View Full Version : GARDENING HELP, square ft. gardeners
03-28-2008, 03:31 PM
OK...last year I TRIED to the "square foot gardener" (is that the right name) and it did ok...just ok. I got the measurements wrong somehow, so I'm back to the library or book store to get teh book, to get it right this year.
I could use any advice as to what works best in this system? OR do you put pretty much everything you want, how do you manage "removing" and replanting? I just want to hear what established gardeners are doing. I'm so excited, but REALLY want my garden to be fabulous this year.
Oh yeah, DH and I bought PVC pipes for the supports for the vining plants, the twine didn't go over too great. What did I do wrong, was it the twine (it wasn't too thick) or was it the pipe, what can I do to fix this problem?? Any better suggestions for the vines?
Thanks so much
03-28-2008, 05:13 PM
When I Square Foot Gardened I used wood to raise the beds above ground level..Eventually, after adding to the sides for several years, they were 24" deep..I added peat moss, vermiculite, pearlite, coarse river sand, compost,shredded leaves, etc to the beds every chance I got..
I found that the painted steel fence posts that are somewhat U-shaped worked best for me..These are the ones that have a series of punched out tabs that allow you to hang wire fencing on the tabs..I used 4" x 6" galvanized steel wire mesh fencing on the posts..I took a reciprocating saw & cut off the flange at the bottom of several extra posts..Then I sawed those posts in half to create 2 shorter posts..I drilled matching holes into both the fence posts in the ground, as well as the sawed in half sections..I bolted the halved post sections onto the whole posts so as to extend the height of the posts to at least 6' off the soil's surface..Then I hung the fencing onto the tabs..I bolted a 2" x 2" wooden crosspiece across the tops of the two fence posts to link & strengthen the posts..
I found that after thunderstorms the ionized air was attracted to the posts & fencing..Any plants grown on the fencing seemed to really thrive..I used the cut-off legs from worn out panty hose that my female relatives donated to me to gently tie the vines & stems to the fencing..
I made seed & plant spacing templates out of 1' x 1' pieces of 1/4" masonite..I drilled holes the size of my index fingers into the templates at the spacings recommended by Mr. Bartholomew..Small brass handles screwed onto the top side of the templates allowed them to be easily moved around..Just poke your finger through the hole to mark the soil where you want the seed or plant to go..Another option is to purchase a bag of white sand..Pour tiny amounts of the sand through the holes to mark where the seeds will be planted..Covering the seeds with the sand often allowed for faster germination as there was no soil to dry out, get hard & crusty, & slow down the emergence of the seedlings..For potted plants I used a bulb planter to make the planting hole..
Rich fertile soil is absolutely necessary to the success of this & other intensive planting systems..If your soil is high in clay & really compacted, as mine was, it may be easier to go above ground with sides to the beds..At the height of my gardens existence, I could easily plunge my entire arm from the tips of my fingers up to my shoulder into the soil of the raised beds..It was that friable..Of course, it took me four years to get the soil to that stage..I composted in two 5' x5' x 4.5' bins throughout the growing season..I also sheet composted right on top of the beds in the fall.
I used untreated grass clippings as a thin mulch around the plants & seedlings throughout the year..I have a 12" long pair of tweezers (forceps) that I was given as a gift that I used to pluck out weeds & unwanted seedlings..When the plants mature, their canopies basically choke out weeds by preventing sunlight from reaching the soil..
It never took me more than 5-10 minutes per day to attend to weeding, usually five..This was for a 9' x 29' x 2' raised bed square foot garden..This garden was split into seven 4' x 9' beds by bolting vertically 2" x 6" boards across the long sides..This was necessary in order to prevent the weight of the soil from bowing the long sides outwards & eventually breaking them..I then screwed a set of 2" x 4" boards down the center across the tops of the short sides..I allowed for gaps between the boards as you would for a deck..This was to create a place to walk down, crouch, & to harvest from..In retrospect I'd make the walkway wider, & place the boards tightly together to prevent weeds from growing through the cracks..Other then that minor nitpick, the entire garden worked like a dream..I truly miss it!!..
