In an effort to make our vegetable garden more efficient and water wise, we’re devoting one of our raised beds to the SFG principle. What is SFG? Square Foot Gardening, a concept popularized by Mel Bartholomew in 1981 in his book All New Square Foot Gardening, Second Edition: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More In Less Space“>”All New Square Foot Gardening”. The idea is to divide your garden space, in our case a raised bed, into 1 foot sections and each square will be planted individually based on the size of the plant. Should turn in to a nicely stuffed garden, like a family of ten living in a 1 bedroom apartment.
For example; a single tomato plant would take up a full 1′ x 1′ square, strawberry plants planted 4 to a square, and radishes planted 16 to a square. Tall or climbing plants like corn or pole beans could be planted at the north end so as not to shade other plants.
Step 1. First things first, we’re planting a cover crop.
To improve the soil in the raised bed, we decided to plant a cover crop in the fall that consisted of field peas and hulled oats. This cover crop should improve our chances of a successful Square Foot Garden in the spring. Oats are used for green manure and the peas are a source of organic matter and nitrogen. Both should improve the health of the soil in the bed. Work the soil with a garden rake, broadcast the seeds over the soil, and then rake to cover the seeds. Birds think you’ve scattered the seeds for their benefit so try to cover well with soil.
Cover crops are very low-maintenance but will require water initially to get started. After the crops get growing they’ll need little attention and minimal water.
One of the downsides to cover crops is that you will be giving up one of your growing beds for about 3 months. However, we feel that the benefits to improving the soil far outweigh the loss of a bed for a short time. In fact, in most of our beds we’ll plant a cover crop from time to time to improve the soil. Cover crops are well suited to all gardens, whether they’re big or small.
Step 2. Cut down the cover crop
Before the cover crop goes to seed it’s time to chop it down. Depending on how big an area your cover crop is you can use a GreenWorks 25022 12 Amp Corded 20-Inch Lawn Mower“>lawn mower, a GreenWorks 21212 4Amp 13-Inch Corded String Trimmer“>weed eater or, in our case, Fiskars 25-33 Inch Power-Lever Extendable Hedge Shear (9169)“>hedge shears. Cut it down to about 2 inches in height and let it dry out for 2 to 3 days.
Here is the cover crop after it’s been cut to about 2 inches. You can see why it’s called green manure. This rich, green cover crop will be dug into the soil to add much needed organic matter. After you’ve cut the crop down let it sit for a couple of days until the leaves and stems dry out.
Step 3. Dig the cover crop into the soil.
Now that the cover crop has dried for a few days it’s time to dig it into the bed. You’ll have some long pieces of stems and vines but it won’t take long before these partially decompose. Now the hard part, after turning under a cover crop of grasses you have to wait 2 to 3 weeks before planting vegetables or flowers.
All of this material will add a lot of good organic matter to your soil. This green manure will also help hold water thereby reducing the amount needed. Once we plant vegetables in the garden we will add mulch which will also reduce the amount of water required.
We’ll be using a soaker hose to water the beds which we installed when we built the beds. As much as possible we trying to minimize our water usage.
In Phase 2 we’ll get started on the Square Foot Garden layout and planting.
Mary and Brian are backyard gardeners who like to share their passion for all things gardening.
Visit them at TheBackyardGardeners.
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