Last week I received an e-mail from West Chester resident Don Knabb. He wrote, “We have always grown in raised beds, even before square foot gardening became popular. But when Mel Bartholomew’s first book came out we followed his advice pretty closely. We also use his second book as guidance.
“We have two gardens . . . both fenced in to keep critters out, and generally we have been successful. We grow organically—always have and always will. About the only spray we use is for cabbage worms and leaf miners. We get organic sprays for those pests. And we use only organic fertilizer. We compost year round—a compost bin outside when the weather is nice and a worm bin in the basement all winter and early spring.”
A few days later, I stopped by to see Knabb’s gardens. Both are proof that the practice known as “square foot gardening” is an excellent method for growing a lot of food in a small area. The raised beds are brimming with onions, garlic, carrots, beets, collards, mustard greens, edamame and potatoes. There are also peppers, tomatoes cucumbers and herbs.
Mel Bartholomew literally wrote the book on intensive home vegetable growing, providing detailed instructions on how to wrest the most food from a small garden. He began by analyzing why so many backyard gardens fail, noting that the methods commonly recommended were those practiced by commercial farmers. Seeds planted in long rows spaced far apart made sense on a farm where you needed to drive equipment between the rows. In the home garden, however, this meant a lot of empty space to keep free of weeds. It also meant a lot of waste.
As Bartholomew points out in his book, “Square Foot Gardening, “ . . . we poor home growers aren’t farmers, and we don’t have tractors . . . most of us have just a small backyard garden in which to putter around and raise a few crops.”
Gardeners were also encouraged to sprinkle seeds out of the packet and into the rows. As a result, many more seeds were planted than were needed, making it necessary to thin the rows, a practice both time consuming and disheartening. Bartholomew notes that, “Most gardeners I’ve known hate to thin; it goes against the grain to tear out and destroy hundreds of young plants.”
The solution: Plant only as many seeds as you need to grow the number of plants you need, and space them as close together as possible for optimum growth, while leaving little space open for weeds to take hold.
Don Knabb’s raised beds are built on the square-foot plan. Following Bartholomew’s advice, he fills each box with a combination of one-third aged mushroom soil, one-third vermiculite, and one-third peat moss. For ease in planting, Knabb has made a set of planting squares. These are one-foot-square pieces of plywood with about one-inch-long segments of wooden dowels attached in the various seed-spacing patterns Bartholomew outlines. When it’s time to plant seeds, Knabb just selects the proper square and pushes the dowels into the soil.
In this way, spacing is already taken care of: 16 dowels (4x4) for radishes and carrots, nine dowels (3x3) for bush beans, spinach, beets, garlic, eight dowels (2x4) for peas and pole beans, four for Swiss chard, lettuce and parsley. Spacing is super-easy for cucumbers (two plants per square foot), and also for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, eggplant, potato, tomato and muskmelon (one plant per square). Note: the tomatoes, cucumbers, and melon are able to grow well in just one square foot by the use of trellising. The plants grow up, not out.
The two vegetable gardens, plus two small ponds and 10 birdhouses make the Knabbs’ property rich not only for them but also for wildlife, feeding not just the body, but also the soul.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.