This garden was located in the back yard of a row house in Baltimore City..The row of 6 houses blocked the sun for part of the day, ie. northern exposure..Opposite the huge raised bed in a 2' wide strip of soil on the other side of the sidewalk, were tomatoes grown in 4 wire mesh cages..I usually topped the tomatoes out at between 8-9 feet high..I'd pick the upper tomatoes while standing on a step ladder..Cucumbers were grown in a small 2' x 6' bed towards the house..I trained the cucumbers on a fence post & wire mesh fencing A-frame arrangement..Even given the limitations of the location, I was able to grow an insane amount of produce in this garden..The key was maintaining the soil's fertility & crop rotation..
Good luck with you garden!!..
03-29-2008, 08:03 PM
Thank you so much Bruce! There is so much you have provided to help me out! I was so worried about the tomato plants and other vines shading the other side of the square to where stuff would not grow, but if your garden grew that much between houses.....
I definitely need to build my garden up. We have tilled this same spot a couple of years, but I know we have not added enough to the soil.
Again, thank you for taking time to give me all that information!! I love the way you explained how you laid out the posts and fencing, now I just need to pick through it all slowly so I can understand it right (I'm a visual person!) I'll draw it out.....thanks a billion!!!
03-30-2008, 01:14 AM
The type of fence posts that I used are illustrated in the link below, although I believe that the ones that I purchased were 7 ft long, not 6 ft..Could be wrong..It's been a while..
If you can purchase compost by the cubic yard, as I was able to do, I would recommend doing so..Unless the price per cubic yard is insanely high, it is a very easy way to jump start an organic raised bed garden..
If you have heavy clay soil, as I did, then every possible means to introduce humus into the soil that you can come up with should be taken advantage of..Vermiculite & perlite are both man-made soil amendments that can be utilized to good effect in small gardens, especially raised beds..Vermiculite is created from mica rock, & I believe that perlite is created from pumice..Both help to break up clay-type soils, as well as add water retaining capability..Both can be purchased in large bags at farm supply stores..
Bales of peat moss, & the newer coconut fiber, that resembles peat moss, are good amendments..Both retain many, many times their own weights in water when added to garden soils..Buy them in the large bales..
Greensand, granite dust, Azomite, ground feldspar, & other rock dusts / powders are good things to add for long-term soil fertility..It is almost impossible to add too much rock dust..
If I was going to establish a new garden using the Square Foot method this is how I would proceed..The following would be for a 4 ft. wide x 25 ft. long raised bed square foot garden located on the property of someone's home..I'm using a 100 sq. ft. garden because soil amendment recommendations are usually given based on a 100 sq. ft. model..Let's assume for the purposes of this discussion that the soil is heavily compacted clay that has suffered from trucks & heavy equipment being driven across it during land clearing & home construction..The recommendations & suggestions that I make below are based on my personal experiences, and years of thought..I made many, many mistakes along the way..This is not the least expensive raised bed garden to construct..It is for the gardener that plans to live & garden on a piece of land for a long period of time..This raised bed garden is a definite investment in the future..
1. Using a strong garden spade (not shovel) remove the sod / weeds by scraping parallel to the ground's surface just below the roots..You will end up with grass, soil, & roots that measure approximately 3"-4" thick..Be careful!!..This stuff is going to be heavy..Only work with squares or rectangles of sod that you can easily lift without straining your back..Place the sod with the roots facing up in a place where it can remain undisturbed for 1-2 years..Stack the sod in a large pile about 2 ft. deep & cover with a tarp that will not allow any light to reach the pile..Left undisturbed the entire mass will break down into very rich compost..But sunlight must not reach the sod pile, otherwise the grass will try to grow..And the weed seeds will propagate exponentially..Been there, done that, & you don't want to repeat my mistakes..
If there is room to do so, excavate the sod in a space measuring 12 ft. x 33 ft..The reason for excavating this much space is so that you have a 4 ft. path around the entire garden, less the width of the wall materials..This much space is essential..To many people, especially for anyone that has not gardened intensively, it probably seems like an insane, profligate waste of land to surround a 100 sq. ft raised bed garden with 296 sq. ft of paths / walkways..Without adequate room on all sides of the garden to move wheelbarrows, garden carts, & the gardener's body, the entire gardening experience will be much less pleasurable..If this much space is not available, then you will have to suffer with the limitations that your space allows..But, if the space is available, use it!!..You will not regret the decision to do so..Once optimum soil fertility is achieved & maintained, you will be able to grow & harvest more food from the 100 sq. ft. raised bed garden then you would be able to produce from the entire 332 sq. ft. of garden & paths using the conventional row method of gardening..A lot more!!..
