Want to know a dirty little secret? It’s kind of filthy, promise. I’ve been busy building raised garden beds and giving a green thumbs up to square foot gardening. Square foot gardening is a growing (smirk) movement where budding gardeners build boxes that hold soil and grow vegetables above ground.
Growing up in an urban city environment I never bothered with conventional vegetable gardening since space was at a premium and land almost nonexistent. But planting several small raised garden beds is a possibility for many families with a modest plot. Raised beds just don’t take up a lot of space.
Now that I live on a sizable family farm with acres of viable gardening space, I’m still drawn to cultivating a small square foot garden. The reasons are simple – it’s far easier to manage and care for squares of soil than acres of wide open space.
10 Reasons to Love Raised Garden Beds
If you’re wondering if growing a modest square foot garden is for you, here’s some food for thought. Chew on this!
1. No heavy digging. Raised garden beds don’t require you to dig deep into the ground. An advantage if you’re not into, well, digging.
2. Soil quality is irrelevant. If you don’t have fabulous fertile soil then worry not. Just use compost or buy a few bags of soil to fill your raised beds. Perfect soil every time. You can also customize the soil in each box for different plant types.
3. Uses less water. Because the garden is contained you end up using far less water compared to conventional gardening. You also save on your water bill since a contained garden prevents soil from getting spread out and compacted.
4. Easier to care for and protect. Raised garden beds can be placed close to your home and thus under your watchful eye and easier to care for. This depends though, if you have deer grazing in your area then protecting your bounty is still a bit of a job.
5. Easier to manage. It’s easier to reach for and sit beside a raised garden bed than a conventional in-ground garden. Raised beds grow closer to our sitting height and don’t require lots of bending over to get down and dirty. Reaching to weed, water, or harvest is unnecessary since the box frames are not wider than 4 feet.
6. Less weeding? Some square foot gardeners claim there are less weeds with raised beds. I’ve found this claim to be valid since weeds can’t grow inwards from outside the box frame. Also, because the soil is raised and lighter (not compacted), it’s easier and quicker to weed out the unwanted. Lastly, because plants are closer together in square foot beds they can easily crowd out the weeds.
7. Less likely to rot or succumb to bugs. Raised beds are elevated so excess water can easily drain away from the plant and prevent rotting. Bugs, slugs, and critters will have a harder time munching on your veggies too since the garden is raised on higher ground.
8. Supports and trellisis made easy. It’s easy to attach vine supports or a trellis to a raised bed box. Your tomatoes, peas, beans, and other taller plants will love you.
9. Go for Organic Gardening. If you’re into knowing the full history of your food and desire organic produce, then growing your own vegetable garden is a sure fire way to get into organic gardening.
10. Frugal fun! Teaching your kids to cultivate food or just growing the garden for yourself is inexpensive fun. Besides, there are not many hobbies that allow you to enjoy the fruits of your labor when the season is over. Freezing the extras for winter meals can cut grocery expenses and taste yummy in the colder months too.
How to Build a Raised Garden Bed
Raised gardens have been around for decades and building a framed garden box doesn’t require any carpentry prowess. But the world seemed to go crazy for perfect cubes, squares, and boxes when a guy named Mel Bartholomew wrote the book, Square Foot Gardening. Seriously, people. To build a raised bed you don’t need to be a perfect square. Raised garden beds can be misshapen rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, or whatever. I don’t think the plants care.
Carl and I got our garden groove on fast by using existing materials and tools we had kicking around the house, for free. Here’s a no-nonsense getting started list:
Square Foot Garden Materials:
- Tools: hammer, saw, rake, trowel
- Frame Box: nails, lumber
- Garden: soils, seeds, plants
The Building Process:
1. Sourcing Lumber.
The lumber we used was just a mix of scrap 2x4s and a few 2x10s we had sitting around. We also sourced some odd pieces given to us as waste from a local sawmill. Calling your local hardware store and asking for flawed or odd pieces may get you a decent discount. You don’t need the prettiest lumber pieces to build a garden frame.
2. Putting it Together.
To build the frame, Carl picked boards that fit well together (not all were straight or square) and nailed them into an 8 foot by 3 foot rectangular frame about 16 inches high. To be completely honest, he winged it given the materials we had on-hand and improvised to save money on lumber.
Given our materials, an 8 foot by 3 foot rectangular frame was the ideal size before the construction became unwieldy. Any wider than 3 feet, and it gets harder to reach the middle of the beds when gardening. Any lower than 16 inches and you need to stoop down to weed. So we made due with what we had. You can too.
We also build a few smaller boxes ideal for an herb garden. I don’t know which is cuter, Carl or the squares.
3. Location. Location. Location.
Find a sunny location close to your house to situate your raised garden box frames. The ideal location would provide 6-8 hours of sunshine daily, be clear from trees or where shade may interfere, and not be located where puddles or heavy rain could harm the plants. We spent a few sunny days deciding where to place our bigger garden beds to maximize growing hours. Planning ahead to see where the sun shines strongest could prevent a meltdown.
We placed our herb boxes closer to the house to shelter our parsley, chives, lemon balm, and chamomile from too many hours of direct sunlight.
4. Fill Boxes with Soil.
Carl got fancy and filled the tractor loader with soil, compost, and well-seasoned horse manure.
You don’t need a tractor to do this deed though. We just happen to have this equipment available on the farm, so Carl got geared up and played farmer boy.
With your own packaged soil or compost mix, fill each box to the brim and use a rake to smooth over the surface. We had to do some minor weeding and rock cleanup after the soil settled.
5. Make a Grid, Or Not?
Many square foot gardeners swear against rows, preferring to make perfect grids on top of each box. The thought is that grids increase crop yields and decrease weeding work.
Farmer Carl is more of a row kind of guy though, and thinks squares are nonsense. He’s got some reasons, below.
Reasons to Plant in Rows:
- Some plants require more than a square foot to grow and risk crowding in a smaller space, like larger tomato plants.
- Other plants don’t need a full square foot to grow, but putting two of them in a square foot would crowd them too much. Either you waste space, or you end up having to break out of the square foot box.
- Some plants grow better in rows. For example, a nice long row of radishes is easy to till from the sides to keep the weeds down, while giving the plants air to breathe from the sides.
- Squares and grids force you to be boring and regimental. Think outside the box! A nice ‘U’ shape of tomatoes growing with basil plants interspersed? Why not!
So needless to say we planted our radishes, strawberries, and tomatoes in rows. We only used squares for our herbs. I’m all for breaking the rules too.
6. Get Planting!
We went a little seed crazy and planted more than 2-3 seeds per hole. We were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and wanted to save our skins. So we planted quickly. (I can hear the uber frugalists screaming in horror) Sorry. It’s done. These are yellow zucchini.
Covering the seeds with organic soil rich in nutrients.
Our harvest this year should include Early Girl tomatoes, Brandywine and Black Krim heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, chard, kale, zucchini (green and yellow), peas, beans, radishes, strawberries, and a handful of savory herbs and tea flowers.
Some Early Gardening Results
So far so good. We’ve managed to keep the deer away from our kale and chard by placing plastic salad containers over the tastiest plants. These salad containers serve well as protection and have a green house effect, helping the vegetables grow faster.
The rows of tomatoes, radishes, and strawberries are doing very well.
We even have a little strawberry ready for picking. Carl is hoping to harvest the radishes this weekend or sooner.
The chamomile and lemon balm plants are growing slowly. The savory herbs are growing well though.
I can’t wait to see our final results and see if we’ve saved any money by freezing the extras.
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Got any square foot or vegetable gardening tips to share? How’s your garden growing?