Saturday, February 23, 2013

How To Build a Square Foot Garden

Square Foot Gardening is the easiest, most rewarding, least weed invasive form of gardening I have ever tried!  It uses less space and less water, you don't need machinery - ie rototiller, it's easier to cover and protect your plants in case of cold weather than row crop gardening, it's easier to contain and protect from varmints, it yields more produce per square foot than a traditional row garden, and again, my favorite reason for square foot gardening -it requires almost NO WEEDING!

If this is something you'd like to try this year, but aren't sure how to begin, here's a step by step plan for building and planting a square foot garden:

Materials Suggested:
*Optimum: 4 Pressure treated 5/4 board decking.  Anything else for one season will do.  The width on decking is 5 1/4 inches. Since the boards will be turned on end to contain the soil, that will make your soil depth 5 inches. Except for root crops like carrots and  potatos, this is enough depth for growing all other annual plants. The boards should be 4 feet 1 1/2 inches in length. When you overlap one end of each board it will give the interior of your garden space a full 4 foot dimension.
* Landscape fabric. Because it is sold in 4 foot wide increments, you will need two pieces approximately 4 foot 10 inches long.
*  Fasteners to hold the corners together: A minimum of 16 galvanized drywall screws 1 1/2 inch long.
* Soil: 5 cubic feet of finished compost.  A good mix would be 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite.

Step 1:
Track the sun one day to find a spot that gets as much full sun all day as possible.  Remember in the summertime the sun will be higher as it tracks across the sky.  This will change the shadow area on your garden a small amount.

Step 2:
Pre drill two - three holes in one end of each board. This will prevent the boards from splitting when you put the screws in.  Attach the ends of the boards to form a 4 feet X 4 feet square.

Step 3:
Place your garden box in your chosen location on the ground.  Lay the landscape fabric so that it covers the bottom and sides of the box to contain the growth medium and overlaps in the center to prevent incursion of weeds.

Step 4:
Fill the box with your growth medium

Step 5:
Mark the division of the box in four foot squares. In the past we've used string, PVC pipe, weed wacker cord, baling twine and other cordage, but now we temporarily darw lines in the soil to mark our planting areas.

Step 6:
Pant your seeds/ transplants according to specific spacing needs

Here is how you should space your plants:

Beans, Bush - 9 per 1 foot box (3 rows of 3 )
Beans, Pole - 8
Beets - 16 per square foot box (4 rows of 4)
Broccoli - 1
Cabbage - 1
Carrot - 16
Cauliflower - 1
Corn - 4
Cucumber - 2
Eggplant - 1
Lettuce - 4
Okra - 1
Onion - 16
Sugar Snap - 8
Pepper - 1
Radish - 16
Spinach - 9
Summer Squash - 1 per 4 sq ft. (I plant 5 squash plants within an entire box)
Tomato - - 1 per 4 sq ft (I plant 5 tomato plants within a 4ft X 4ft box)

Vine or climbing plants can be trained to go vertical to produce more fruit without taking up your square foot growing space. To do this, position wire, screen, trellis or anything sturdy to give your plants stability.  We place a 4 foot length of field fence, held in place by two or three tee posts along the north side of the garden box so as not to shade out the other plants. This would be used for cucumbers, vining squash, tomatoes, pole beans etc.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Square Foot Gardening

By now, most of you have at least heard of square foot gardening, if not tried it yourselves.  For us, it is the easiest, most productive form of gardening , and,  due to our self imposed limitations, specifically upwards of 50 free range chickens on our farm, necessary.

Years ago when our contract to purchase this farm fell through we were devestated. In anticipation of country living, we had purchased fruit trees, a wood burning stove, a 200+ gallon propane tank,  other homestead equipment, and had spent hours walking the land, making plans and dreaming of  future livestock and gardens. Without warning our dreams were crushed.

We owned a home in town, but with a swimming pool and numerous pine trees in the back yard there was no ideal location or space for a vegetable garden. In frustration, and to the horror of our neighbors, we began tilling up our front yard.

This was our first attempt at square foot gardening. As you can see, originally we tilled the soil, bordered the 4X4 squares with 5/4 board decking and planted vegetable transplants and seeds in the ground.

Through trial and error eventually we devised the design and arrangement that worked best for us and our front yard looked like this:

Square foot gardening is a technique that makes the most of your space by using ultra, nutrient-rich soil to maximize the number of plants per square foot of garden space.  Hence the name.  It mimics french intensive gardening - planting in close proximity allowing for ultimate growth while minimizing weeds.  We design our gardens in 4 foot x 4 foot boxes and subdivide these into 16 one foot squares.  We've found that this layout allows you to be able to reach each of the square planting areas - a larger framework would make it difficult to physically access your plants.

Each square is then planted with a specific number of plants per square depending upon your choice of  vegetables. For example, in a one foot square you can plant one cabbage or 4 lettuce plants as seen below.

