So you want to get into square foot gardening? Then it’s time to start planning your square foot garden! You want to grow your own backyard garden on the homestead, and now you’ve finally found a way to reach these dreams! Square foot gardening makes growing a vegetable garden easy as
cake carrot cake. This is part 2 of our 11 part series to get your homestead a’growing!
Plan Your Square Foot Garden
So you’re convinced—a square foot garden is just what you’ve been looking for to get yourself and your family into a new and fulfilling hobby. Like any good project, even a simple one, it requires a bit of forethought. This chapter is designed to help you lay out the best plan for your garden, according to your specific wants and needs!
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There are three main concerns that you should be focusing on during your planning stages. Those concerns are: size, location, and design. Each of these components is tied to the other, and they are all tied to the specific capabilities of you as a gardener, and your yard. Let’s look at each concern one at a time.
When it comes to the size of your garden, the first consideration is to remember your garden will be square or rectangular-shaped. Building material of your boxes is largely up to you. Remember you are really only limited by your imagination and access to supplies. Brick and stone are wonderful options, but may be hard to access and are more difficult to move (should you decide to move it in the future) than a wooden box. Wood-box gardens are much simpler and you can typically find wood very easily—if you get creative, you may not even have to purchase any! Finding useable wood scraps for your boxes can be as easy as visiting some construction sites. If you lack the power tools to cut wood to your specifications, most hardware or home improvement stores are able to provide such a service for you, and it is usually cheap or free. The only downside to a wooden garden box is that, eventually, the wood will certainly rot out, unless you spring for high-quality woods such as cedar. You can also try recycled or vinyl wood to alleviate some of these concerns. It is very important to remember you do not want to try treated wood, and likewise do not want to paint or treat whatever wood you do choose, as you will be risking the health of your crops and potentially the health of your family if the chemicals from such treatment leach into the garden.
Once you’ve found your building material, you need to consider how big you want to build your garden. This is going to be very specific to each family or individual. One 4×4 garden box—which is 16 square feet—can provide enough produce for a salad a day for a normal adult during the season. Three total gardens of that size—a total growing area of 48 square feet– can provide that same adult with daily salads, supplementary vegetables for other meals, and enough surplus for other needs: food storage, canning, freezing, gifting, etc. Decide for yourself what kind of needs you want your garden to meet for your household, remembering it’s always very simple to add another garden later!
Some families may want to start their children in on the gardening habit early, and we certainly encourage this. There is probably no better way to interest a child in gardening than to provide her with her own garden space, something she can care and feel responsible for. Your child’s garden will need to be a bit smaller to account for her shorter stature. We recommend building a 3×3 garden box for children. These smaller gardens will produce the same amount of crop yield as the adult boxes, only scaled down for the dietary needs of children. However, it’s worth noting (and parents don’t need to be reminded!) that no child stays small forever, and eventually your teen gardeners may find themselves without as much produce as they’d like from a 3×3 box, so you may find yourself building them a 4×4 box eventually. Still, different sized garden boxes add a nice aesthetic to your garden, so it may be worth it after all.
After you have decided the final size for your garden, you might be tempted to rush out to the hardware store this weekend and get enough material for 4-5 garden boxes. While we love the ambitious dreaming, we recommend a slower process. You would be surprised how many first-time square foot gardeners get overwhelmed by the amount of produce they pull from their box garden. Instead, try implementing your “dream garden” in different steps, beginning your first box in spring, then adding another during spring and fall for specific crops. This will give you time to learn, grow, make mistakes, and become accustomed to the time and energy (however reduced!) you can expect to spend tending your garden, as well as allow you to test crops and figure out plants will best serve your family’s wants and needs. No need to jump headfirst into the deep end!
If you are a single-row gardener who is still a little unconvinced by this whole system, we challenge you to build a single 4×4 garden box while still maintaining your old single-row system. See for yourself how much easier and simpler it is to grow your crops with a square foot garden! We are confident you will be abandoning that old farming technique by next season.
You’ve talked with your family and you’ve decided the size and amount of garden boxes that are going to serve your household the best. Now it’s time to figure out how you want to fix your garden boxes within your yard space. A big part of this placement is going to rely on how you would like your garden aisles to look and be placed for maximum ease and efficiency.