2. Using a rear tine tiller of at least 8 horse power, till the entire space to a depth of 3 inches; starting with the paths....Make multiple passes to adequately break the soil down so that it can easily be shoveled into a wheelbarrow or garden cart..Move the 3 in. of soil from the area of the paths to a place where it can be temporarily be stored until later in the process of creating the garden..Cover this soil with a tarp so that it does not get wet, & so that light cannot reach the soil..This top 6-8 inches of soil is filled with millions upon millions of weed seeds..You want to do everything & anything that you possibly can to prevent these weed seeds from sprouting..
Till the 100 sq. ft. of the garden to a depth of 6 inches..Move the 6 in. of soil from the area of the garden itself to one side of the garden outside of the path..It will be utilized later..Also cover this soil with a tarp so that the weed seeds in it cannot get a chance to sprout..At this point the entire 12 ft. x 33 ft. space has had the sod removed, the soil of the paths directly under the sod removed to a depth of 3 inches, & the soil of the garden removed to a depth of 6 inches..Till the 100 sq. ft. of the garden to the depth of another 6 inches..Remove this soil & place it to the other side of the garden outside of the path..Cover it..Some weed seeds remain in this layer, but not nearly as many as the upper 6 inches..Till the 100 sq. ft of the garden to a depth of another 6 inches..Remove this soil & place it in a place separate from the other 3 piles of already excavated soil..Cover it..This soil should be nearly free of weed seeds..Because of the confines of the hole that is being excavated it may be necessary to use a shovel or spade, along with a mattock or pick to get into the corners where the tiller will not maneuver..Till to the depth of a final 6 inches..Remove the soil to a pile separate from the others..Don't get your piles mixed up..Label them if necessary..Cover the pile..Although this soil should be virtually free of weed seeds, you don't want any of the piles of soil to get wet..If it does it becomes very difficult to work with..You now have a hole that measures 4 ft. wide x 25 ft. long x 2 ft. deep..Using heavy boards drive the tiller up & out of the hole..You should be finished with the tiller at this time..
3. Using the weed laden soil from the top 6 inches of the 4 ft. x 25 ft. garden space, proceed to fill the hole in..Try for layers approximately 1-2 in. thick..Generously cover each layer with a mixture of as many rock powders that you can purchase..Compost & most other soil amendments are generally wasted below the top 6-8 in. of the soil..Rock powders will provide nutrients to the roots & root hairs that manage to penetrate down this far..The clay has an abundance of minerals & nutrients that are locked up & unavailable to the plants roots..Only by making the clay soil biologically active will these nutrients become available..In the meantime the rock powders will provide nutrients until biological activity can free up the nutrients in the clay..Pick out any construction debris, marbles, toy soldiers, large rocks, etc..If you really want killer soil, screen the soil like I did through 1/2" galvanized steel hardware cloth stapled to a wooden frame..This is a lot of extra work, but you will be rewarded with soil such as you have never seen or gardened in before..Clay soil screened in this manner will expand to approximately 1 1/2 times it's original volume..It will eventually settle back to about 1 1/8 it's original volume..This takes about 6 months to occur..Now using the weed laden soil from the paths, continue filling in the hole..Depending upon how much you elect to break up the excavated soil's compaction will determine how much the soil from the paths & the soil from the top 6" of the garden will fill up the hole..Using the most weed laden soils first, continue filling the hole until you reach ground level..The calculations for the garden are as follows:
100 sq. ft. of garden x 2 ft. excavated below grade + 2 ft. of constructed bed above grade = 400 cubic feet of soil volume
296 sq. ft. of paths divided by 4 (3" of excavation) = 74 cu. ft. of extremely weed filled soil
100 sq. ft. of garden divided by 2 (top 6" of excavation) = 50 cu. ft. of extremely weed filled soil
100 sq. ft. of garden divided by 2 (second 6" layer of excavation) = 50 cu. ft. of weed filled soil
100 sq. ft. of garden divided by 2 (third 6" layer of excavation) = 50 cu. ft. of relatively weed free soil
100 sq. ft. of garden divided by 2 (fourth & final layer of excavation) = 50 cu. ft. of almost completely weed free soil
Total of 274 cu. ft. of compacted soil removed from the paths & the garden..This soil, if screened through the hardware cloth, would probably come close to filling the 400 cubic feet of excavated ground & constructed raised bed..
