the growing experience. MSN

Darby Bramble is the Executive Director of Helena Community Gardens in Helena, Montana where garden magic abounds.

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