Home & Garden

Square-foot gardening: Maximze space, output

After just one growing season, Bill Rigby is sold on square-foot gardening – in fact, he’s been teaching workshops to spread the word to other gardeners.

“It’s a very satisfying way of gardening,” said Rigby, a Graham resident and Pierce County master gardener. “It’s very productive. The results will just amaze anyone who does it.”

Square-foot gardening is a simple idea: Grow more in a smaller space, with less work.

No wonder it’s growing in popularity – there’s no need to dig or improve the underlying soil, little or no fertilizer is needed to grow great plants, and fewer weeds will grow in the special planting mix.

“It’s a simple, unique, versatile system that adapts to all levels of experience and physical ability,” Rigby said.

HOW IT WORKS

A basic square-foot garden consists of a 4-foot-square box that’s 6 inches deep, filled with a blend of compost, peat moss and vermiculite, then topped with a grid that divides the box into 16 squares.

Rather than sowing in rows, the gardener plants just a few seeds in each 12-inch square, according to the mature plant spacing indicated on the seed package.

“You don’t thin them out, you plant exactly what you need,” Rigby said. “When you plant in a row garden, that’s wasting all that seed.”

Each square can accommodate 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants, depending on the space that a mature plant requires.

For instance, a single square can comfortably grow one cabbage, or four lettuce plants, or nine beets, or 16 radishes, Rigby explained. A box can be planted with a single crop or several crops. Flowers and veggies can go in the same box.

GROWING MORE

Mel Bartholomew, author of “All New Square Foot Gardening,” says that one 4-foot-square box will produce more than a traditional 8-by-10-foot row garden.

That’s why Kathryn Powell, chairwoman of the new Puyallup Community Garden, hopes gardeners who rent 10-by-10 plots there will consider it. “We would love it if people started getting into square-foot gardening,” said Powell, who is a master gardener. “You need 80 percent less space than you would normally need. It produces so much more.”

To teach gardeners the basics, Powell invited Rigby to give a workshop on square-foot gardening at the community garden last week.

WHAT TO PLANT

Rigby learned about square-foot gardening early last year when he bought Bartholomew’s book.

After growing flowers and food crops in open, raised beds for years, Rigby thought Bartholomew’s grid system was a great idea for keeping crops organized.

Still, Rigby was skeptical about the shallow boxes. “I thought, it’s impossible to grow stuff in 6 inches,” he said, so “I started growing and experimenting.”

Rigby found that most vegetables will grow well in the boxes, but crops with longer roots – like rhubarb, strawberries, 8-inch carrots, celery and rutabagas – need more depth, so he made permanent beds for them.

In his boxes, Rigby grows a wide variety of veggies, including corn, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, short carrots, garlic and beans.

WHY 4 SQUARE FEET?

The idea behind a 4-foot-square box is that most people have a comfortable reach of 2 feet, according to Bartholomew’s Web site, www.squarefootgardening.com.

Couple that with 2 to 3 feet of walkway space around the box and it’s easy for a gardener to tend and harvest crops. If there’s access on only one side, the box should be just 2 feet deep. If space is limited, try a 2-by-2 or 3-by-3 box.

DESIGN FACTORS

A box can be constructed without a bottom and set on level ground, on top of landscape fabric, cardboard or a thick layer of newspapers that will keep weeds from growing up through the planting mix.

Adding a plywood bottom allows the box to be set on risers at a comfortable working height, or placed onto a hard surface. “I think it’s great for people who have minimal space – it can go on a patio, a porch, a deck,” Rigby said.

The boxes can be as plain or fancy as the gardener wants: Rigby paints his boxes and grids white.

“When you’ve got the vegetables growing in there, it looks nice,” he said. “It piques people’s interest – they want to know, ‘What is that?’ There’s a lot of interest in it.”

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