4. Begin building the walls of the raised bed..Wood is not a good material as it rots easily..Pressure treated wood is not only ecologically unsound, it also rots..Regardless of what the manufacturers claim to the contrary..Seven years after I built my 9 ft. x 29 ft. raised bed, over 50% of the 2x6, 2x8, & 2x10 pressure treated boards that I used to construct it were at least 50% eaten & rotted away..Biologically active soil, such as that in an organic garden will attack even pressure treated wood..The soil organisms think that it is just another source of food!!..Unless I have no other choice, I'll never use wood again..It's not economically sound to build with wood..
03-30-2008, 11:58 AM
4. Neither cypress, cedar, redwood, or teak are good long term choices for building raised beds..All 4 choices are expensive, some extremely so..All are rot resistant to one degree or another..None will last for fifty years when constantly exposed to wet soil..The material that I have chosen to build any future raised beds from is cinderblock..Unless I win the lottery, which is unlikely, then I would build with stone..Cinderblock has the best cost to longevity ratio compared to the other building materials choices..It's drawback is that it is ugly..Neither it's texture, nor it's color are very attractive..After wasting my time & money building raised beds from pressure treated wood, I'd rather spend the extra time to build with cinderblock..Properly constructed, cinderblock should last for at least a century..Properly cared for, a lot longer..
5. Using a gas-powered tamper compact the soil surrounding the garden itself to the width of the cinderblocks plus 2 inches..Compact this soil as much as possible as it is going to form the base of the walls, & once built you don't want these walls to shift & crack..Scrounge or purchase cheap 3/4" to 1" lumber such as you might find from discarded shipping pallets..Use this to construct a framework measuring 4" deep x 1" wider than the width of the cinderblocks..This framework will rest upon the newly compacted soil that surrounds the now filled in hole of the garden..Fill this framework in with a mixture of pea gravel & stone dust to a depth of 2"..Wet the stone dust with a sprayer attached to a garden hose..Run the tamper over this wet mixture to compact the mass as tightly as possible..Repeat this process until the framework as been filled in to the top of the boards with tightly compacted gravel & stone dust..
6. Construct the cinderblock walls on top of the compacted gravel & stone dust..Don't worry about the inside surface of the cinderblock walls being outside of the walls of the filled in hole of the garden..The roots of the plants will seek out the path of least resistance & find the looser soil..Build the walls to 24", or 3 cinderblocks high..This is slightly higher than the seat height of an average chair..If you would rather kneel to plant, weed, & harvest; then make the walls 2 cinderblocks, or 16" high..Drive pieces of rebar construction rod down through the over lapping holes in the cinderblocks, taking care not to damage the cinderblocks..Ideally, use 5 ft. long pieces of rebar so that the bottom of the rod is a foot below the bottom of the excavated hole of the garden..If this is not done then the weight of the soil within the walls of the raised bed that is constantly pushing outwards will eventually cause the walls to fail..Cap the top of the newly constructed walls with solid stone, as opposed to flat cinderblock pavers..The cinderblock pavers are too rough against one's skin & will snag on & tear one's clothes..Purchase the stones sized so that they overlap the sides of the walls like a roof..This will protect the walls from rain & snow weakening the bond between the cap & the wall..An alternative to stone caps, though not as long lived, would be one of the rot resistant woods..Teak would require virtually no maintenance..Cypress would be next best..The other two would require some kind of preservative for longevity..Allow the walls to cure for a week or so..
7. Begin to fill in the cinderblock raised bed using the most weed filled soil that is left first..Do this by layering the soil with the rock powders in 1"-2" layers as you did when filling in the excavated hole..If care is taken then the incidences of weeds sprouting after the garden is finished will be greatly reduced..If all goes well then all of the soil will be used up in filling the raised bed..If the soil is super compacted, then there may be soil left over..This can be used to make compost..When you get to the last 12" of soil that is filling the bed then you can start mixing in peat moss, coconut coir fiber, compost, leaf mold, vermicilite, perlite, coarse sand, well-rotted manures, lime, rock powders, Azomite, etc., etc..It is the final top 12 in. of soil in the raised bed that should receive the most attention..
8. Ideally this garden should be constructed in the spring after the soil drys out & is ready to work..Food crops can be planted & harvested immediately..This is what I did with my first raised bed garden..In retrospect, I should have done the following..Plant several cover crops dating from the time the garden is finished being constructed to the end of summer / early fall..In my area I would plant a crop of buckwheat, followed by a crop of mustard, followed by a crop of winter wheat-rye-clover that would over winter until spring..These cover crops would do several things..
