Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2012, 3:57 pm

Bust outta rows: Square foot gardening packs produce in a small space

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By Farah Marklevits

Photo: iStockphoto
In square-foot gardening, you disregard row recommendations and use only the space suggested to separate individual plants.
In the middle of seed catalog-inspired dreaming last winter, I received an offer for a free trial from the online garden planner, GrowVeg.com. As I started planting cyber broccoli and tomatoes to plan my plot, I noticed an alternative tool on the site for something called "square-foot gardening." My curiosity was piqued.

Two summers ago had been a different story. When I signed up for a 10-by-10-foot plot through the city of Davenport's urban gardening program, I didn't plan how I would use that space. Instead, I stood in front of that borrowed soil with seed packets at my feet and recalled the long rows of my mother's garden. The expansive quiet of summer days spent weeding her garden, though a lovely memory, didn't map well onto the much smaller space in front of me.

Instead, I copied my urban garden neighbors. Like them, I divided my plot into two sets of short rows separated by a narrow, roped path. If I weeded from the path and outer edges, I would be able to squeeze in more rows than my mother could in her large space. This short-row design reaped plenty of rewards, but harvest had me thinking about next time.

This led to my adventure in plotting a garden online. Even though I knew the short-row method had produced good results, on screen those rows felt limiting. The tantalizing prospect of being able to plant more veggies in the same space inspired me to investigate the square-foot garden option.

Mel Bartholomew describes in his book, "Square Foot Gardening," how he drew upon his engineering background 25 years ago to tinker with traditional garden design. In his method, rows are out. The basic building block of a garden is instead a 1-by-1-foot square. Bartholomew found that arranging these blocks in 4-by-4-foot grids allowed him to use small spaces more effectively and efficiently.

In square-foot gardening, you disregard row recommendations and use only the space suggested to separate individual plants. Each 4-by-4-foot area is more occupied by plants than bare soil or mulch. Bartholomew claims closer spacing crowds out weeds and saves water because it is easier to direct it to the plants themselves. Also, Bartholomew's encouragement to plant different varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables, rather than filling the area with 1-foot squares of the same plant, is supposed to draw beneficial insects and discourage pests.

When I began to fill my grids with a variety of plants in my computer-screen garden, I quickly grasped the appeal. In the spring, I tied together 4-foot-long bamboo stakes to make a visual grid inspired by Bartholomew's lathe models. I planted flowers along one side and a variety of vegetables and herbs —real this time — in the remaining squares. The grids created a satisfying landscaped effect.

As the vegetables and flowers grew into maturity, the contrast of color and texture was an even more happy sight. The garden had an unruly order: zinnias branched over neighboring snapdragons, the few Brussels sprout plants hulked over beet greens and carrot fronds, and more butterflies than I remembered fromthe summer before floated above it all. Visually, square-foot gardening paid off beyond my dreaming. And it certainly provided a bounty of vegetables and flowers to take home, too.

I did find a few drawbacks, though I don't know how much blame goes to the gardening method and how much to the weather's tricks or my own foolishness. A trellis design I used from Bartholomew withstood serious wind in summer storms and resulted in a large crop of speckled cranberry beans, but I would suggest a taller trellis to accommodate the vigorous climb and sprawl of pole beans. Japanese beetles and groundhogs were not confused by the nontraditional garden design and ate their fair share of my plants. Most importantly, there were still weeds to fight, and it was challenging to weed the center squares from the edges. I did happen to plant some colossal vegetables in center squares whose full-grown leaves did shade out much of the weeds. However, those leaves also shaded out some neighboring vegetables, resulting in a somewhat reduced harvest.

As the saying goes, though, live and learn. This year I'll know better what vegetables make good neighbors in the grid. Overall, my experience has me dreaming in squares, and, especially if you have limited space, you ought to consider dreaming in that direction, too.

Farah Marklevits, a first-time Radish contributor, teaches at Augustana College.