If you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or like my Facebook page, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve got gardening on the brain! We started our 4×8 square foot garden a couple years ago and I’m super excited to get going on it again. We’ve still got a good 4-6″ of snow on the ground, but it’ll be gone soon and it’ll be time to get our hands in the dirt.
We’ve had some great successes and some major flops with our garden, all of which adds up to some good lessons learned. I’m no master gardener. In fact, I know I’ll be a lifelong student in this realm. But I’ve learned enough to share some important and helpful tips.
TIPS FOR SQUARE FOOT GARDENING
Do Your Homework BEFORE Installing Your Garden
Please, please, please don’t just go out on a whim and plop a garden wherever “looks good” in your yard. You’ve got to be sure your garden spot is going to have adequate sunlight, proper drainage, and easy enough access that it won’t be a pain to work around in your garden.
Also, the dimensions of the garden are important. I find that a 4-foot wide bed is a good width that allows you to work and easily reach from either side without having to actually step into the garden. Width isn’t the only dimension to pay attention to, though. For our garden, we knew that to get good drainage it would need to be raised pretty high. That may be true for your’s as well, or you may only need a few inches.
For more on how we installed our garden, check out my instructions for a 4×8 raised bed.
Use Good Soil
We have clay soil here, and I’ve seen lots of folks suggest saving money on soil by mixing the clay with good soil or soil amendments. The problem with clay is that it holds water in and doesn’t allow for proper drainage. In fact, clay is so good at holding water that it is used to line pond bottoms and other bodies of water. You DON’T want standing water in your garden.
Go to a nursery and ask for the best soil for an organic vegetable garden. It’s worth the investment. You don’t have to replace the soil year after year, but it is a good idea to mix in some natural fertilizer. We use what we call lazy composting, where we just throw all of our compostables into our bin outside with minimal turning and at the beginning of each year, we dig up the “good stuff” from the bottom of the bin to spread in our gardens. If you don’t compost, you can buy natural fertilizer and/or compost at garden centers.
Give some thought as to what you want to grow, what will grow well in your location, and the growing seasons. You probably want to have a steady stream of edible crops throughout spring, summer, and fall. If so, be sure you are planning for a variety of plants that will accommodate that.
Planning ahead will also let you know how many actual plants you’ll need of each variety. No need to start 20 tomato plants if you only plan to have 2 or 3 in your garden! I do recommend starting more seeds than you intend to keep, just because some will thrive and others won’t. You don’t want to start just 2 or 3 tomato plants and end up with only 1 strong start.
Here’s a simple square foot garden planner to help you decide what to plant where. I like to start by noting which direction is north, just to get my bearings. Then I just write down all the veggies we like and have talked about planting one day without the intent to plant all of them (we only have 1 4×8 bed). I also write in if they need to be started indoors (and when), when they get planted outside, and when they’ll be ready to harvest. Then I just use a pencil and play around with placing plants in my 1’x1′ squares. Makes it pretty easy! I made the middle line bold just to stand out a bit more in case you have a 4×4 bed. Enjoy!
Click here to download: 4×8 Square Foot Garden Planner
Mark Your Squares
I didn’t do this the first year, but it is very easy and well worth the effort. All you have to do is place a nail or screw every 12 inches along each side of your garden bed and run garden twine between them to make a grid of 12 inch squares. This will make planting according to your plan so easy.
Space Plants Properly
Don’t try to maximize the space in your garden by putting your plants “just a little closer” than is recommended. It backfires. Trust me.
In a square foot garden, proper spacing means that some squares will only have one plant and others will have several. The spacing recommendations for various plants ensure the plant has plenty of room for healthy growth. Pay attention to what is best for each item you are planting and follow the recommendation closely. You’ll have a much better result.
Thin Plants When Needed
If you do end up with a few too many plants in a square, go ahead and thin some out. This is not only important for the growth of the plants, but it also effects how much moisture is held around the plants. Last year, I didn’t thin my cukes and the vines and leaves were too crowded. It caused too much moisture to remain on the plants themselves after a rain and caused mildew.
To thin your bed, just pull out the weakest looking plants. Carefully move the healthier looking plants around to evenly space them if needed. Be sure you do this early on! You don’t want to be moving plants around while they are flowering.
Keep Up With Weeding
In early spring when you get plenty of rain and in the height of summer when there’s lots of sun, the weeds will grow FAST. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to pull a few weeds here and there each day than it is to try to go out just once or twice a week. It doesn’t take long, just 5 or 10 minutes each day. But if you let it go, it can be overwhelming to get caught up with pulling all the weeds!
Water When Needed
Our first year, I would watch the weather and would not water the garden if there was a chance of rain. The problem? The weather is so unpredictable here in Northeast Indiana, that often the rain would not come (or if it did, it would be very little). As you can imagine, that resulted in under-watered plants.
Our second year of gardening, I didn’t pay attention to the forecast and just went ahead and watered when the garden needed it. I learned that if your garden has good drainage, getting watered twice occasionally (once by me and once by Mother Nature) didn’t hurt.
On the other hand, I don’t recommend watering on a schedule. That will often result in overwatering during times of heavy rain. There’s nothing you can do to prevent 4 days of rain in a row, but you sure don’t want to water on that 5th day just because you’re watering on a schedule.
Go out and check the soil. If it’s dry, water. If it’s moist, don’t. Doing it that way will keep you much more in tune with how healthy your garden is anyway.
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