As we mentioned before, it is possible and recommended to “stack” several garden boxes together end-to-end. This may not be the most attractive or convenient option for all families and yards. It may be preferable to keep your boxes as singles and place them at separate points around your yard. Should you decide to do the end-to-end stack, it is a good idea to keep your garden at a maximum length of 16 feet. Anything longer, and you may be risking your garden as people (and probably you!) try to step across its middle rather than take the long way.
Keeping your feet out of the soil is one of the major advantages and appeals of the square foot garden, and it’s a task that is almost impossible to achieve in the traditional single-row method. Therefore you could say the aisles you plan are just as important as how you plan the rest of your garden. If you can’t conveniently and easily reach in to perform garden maintenance, then it really defeats the whole purpose of trying to make gardening easier through this method, right? So give your aisle planning as much attention and consideration as you give every other step of this process. Done right, this means the only tool you need to regularly maintain your garden is a small trowel—no shoveling, no hoeing, no tilling, because your soil has been protected from becoming too compacted to plant or grow.
An example of how much and how many different kinds of crops can be grown in a 4×8 square foot garden.
Your aisles, like the rest of your garden box, are going to depend on your needs, the room of your yard, and the amount of garden boxes you will be using. As a general rule, we recommend that you space your aisles no wider than 4 feet, and no narrower than 3 feet. A 4-foot aisle gives multiple people room to use the space at once, or the room to move bigger equipment such as wheelbarrows. If you were to create aisles smaller than 3 feet, chances are you are going to find yourself feeling crowded once you have gardening helpers—even the plants themselves as they mature can overgrow the edges of the box and into your aisles, narrowing them even further.
After you have decided the best amount of garden boxes and their placement in your yard, it’s probably a wise idea to sit down with pencil and paper (nothing fancy) to do a rough sketch of your plan. This gives you a solid visual to consult as you head to the yard to visualize their real-world placement.
When you are walking your yard and making decisions about where to put your garden, there are a few considerations you will want to keep in mind that will give you the best results for your crops. Again, since the point of the square foot garden is to maximize convenience, these considerations for your garden placement will save you trouble and strife down the road.
The first consideration is placing your garden box close to your house. This is helpful for obvious reasons. The closer it is to your home, the more likely you are to visit and check in on your crops, provide maintenance, harvest timely, and notice if anything is amiss. Building close to the house means gardening family members with aches and pains don’t have to trek across the yard to access the crop or do work, and it means a shorter trip to the kitchen during harvest time. When you’re assessing space near your house for the garden, consider what areas you think are “high traffic”. Where do you and your family walk the most? What is the natural flow of your yard? Putting your garden along this natural flow means you’re going to be more likely to visit, and that it will be less likely to disrupt the activities your family already enjoys in the yard.
Spend some time in your house near the windows that look out into your chosen yard. What is your view like in the rooms you spend the most time in? Do you have any “blind spots”? Can you see the whole yard from every room? Would you be able to view your garden from only certain rooms? These are questions you should ask yourself as you consider your garden box placement. Gardens are not meant only to be productive, but beautiful—especially if you turn one of your garden boxes into a home for flowers! You should be able to enjoy not only your garden’s bounty, but its beauty. Making sure you can see it from the home provides a new and wonderful view to your family and visitors. It also means you are more likely to monitor your garden with special care. If you live in an area that is prone to pests like deer or rabbits, you will be grateful for that view the first morning you spot a hungry doe sniffing after your lettuce crop. Say a few days of heavy rain has kept you out of the garden—at least, from your window view, you can monitor your crops to watch for signs of waterlogging and take appropriate measures before the plant is lost. If you are teaching children to garden, or living with a gardener with disabilities, being able to monitor their activities as they work on the crop will provide you with a sense of security and ease. Thinking of these considerations will help you find the most optimum spot for your garden boxes.
