There is one more bio-intensive method to discuss here, one that was created with geeks in mind. It was invented by an engineer named Mel Bartholomew. Back in the 1980s, he was searching for a better way to garden. He wanted to reduce the space needed to grow food, decrease water, and eliminate as much labor as possible. As engineers often do, he questioned everything. In particular, he questioned traditional row farming.
Square Foot Gardening, as the name implies, is based on using square feet instead of rows to plot out crops. Based on a 4′ × 4′ raised bed, Bartholomew claimed you could grow a laundry list of vegetables in one bed, including one head each of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage; sixteen heads of lettuce; five pounds of peas; sixteen scallions; thirty-two carrots; thirty-two beets (with greens); thirty-two radishes; eight Swiss chard plants; nine spinach plants; and nine turnips. Sound impossible? Not so.
His method divides square feet equally into sections, like a four-square or tic-tac-toe board, depending on how far apart plants need to be spaced. If plants need to be 12″ apart, plant one in the center of each square foot and poof! Those plants are 12″ apart. Vegetables like lettuces generally need to be 6″ apart. By dividing a square foot into four quarters, and planting one lettuce in the center of each quarter, those lettuces are all 6″ apart from each other. That’s four lettuces per square foot. If you only have a balcony, using this method you can grow enough salad greens in 2 square feet to make salads for one person for three months. Just harvest the outside leaves and those eight heads of lettuce will keep producing all season long.
Much like other bio-intensive methods, Bartholomew’s technique of planting vegetables close together creates that living mulch we were talking about earlier. Plant shoulders touch, blocking out the sun and keeping soil moist and weed free. That equals less labor and water, and more food for gardeners.
The strategy behind using raised beds no larger than 4′ × 4′ is simple. An adult can reach about 2′ into a garden without stepping on the soil. If you have access on all four sides, you will be able to access the entire raised bed easily. If you situate your bed up against the wall, the bed should be narrower to accommodate only having access on three sides, even less if access is only available on one side.
By dividing the 4′ × 4′ raised bed into 16 square feet, Bartholomew discovered that each square could be worked individually. For example, let’s say we have radishes planted in one square and lettuces in a second square next to it. Radishes sprout and grow quickly, and will be ready to harvest long before the lettuces. According to Bartholomew, you can harvest those radishes, and then use a hand trowel to add a handful of compost to that now-empty square. Then it’s ready to plant again without ever disturbing the lettuces next door. In fact, after initial setup, you can work your garden without ever using a shovel again.
Square Foot Gardening has its own soil formula, method of starting seeds, and plenty of shortcuts to reduce waste, including seeds. Traditional farming (and instructions on every seed packet) will have you sprinkling seeds in a row, backfilling the soil to cover the seeds, watering the entire row, and waiting for the seeds to sprout. Once they do, you have to go back and thin—pull or cut out any sprout that is not a certain distance from its neighbor. What a waste of seeds, time, and energy. Bartholomew’s method has you drilling holes exactly where the seeds are going to grow to maturity. You drop in a seed or two, cover it up, and water 1 square foot instead of a long row. A germination test will help determine seed viability, so you don’t waste time planting seeds that won’t germinate.
GEEKY GARDENING TIP
Do you know where your seeds have been? Out baking in the sun, taking a dip in the fountain? A germination test is one sure way to know whether your seeds are past their prime or not. Lay a paper towel on a flat surface and put ten seeds in a straight line across the center, about 1⁄2” or so apart. Fold the paper towel up around the seeds, keeping it flat. Run the towel under a stream of water to dampen it. Place the whole thing in a plastic bag. Seal the bag and place it on top of your refrigerator out of direct light. Check back to make sure the towel stays wet. Seed packets will state “Days to Germination,” so mark your calendar and check for sprouts when time is up. If seven out of ten seeds germinate, you’re in pretty good shape. If five out of ten seeds germinate, that’s a 50 percent germination ratio, so double up on the number of seeds you plant in each hole. If less than 50 percent sprout, plant the remainder of the packet in a fit of passion or swap them for newer seeds.
In his original book, Bartholomew developed a geeky way to plant seeds. It goes like this: drill a hole that is twice as deep as the recommended seed depth. Fill the hole halfway with vermiculite. Drop in a seed. Fill the rest of the hole with more vermiculite. Vermiculite, as mentioned earlier, holds moisture exceedingly well. By creating a moisture cocoon around your seeds, you’re ensuring they won’t dry out. The other thing that makes this technique cool is you now know exactly where your seeds are planted (vermiculite is cream-colored and shiny), and you know exactly where to water. Not only that—you will know exactly where to replant if your seeds don’t emerge.
The great thing about Square Foot Gardening is that it’s malleable. You can adapt it to any size or space. Make “L” shapes in corners, long narrow planters alongside yards, or create a child’s garden with smaller raised beds. Square Foot Gardening advises ways to modify raised beds for concrete patios, or elevate them for those in wheelchairs. It also maintains you can save space by growing up instead of out.
Vertical gardening has become more popular in recent years, but Bartholomew has been preaching the benefits of growing crops up trellises long before it was hip to plant a living roof or wall. Sure, we’re accustomed to seeing crops like cucumbers and pole beans winding up a trellis, but what about cantaloupe or butternut squash? It’s totally possible with SFG. Here’s a chance to use that ratty old T-shirt or those pantyhose with an unsightly run. As fruit develops, you can fashion a sling from the sleeves of dad’s old sweatshirt and tie it securely to the trellis. Melons ripen without pulling down the vines because they are fully supported.
While each of these bio-intensive methods can be used individually, adventurous gardeners can combine the techniques to see just how efficient their garden can be. Try hexagonal spacing and vertical gardening together. Play with double digging and formal raised beds to see if you can improve yields. These techniques came about from years of trial and error, and finally success. You may come up with the next best bio-intensive method yet.