April 4, 2016

The Small Space Garden Primer

I have to say, I feel kinda weird posting about gardening today of all days. As I look out my window, my yard is literally blanketed with a foot of snow and the sky is alive with angry snowflakes. And it’s April! April, people!!!! How does that even happen!? As hard as it is to believe, the snow will be gone within a week and it will be time: time to dig and rake and yank and pull and have sore muscles. Spring will happen. And once it happens, the gardening bug will strike. You’ll want to go to the nursery like immediately, and go hog wild, filling your cart with cell packs of vibrant veggies or beautiful seed packets with hand-drawn pictures of pumpkins, summer squash, and rapini. But before you jump in your car, STOP, take a deep breath, and make a diagram, and a list. And when you get to the nursery, stick to that list, or else you’ll end up with tomato plants in every nook and cranny of your yard, every single pot you own and, inevitably in your neighbours’ yards (#askmehowiknow). When you have limited space in your garden, you want to make what space you do have, count.

The Square Foot Method for small space gardens

You’ve probably seen articles about square foot gardening. This is a great way to jam a bunch of veggies into a small area. Yes, even if you only have containers! So here’s how Square Foot Gardening works: you create a grid in your gardening space, where each grid square measures 1×1 foot. Within each grid space, you plant a vegetable you’d like to grow. Since every vegetable has a different footprint (or space requirement), each vegetable will have a maximum number of plants you can plant per grid square. Sound confusing? It’s not, I promise. To simplify things a bit, pretend for a moment you only have one container that is 1 square foot. In that one container you can fit 4 bush bean plants, 1 tomato plant, or 8 pea plants. You can also use one square foot to grow 2 corn stalks, 1 squash plant, or 2 chard. Make sense? So, if you have a 4×4 square foot raised bed, you would have 8 grids in which you could plant: 1 tomato plant, 8 pea plants, 2 chards, 4 bush beans, 16 arugula, 1 broccoli, 15 carrots, and 1 pumpkin. Phew! That’s a lot a variety in a relatively small space! If you have 8 containers and each are one square foot, you can plant the same. I know, it’s a lot of numbers and variables. It’s easiest to understand when you can actually see it for yourself and play around with the possibilities.

Gardeners.com has a great online tool to help you through your first square foot garden. You can get a good idea, visually, of what veggies you can fit where. All you do is set up your own garden measurements and then drag and drop the vegetables you’d like into their little grid system. Fun and easy. Oh, and they also have some pre-made theme square foot garden plans.

Which brings me to my next point. A fun thing about square foot gardening is that you can create little theme gardens. Do you love salsa? Make a salsa garden and make sure you grow some tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapeño. Love cocktail hour, then organize your garden to include mint, basils, and even some small berries.

My small space garden:

I have been using a variety of containers for years now. I also have a long, wraparound raised bed, which is 2 1/2′ x 14′ approx. Last summer I divided my bed into 2 1/1′ x 2 1/2 ‘ beds and interplanted in each bed. In grid #1 I grew 3 heirloom tomato plants plus mesclun mix. In grid #2 I grew 1 basil plant, more mesclun, and 3 bush beans. In grid #3 I grew 6 peas plants and 4 or 5 calendula. In grid #4 I grew 6 swiss chard. In grid #5 I grew 3 kale and 9 spinach.

the small space garden: gettin' square foot with it! www.mudonherboots.com

Peas and calendula in 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 foot raised bed.

You’re not limited to growing just one thing in one grid. You can interplant to maximize your space. Just make sure that you aren’t overcrowding anything. I have tried many different iterations of vegetables. I have grown everything from arugula to zucchini and pretty much everything in between (see what I did there?!) Without getting too overwhelming, you also want to keep in mind the yield of each plant and the time it spends in your garden taking up room. One stalk of corn will yield 2 ears, if you’re lucky and the racoons don’t beat you to it! So, if you can plant 2 stalks in a one square foot space, you’ll end up with 4 ears of corn. That’s it. Think about that in terms of roadside corn stands were you can get a dozen for $5. Maybe corn isn’t the best option then. Whereas cherry tomatoes take up your garden all summer but will yield literally a hundred or so tomatoes, if it’s happy, and that, my friend, will make you very, very happy.

Mel Bartholomew is the guy who came up with the whole square foot gardening idea. His website has some good info to get started, too. Though not nearly as handy as the gardeners.com site, it’s still worth a visit, because hey, it’s his brainchild.

How to get your own small space garden going:

the small space garden: gettin' square foot with it! www.mudonherboots.com
Make a Veggie Wishlist

This is the best part of building a vegetable garden. You get to sit and daydream about all the things you love to eat and then find a way to make them grow in your garden. You can have a garden full of one thing, or full of many things, it’s really up to you. Just make sure they’re things you and your family love to eat! This is also a great opportunity to try something different, like a type of kale you never see in the grocery store or a fancy eggplant that is too cute to pass up. If you are growing some veggies as a way to cut costs, my advice is to keep in mind what grows well in your area already, and will be widely available at your farmers’ market for a fairly inexpensive price. Bunch carrots, potatoes, and pick your own berries just might be better options than planting your own. If you live in potato country, then you can probably already buy potatoes inexpensively at farmers’ markets, or if you live near a Pick Your Own farm, it might be more cost effective to go and pick your own berries, than it would be to plant them.

Draw Up a Diagram

In my first post, I talked about choosing a garden plot or containers or building a raised bed if you have the time/effort/money. Now that you have them, measure them. Write down those measurements. Get yourself a piece of paper and pencil and get drawing. Sketch out your garden plot or containers and put the measurements beside them. If it’s an actual garden or raised bed, draw 1×1′ grid squares across it so you know how many squares you will be looking to fill. Remember, the diagram doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, I think rough sketches are the best. They’re more organic, less constrained, and you can just rip ’em up and start over without worrying about downloading and printing other copies.

the small space garden: gettin' square foot with it! www.mudonherboots.com

The beginnings of my garden list. In my favourite green notebook.

Once you’ve drawn up a diagram, look at your veggie wishlist and see how much space those vegetables will take up. Fill in some empty squares with the veg and see what you have left. What you are aiming for ideally is a different vegetable in each space, so if you have some empty spaces and want to fill them with more vegetables, go for it! If you have spaces but are content with the veg you have, add some great annuals like nasturtium, marigold, and calendula, which are all great at pest control AND look pretty!

Once your diagram is all filled out: get yourself to the nursery! You’re ready!

Want to know my top 5 favourite no-fail easy growing heirloom veggies that’ll rock your summer? Check out my next post!

the small space garden: gettin' square foot with it! www.mudonherboots.com

peas and mesclun mix.

happy planning!

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