The second consideration is sunlight—find an area of your yard that receives six to eight hours of good sunlight per day. This might require a bit of homework; new gardeners may never have thought about what kind of light their yard gets! But it is homework well worth the time. It doesn’t take a professional gardener to understand that your plants are going to need plenty of sunlight. The perfect amount of sunlight is going to depend on the specific plants you choose for your garden, but a general rule of thumb for most fruit and flowering plants is at least 8 hours per day of sunlight. This includes favorite crops such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, and herbs such as basil. One important thing to remember is that, because of the earth’s orbit, the amount of sunlight your yard receives is actually going to differ as the planet’s position shifts during the seasons. Winter light is shorter and lower in the sky than spring or summer. Depending on your yard’s features and placement, this may affect the sunlight your garden receives. It might be a prudent idea to take simple photographs of your yard at different times of day and during different seasons, to provide you with a visual log of what you are working with as your advance in your gardening hobby. Luckily, the portability of the square foot garden means you can adjust the placement of your garden boxes to adjust to the differing light of the seasons; sometimes a simple shift to the opposite side of the yard will work wonders.
If you have a yard that is mostly shady, does that mean you are forever exempt from this wonderful hobby? Not at all! It only means you have to consider this lack of light when you make your crop selection. Consult your local garden store and inquire about low-light or shade plants. If there opposite is your problem—if your yard is simply drenched in sunlight—there are solutions for that, too. It is far easier to build a shade for a 4×4 garden box than it is for a giant single-row garden. In later pages, we will detail exactly how to do this should you need it.
The third consideration is to avoid areas of extreme shade, or areas with trees and shrubs already planted. Not only do trees and shrubs leech sunlight from your garden, but you could risk their root systems interfering with your crops if you build your garden box too closely. The best bet is to steer clear of them. As we just discussed, shade is not a positive thing for most of the crops you will want to grow, so avoiding these larger bushy plants will keep your garden in full sunlight. Another issue is that you will be providing your garden with a nutrient and mineral rich soil which will facilitate a healthy garden crop. But guess what else would like that deliciously rich soil? Yep—your shrubs and trees! Their root systems crave the same benefits that your garden plants are enjoying, and if you place your garden box too closely to them, their roots will certainly move right in and take up residence. They could end up strangling out your crops.
Some gardeners will have no choice, depending on their yard, than to house their garden box near trees or shrubs. There are some things you can do to counter the potential pitfalls of such pesky garden neighbors. First, making sure your garden box has a plywood bottom will help resist the incursion of foreign root systems. Another thing you can do is to raise your garden box off the ground just a bit, by stacking it on top of bricks, cinder block, or other stable material. Make sure you have enough material to support each corner as well as the center of the box, otherwise you might risk the garden collapsing or tipping. With the height raised, the foreign root systems should be prevented from knowing that rich soil is anywhere around. You will want to keep a keen eye on it anyway.
The fourth consideration also requires some homework: your chosen area should not flood or ‘puddle’ if it is inundated with water. There should be plenty of drainage in the area you build your garden box, otherwise you are risking waterlogging your plants. The soil mix recommended in this guide will provide as much optimized draining as a soil can provide, but it cannot counter poor placement in your yard if you build in an area where water tends to collect. Pay attention to your yard after a good hard rain, or test it yourself by running your sprinklers or hose and noticing where water is having difficulty draining, then avoid building in these areas. If there is no way to avoid them, or if your entire yard is having issues draining, you will need to consider building your garden box with risers, as was recommended previously to avoid tree root systems. Prop up your garden box on bricks, cinder blocks, wood stands, or even sand—anything to put a barrier between your crops and stagnant puddles of water.
The final consideration is to ignore the soil quality of whatever area you choose. Remember, we will be creating our own optimized soil for the garden, so it really doesn’t matter what kind of condition the soil of your yard is in. So this isn’t as much a consideration as it is a request to forget a concern—something I’m sure most families would appreciate less of! Your yard’s soil quality doesn’t matter when we are building our own soil specifically for the garden. Ignore soil tests or the hard work of tilling and preparing soil. You could even ignore the organic yard entirely and build your boxes on the wood or concrete patio.
Using all these tips should help you locate the very best place for your garden boxes. Now it’s time to design! Remember to consider your yard and your family’s needs, and don’t be afraid to get creative! Save space for features your family uses often such as lawn chairs, BBQs, or playground equipment. Consider how lovely it would be to add other relaxing features to your garden area like benches or a fountain so that you can relax and enjoy the products of your hard work outside of the dinner table. Think about more than just the functionality of your garden, and you will get far more enjoyment out of it. In the next chapter, we are going to get to the work of building the boxes.
That was Chapter 2: Plan Your Square Foot Garden, from our Homestead Handbook: How to Grow All The Food You Need In Your Own Backyard