If you hang out with me very long, especially if we get together to eat, you’ll quickly find out that I am a picky eater. I always have been. Growing up I wasn’t forced, like many, to “eat my vegetables,” so it wasn’t until I started getting serious with my then girlfriend and now wife that I got adventurous with my dinner plate. Eating at her parents’ house changed that. I still don’t eat a ton of veggies, but because of them, and her, I do make attempts from time to time with new varieties of food.
All this being said, I actually have an itch to try my hand at some gardening. My father-in-law has a large garden that he works each year, and we get a lot of food from it. I admire the amount of effort he puts into it. I know that there is no way that I would ever be able to take care of all the plants that he does, but I still have that itch. I want to get my hands dirty and work the soil and see the return on sweat investment. Even though I probably wouldn’t eat most of the produce we grow, the challenge and reward for effort is appealing. So, I’ve done some research on how I can create a small but successful garden in my suburban Atlanta backyard. I’m gonna try it out this year. Maybe I can inspire you to, also.
If you live in Georgia, whether in the metro Atlanta area or out towards the more rural areas, you may not feel like you have the time, space, or the nutrient rich soil needed to plant your very own produce garden. One of the biggest challenges that nearly everyone in Georgia will face when trying to plant a garden of any size or type is red Georgia clay. As anyone who has ever tried planting anything in Georgia knows, clothing stains aren’t the only thing problematic about red clay.
So, other than tilling and treating and working year round to get nutrient rich soil in your perhaps already small yard for planting, how else can you realistically have a backyard garden that will produce great quality vegetables for you and your family? The solution is simple; it’s called Square Foot Gardening.
What is Square Foot Gardening?
Square Foot Gardening is a relatively new concept, made popular in recent years by Mel Bartholomew. It takes the idea of having a small, backyard garden and streamlines it to fit any size home or yard. The basic idea is to plant vegetables and fruits in beds that are boxed in or raised above the ground. This can eliminate the problem of infertile soil because it allows you to mix your own soil for planting and makes your plants more difficult for pests to reach. Another advantage that the nutrient rich soil used in a Square Foot Garden allows is that after one type of plant is harvested, another plant can replace it, eliminating unused space and allowing you to get the most out of your garden.
Square Foot Gardening vs. Traditional Gardening
Traditional gardens are a lot of work. The soil has to be worked and reworked and weeded and re-weeded before, during, and after your garden is planted and harvested to get ready for the next season. And when you hit red Georgia clay in that little patch of yard that would be perfect for your garden, you may just be out of luck. But with square foot gardening you can place your garden wherever is most convenient for you, because you get to decide the quality of the soil you plant in and everything that goes into it. Compost, manure, and other chemical free fertilizers are popular choices among Square Foot Gardening advocates, and they work wonders for produce plants. Another advantage of Square Foot Gardening over traditional gardening is that Square Foot Gardening can easily be protected from pests. A traditional garden can take up as much as 160 sq ft for about 10 types of plants, while a Square Foot Garden can hold just as much produce for a tenth of the space, making it easier to safeguard your plants against unwanted sharing. Square Foot Gardening is also great for people who may have a bad back or have a family member with some sort of physical handicap. A raised Square Foot Garden could be the perfect solution for getting everyone involved because it makes gardening easily accessible to anyone.
Types of Square Foot Gardening
If you have decided to give square foot gardening a try, then you need to decide what type you are going to use.
On the Ground
If you have enough room in your yard, you can use untreated lumber to create a small enclosure to hold your soil in place. You can either dig down about 6 inches, block off the area with your untreated lumber, and fill in the area with your soil, or you can build a boxed in area above ground with the lumber and your soil. The first option can be a bit more time consuming and more difficult, but it is really all dependent on what type of garden you want and how much effort you want to put into it. In either case, to avoid having weeds grow up from beneath your garden, use a weed barrier of some sort – solid wood bottom, fabric, newspaper, or mulch are all popular choices.
If you want a raised garden, use a sturdy, untreated plywood bottom, and build a box just like you would if you were putting it on the ground. The above ground box option allows the garden to be placed anywhere that adequate sunlight is available – including the porch, patio, balcony, or anywhere with a flat space and sunlight.
Use a Grid
One of the most important parts about the Square Foot Garden is the grid. Some people will forego using a grid in their Square Foot Gardens, but they really are cheating themselves. Grids are used to keep plants separate and in nice little compartments. Usually thin planks of wood are used to create a grid and are what should be walked on to water and weed your garden if you are putting it in the ground. Some people use twine in small Square Foot Garden boxes, which can be a good option as well. Either way, just make sure you use a grid, you’ll thank me later.
The first thing you have to do is decide where you are going to place your Square Foot Garden and what type you are going to use. Are you going to go with the grid method or the above ground box? Secondly, decide what you are going to plant – zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes are all great, easy plants for beginners – and plan the size of your garden accordingly. Make sure your space for soil is about 6 inches deep – deeper if you are planting potatoes or other root vegetables – and get to planting!
You can buy all the supplies, including plants, for an above ground 4×4 Square Foot Garden box for as little as $50.
What to Plant
The thought of planting your own garden may be daunting to some, and while the clay may make some plants difficult to grow in Georgia, just about anything will grow well in a Square Foot Garden. Some plants that are well suited to growing in Georgia’s weather are green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers (and peppers of any variety, really), eggplant, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, carrots, turnips, beets, corn, onions, lettuce, beets, strawberries, and watermelon. It is important to take into account the area that you will need for each plant and that some vine plants may need extra room and a structure to climb. Also remember that if you plant something tall, like corn, to make sure that it does not block out the sunlight from reaching your other plants.
Still not sure?
There are lots of resources out there to help you get started on your Square Foot Garden, both online and in your local garden center. A couple of online resources you can start with are www.MelBartholomew.com and www.squarefootgardening.com, and a quick Google or YouTube search will yield plenty more.
Just do it!
Even if you are unsure about whether you have Square Foot Gardening down to an exact science, why not give it a try? Start small this year, like me. Try planting a few tomatoes and some beans, and next year try going bigger and plant some squash, radish, or spinach. From all that I’ve heard, you’ll be amazed at how much you can produce! And next thing you know, you’ll become an enthusiast for it to your neighbors, friends, and family.
While you are out shopping for the supplies that you will need to make your Square Foot Garden this year, be sure to shop at your locally owned and operated hardware store or garden center (you know… us!) and get to know your friendly local experts who can help you make the most of your garden. Most of the materials (besides the lumber) you will need can be found at Howard Brothers. We have the plants, seeds, soils, fertilizers, advice, and just about everything else to get you started on your very own Square Foot Garden. Get to know the folks who are truly interested in you and want you to succeed and have FUN!