Thursday, October 17, 2013

Square Foot Gardening 2013: Lessons Learned

This is our third year of gardening with the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method, and while I still consider myself very much the novice gardener, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Our summer 2013 garden is all but wrapped up. We still have some carrots left to make carrot cake and carrot raviolis, but everything else has sucummed to frost.

As we wind down, here are some lessons from the past three years. Again, I'm no expert, but for what it's worth, here is what has helped us.

Cover your boxes at the end of your growing season and keep them covered until you want to grow again. There are a few reasons for this, which I hadn’t realized after our first summer of growing. First of all, those pesky neighborhood cats love our boxes, and without daily watering, they found their way back. Gross! It’s also very windy in New Mexico, and all that wind means that your soil may blow away as it gets really dry over the winter. The wind also blows in weed seeds, which will be an unwelcome guest in the spring when they try to overtake your garden. It’s extra work, but I think it is worth it to keep your garden functioning well during the growing season.

We bought sheets of plywood at the hardware store and cut them to fit the boxes. We screwed them onto the boxes on the corners. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to keep out cats and other creatures and whatever the wind is whipping into your yard. You’ll have to unscrew all of the metal eyelet screws first. You can save the sheets of plywood and re-use them from year to year.

In the spring, uncover your boxes a couple of weeks early. Some weed seeds will blow into your boxes in the fall before you cover them. By uncovering the boxes a couple of weeks before you plant and starting to water, it is easier to pull the weeds because you won’t mistake them for anything you’ve planted intentionally. Weeds are really only an issue for the boxes I built the first year because I didn’t anticipate this problem and didn’t cover them up right away in the fall.

Keep track of your garden plan each year and save your notes. It’s easy to think that I’ll remember what kind of tomatoes grew well from one year to the next, but winter is full of distractions and by the time spring rolls around, I’ve lost track. I draw out grids for each of my boxes and label what I’m planting, the planting date and the number of plants per square foot. I also make notes about the type of seed or where I bought the plant start. At the end of the season, pull back our your plan and jot down notes about what grew well and what was a dud.

Consider the configurations of your boxes. Generally, when I see SFG boxes, they are 4’x4’ boxes. Last year we built one box that is 2’x8.' I prefer this shape over the 4’x4’ boxes. It’s easier to access all of the plants (it can be a bit of a reach for me to tend to the plants in the middle squares of the 4’x4’ boxes), and I also like that I can grow eight climbing plants rather than just four.

Decide if it's worth it. This is a big investment in terms of time and money. Buying all of the supplies, mixing the soil and building the boxes is a big commitment, and I think it’s only worth it if you continue to garden year after year. Although it seems like growing your own vegetables should save you money, the truth is that the garden costs us more than we save. That will even out as the years go by, but for now we are at a loss. I enjoy planning, planting and harvesting. Watering and tending to the plants is less fun for me, but I do enjoy the whole process so it is worth it. I also love, love, love cooking meals with vegetables from our own garden. You’ll need to decide if it is worth it for you.

There will be good years and there will be bad years, and it will even out. This has been my motto with annual ski passes, and it's also true with gardening. This year we had a big hail storm in July that tore apart my basil and peppers and knocked almost all of my tomatoes onto the ground. The tomatoes that held on were bruised with tough skin. The tomatoes have been the hit of the garden in past years, but they were barely edible this year. This isn’t a hobby or investment you want to pursue for only one year. Plan on the long haul!

Start small and stay small for a while. The first year I started with 36 square feet, and the second year I added another 32 square feet. I should have asked myself if I really need an additional 32 square feet. After such a successful first year, I got caught up in the excitement of adding more boxes, and I wasn’t very reflective about whether or not we really needed more boxes. In hindsight, considering the amount of work and expense to build additional boxes and the added time and energy to plan, plant and water them, I don’t think I would build them again if I could do it over. I would have stuck with my original 32 square feet and cut out most of the flowers I grew the first year.

And a note about flowers, growing cosmos and zinnias is easy, but they deposit a lot of seeds in your boxes. If you plant them, be prepared to weed them out the following year(s).

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