First, they would begin to mine the minerals from the rock powders & other amendments..
Second, they would send down root systems that will begin to fill the entire 400 cu. ft. of the excavated & constructed raised bed..These roots & root hairs would serve to tie together all of the loosened soil particles..They would help to prevent the newly loosened clay soil from re-compacting as it settles (and settle it will) by separating the soil particles with roots..Unless walked upon or otherwise compacted, the newly loosened soil will not re-compact back into it's original, nearly impermeable mass..But, without plant roots, worms, & other microbial activity, the clay will eventually return itself to a solid mass..
Third, cover crops can provide green biomass to make compost from; which can then be returned to the soil..
Fourth, as the root systems begin to decompose, they will provide channels for soil life to move through..This soil life will then begin to unlock the nutrients that are trapped in the clay..Unlocking these nutrients is key to long term soil fertility..This is something that I failed to do..
Fifth, depending upon the cover crop, they will extract nitrogen from the air & fix it into nodules that grow on the roots..Providing food for future crops that does not have to be purchased..
Sixth, cover crops can provide dry biomass in the form of straws that can be used both to make compost, as well as for mulch..
9. After the raised bed is constructed, filled with soil, & planted in a cover crop; it is time to finish the paths..Regardless of the material used for the paths, several layers of weed suppression fabric should be laid down on the path first..The more the better..The easiest path material to work with is, of course, wood chips..The drawbacks to wood chips are that they need to be replenished at least every other year, if not every year..While decomposing they provide an ideal habitat for wind blown weed seeds to adhere & take root..In my experience, dandelions & other pernicious weeds love wood chips..They also can harbor insect pests & slugs / snails that will attack your food crops..On the plus side, they look good; & the layer of chips closest to the surface of the soil is constantly decomposing, thus adding to the fertility of the soil in the paths..If that is a concern for you..Long term, wood chips are an expensive choice to make..If there is room on your property to allow a large pile of green wood chips to cool off & dry out; then tree trimming companies will often donate a truckload of chips for free..This is the only scenario in which I would consider wood chips for a path material..
Fine light-colored gravel topped with stone dust that has been wetted & compacted is the most economical long term path material when compared to all other materials..Assuming that you have to purchase the materials for the paths..Once established there is virtually no maintenance required..Gravel's up front costs are greater, but it's long term cost are much less..
10. If slugs or snails are a concern then one additional fairly large expense will be needed..Installing 3" wide copper flashing around the entire perimeter of the walls just below the cap / seat will completely prevent them from migrating into the bed..The slugs slime combines with the copper to create an electrical current that they will not cross..
03-30-2008, 04:53 PM
As anyone can see from reading parts 1 & 2 of this post, this is not an inexpensive garden to build in either time, or materials..My experiences with intensive gardening is that it is much like Chinese cooking..There is substantially more time & effort required in preparing the ingredients before cooking, then is involved in the actual cooking process itself..The same principles apply to intensive gardening, especially to raised beds that have constructed sides..The extra time & money that is spent up front in planning & constructing for longevity & ease of use will pay out in untold dividends in the years to come..Especially when you get past years 5-7..Wood & other materials that do not last a long time will require periodic maintenance & replacement..Which once you get past the fifth year start costing as much as building with cinderblocks would have cost in the first place..
Most food plants have roots that are capable of penetrating from 6 inches to as much as 3 feet into a friable, fertile soil..They seldom ever get the chance to do so as virtually all soils in the United States are severely compacted..By digging the original garden 2 ft. deep & raising a bed an additional 2 ft. you can give your food plant's roots the opportunity to grow as nature intended them to..It's a lot of back breaking work that is well worth the effort!!..
A garden such as I have outlined will require several weeks to dig & construct..It will cost several hundred dollars in materials & equipment rentals..The neighbors who watched me build my first such garden were astounded by the labors & funds that I put into it..They were also equally astounded by the sheer immensity of food that it produced..
Good luck in your endeavors!!..
03-30-2008, 05:12 PM
Wow, Bruce! Thanks so much for this info.
03-30-2008, 05:20 PM
Amazing! thank you, Bruce for sharing this wealth of info and experience with everyone.
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