I finally finished the re-make of my micro farm. Up until this season, I have used the very traditional row style garden format and it worked up to a point. When I decided to really get serious about providing clean, nutritious, organic homegrown produce for my family I decided to do some gardening research to help me maximize my yields without also maximizing my effort. As I was researching, I found Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening.
Selecting the area
The first step was site selection, the minimal work required for site preparation is one of the things that really makes Square Foot Gardening different from traditional gardening. Because the plants are grown in the special growing medium, there is no need to dig or till the existing soil. The gardener needs to simply select a relatively flat and sunny spot in the yard and then build right on top of whatever is there; dirt, grass or even weeds. In recent years I have used the South facing side yard of my house for my veggie garden. Because I live in the sub tropics, my gardening schedule is opposite of most of the rest of the United States, so my main crops go in the ground in the Fall just when the rest of the country is finishing up their gardening season. The south side of the house gets direct sun all winter long, so that is where the veggies flourish.
Building the box
According to the book, 6 inches of growing medium is all that is necessary to grow most crops (even carrots, beets and radishes) so the recommended depth of the raised bed is 6 inches. If you happen to have materials that you want to recycle to make your raised bed that is taller than 6 inches it will work, but don’t try to build your garden with 2″ x 4″ lumber because your beds won’t be deep enough to sustain your plants. I decided to build a 16′ x 4′ x 6″ box for my micro farm because I had four 8′ x 6″ pieces of landscape timber from my kids’ old play area that I could re-use to form the two long sides of the raised bed. I bought a new piece of 8′ x 6″ x 2″ lumber at the local home improvement store and cut it in half to form the two short sides. We secured two 4″ wood nails at each corner to create a simple box and laid it into place making sure that it was squared up evenly.
Filling the box
Once we had the foundation ready, the next step was to fill the box. Because I was using part of the area from last year’s bed and incorporating an adjacent area of lawn I needed to block the grass from coming through into my planting area. I chose to use newspaper and paper grocery sacks as my grass and weed suppressing bottom layer because it was an opportunity to recycle that paper, but black weed blocking material from the garden supply would have worked just as well. After laying out the newspaper and grocery sacks to completely cover the grass, dirt and weeds at the bottom of the box, the bed was ready to fill but in order to do that I needed to know how much volume I had to fill.
The formula for that is (Length x Width x Depth), so for my 16′ x 4′ x 6″ layout I needed 32 cubic feet (16 x 4 x 0.5) of growing medium. This seemed like it would be too much to carry in my minivan, but we were able to load all of it easily with the back row of seats folded down. The Square Foot Gardening book specified that I should fill the box with equal parts of vermiculite, peat moss and compost but I couldn’t find vermiculite in my area so instead I bought bags of peat moss that was already mixed with perlite which is similar in function to vermiculite. We mixed the perlite/peat moss combo with the compost right in the box by layering them in alternating between the two materials and then gently stirring with a hoe and a rake.
After watering it all in very thoroughly, all that was left was to make the grid which is the hallmark of the Square Foot Gardening method. The grid defines the border of each planting area and shows the gardener exactly where to plant each seed or transplant. In this system the plants are divided by size, and the seeds are sown in groups of 1, 4, 9 or 16 per square depending on the size of the plant. For example, one square foot could grow 16 carrots or 9 beets or 4 lettuces 0r 1 cabbage. To make our grid we nailed in a wide head nail every 12 inches and then just tied twine from one nail to the other in a grid pattern although Mr. Bartholomew encourages gardeners to use thin strips of wood to create a more prominent grid.
Now my Square Foot micro farm box is ready and waiting for me to fill it up with a bounty of delicious veggies. I am starting my seeds now so that when the intense heat of summer breaks, I will be able to put my seedlings right into their spots in the garden.
Here is what you’ll need if you want to make an 8′ x 4′ raised bed.
- Round point shovel
- Gloves (optional)
- Measuring tape
- Knife or scissors
- (3) 8′ x 2″ x 6″ pieces of lumber ($5.50/each x 3 pieces = $16.50)
- (8) 4″ wood nails
- (20) 1″ wood nails
- Roll of twine ($3.00)
- Newspaper or paper bags (use what you have)
- 6 cubic feet of organic compost (6 bags of 1 cuft x $1.75 = $10.50)
- 10 cubic feet of garden soil (5 bags of 2 cuft x $6.00 = $30.00)
The total cost to build and fill an 8′ x 4′ x 6″ box is approximately $60.00 and most of this expense is one time only. In subsequent plantings, you will need to add a little compost which you can buy at the garden center but I recommend starting your own compost pile. Here is my post on how to start a compost pile Composting 101. You may also need to re-string your grid periodically with new twine.
I would love to hear about your experiences in gardening, please feel free to post a comment below with any tips, tricks, questions or advice you may have.