By Madeleine Faust, Certified Master Gardener
A stroll through the Demonstration Gardens of Glencarlyn, Simpson, and Bon Air leads one gently along the curves that define the paths and plantings. The softness and seemingly indeterminate order comfort the eye and make one anticipate the next bend. By contrast, a stroll through the Organic Vegetable Garden (OVG), in Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington, Virginia, is a study in protracted straightness. Bean plantings form straight lines, their pole supports vertical and sturdy. Tidy pathways surround other rectangular beds of eggplant, tomatoes, and chard. Groomed and towering, the garden visually satisfying and inspiring. But tucked in a corner of the OVG, near the country-red shed, lies a bed that is different from all the others. It is neither large nor long nor rectangular. Its crops are not in straight rows. It is a 4-foot by 4-foot square overlaid with a grid of 16 1-foot by 1-foot squares. This is the Square Foot Garden.
Square Foot Gardening was pioneered by Mel Bartholomew in the 1980’s, and it became widely known via a PBS television series of the same name. Square Foot Gardening is not merely an alternative garden layout, however. It is a system of gardening that Mr. Bartholomew envisioned would make gardening available to everyone–gardeners with minimal land, poor soil, no nearby water source, limited financial resources for fertilizers or equipment, and minimal physical ability.
The method is simple: create a square raised bed that can be delineated into 1-foot-square sections. The standard layout is 4 feet by 4 feet with 16 individual squares, though other configurations are often used to suit a gardener’s space, needs, or aesthetics. For example, a local Arlington preschool recently installed a Square Foot Garden with 2-foot by 8-foot beds so the students could reach all the squares. The bed was filled with a soil mixture that is equal parts peat moss, course vermiculite, and compost.
Each 1-foot-square section of the garden is treated independently. Different crops are planted, harvested, and replanted throughout the season in each square. When a plant is harvested and removed, a trowel-full of compost is turned into the soil before the next crop is planted.
Plants are spaced in the squares in a grid pattern rather than rows. Larger crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, and cauliflower are planted 1 per square; lettuces, chard, parsley, and strawberries are planted 4 per square; spinach and bush beans are planted 9 per square; and carrots and radishes are planted 16 per square. This year in the OVG, Master Gardeners installed a trellis for vining plants such as peas, pole beans, and cucumbers.
This year, Master Gardeners are following Mr. Bartholomew’s method precisely: the soil is not amended except for the addition of a trowel-full of compost whenever a new crop is planted, and the only tools used are a trowel, a pencil, and a pair of scissors. This is possible because the soil mixture is extremely light and friable. The watering method prescribes one cup at a time by hand at the base of each plant, from a bucket that is kept by the garden. This watering method allows people who do not have a nearby water source to keep an irrigated garden, and minimizes water usage by directing water to the plant roots.
As I tend the Square Foot Garden, I look at the rest of the OVG with a bit of envy. My colleagues outdo themselves in their devotion, expertise, and methods, raising vigorous crops with beautiful, abundant yields that the Square Foot Garden has not been able to match. While the garden is currently in a location with partial sun, several things specific to this gardening method contribute to slightly lower yields: tight plant spacing, smaller varieties, the use of compost as the only soil amendment, and the turning of the soil that disrupts the microbial world.
It is important to note that the goal of Square Foot Gardening is not to produce maximum yields, but rather to make gardening accessible to everyone and to cultivate a wide variety of crops in a small space. To these ends, the Square Foot Garden excels. It uses simple, compact raised beds, making it ideal for beginners and gardeners with minimal land. Gardening one square foot at a time allows for a variety of crops and naturally creates a manageable work schedule for the novice, the gardener with little spare time, and the physically challenged gardener. The light, friable, fertile soil mixture spares gardeners the tasks of tilling and amending. The light soil mixture is ideal for creating a garden at table height for gardeners with limited mobility. Even watering labor is minimized by watering one cup at a time.
Every type of gardener is drawn to the tidy, organized, and practicable garden and thinks, “I can do that!”