Tomorrow I will guide you step by step through our process of building a square foot garden as well as list the spacing for a variety of vegetable plants.
Questions? Thoughts? Comments?  I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Starting Seeds

Even though many of you are still digging out from the latest snowstorm in the Northeast, it is time to begin thinking about spring gardening.  Here in the Florida panhandle it's definately time to start your seedlings if you haven't already.  I would suggest planting tomatos, peppers and eggplant now because they take the longest to establish.  Seed trays I planted the first week of January look like this now:

And I'm in the process of transplanting tomatos into larger containers. This year I've begun planting Heirloom, also called Heritage seeds, rather than buying hybrid plants or seed packages typically found around town.  I wrote a bit about Heirloom seeds in THIS BLOG, but I see now that I failed to report updates and findings.  Suffice it to say I am more than pleased with the germination rate and hardiness of the seeds that I ordered.  My fall garden consisted of spinach, Romaine and leaf lettuces, snow peas, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, onions and garlic - the last two of which are planted in the fall and harvested later in the spring.  My new resolve is to never purchase hybrid seeds or plants again!

This is some of what's growing in our garden right now:

 Growing plants from seeds is such a rewarding experience and so much cheaper than buying transplants! Believe me, if I can do it, so can you! You'll want to start your garden seeds 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to move them outdoors. This is how I plant my vegetable transplant seeds:

I use a combination of compost and peat for my growing medium.  I'm trying to find the perfect mix - when I used pure compost I found that there wasn't enough consistency for the roots to grab. The soil fell away from the root ball when I tried to plant them. Truly, my favorite potting medium is the 50 pound commercial bag of Miracle Grow potting soil, but I'm trying to watch spending and not rely on store bought products.  I'm also open to any suggestions you might have for a better mix.

Step 1: Fill planting trays with potting medium


Step 2: Use another tray and apply pressure to compact soil

Step 3: I use my finger to press a seed hole in each depression

Step 4: Plant one seed in each hole

Step 5: Gently cover with soil

Step 6: Smooth and gently press soil

Step 7: Carefully and thoroughly water in your seeds.  Notice I am only allowing a trickle of water to escape from the jug.

Keep the soil moist while waiting for your seeds to sprout. If the temperature is right it only takes a few days, but if it's too cold it will take longer. The most optimal conditions are a warm dark environment while the seeds germinate.  I started all my seed trays in our greenhouse (not dark!) but you might consider placing your tray(s) on a low temp heating pad, or on top of the refrigerator or hot water heater until the seeds begin to sprout.  Once the seeds begin to grow I suggest placing them under florescent lighting.  Position the bulbs two to three inches above your plants and adjust the height as the plants grow.  This does two things: it provides a small amount of warmth for your plants without burning them, and it keeps them from growing straight up in search of sunlight. Plants have different light requirements -  for example, tomatoes  need 12-16 hours of sunlight each day to grow optimally.

 Before we had the farm, I set up a growing table in our bedroom.  I used heating pads under the plant trays and only turned off the fluorescent lights while we slept.  This artificial sunlight helps the plants to grow thick and bushy rather than thin and spindly.
Water regularly, keeping in mind that both a heating pad underneath and light from above will cause the soil to dry out quickly.

Experts suggest hardening off your plants one to two weeks before planting.  This entails acclimating the plants to outdoor weather gradually, setting them outside for short periods of time during the day and increasing that time little by little, ensuring a hardy plant. I don't. Then again, this is Florida.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Survivor Days

I'm back with stories to tell!

 Monday morning I had an appointment at a feed store in a nearby town to discuss an event they will be hosting in March to help inform the public about different Homesteading / Survival Skills. This particular event will highlight livestock - namely chickens, rabbits and goats.  Bob and I have been invited to bring some of our goats and to demonstrate milking, cheese making and soap making. This "Survivor Day" is scheduled for March 16, from 10am-3pm at Orange Hill Express feed store in Chipley, Florida.  JT, winner of one of the Survivor television series, will be there as well.  I imagine it will be very similar to Goat Day. 
Click HERE to read all about our adventures at Goat Day!

  When the meeting was over I was on my way out to the car and remembered my good friend telling me about a wonderful nursery in the area that she highly recommended - Maphis Tree Farm, so I went back into the store to get directions. Surprisingly, it just so happened that one of the Maphis boys was there in the store, so I explained that I was wanting to purchase Fuyu Persimmon trees and asked him  if this was the proper time to plant them.  You see, I had bought two Fuyus from another nursery two years ago and was told that it was perfectly fine to plant them in the fall.  Neither tree survived. Young Maphis assured me that now was the ideal time and that he had planted 30 or so Persimmon trees just yesterday.  He called the tree farm to be sure they had some in stock, and yes, they had two left, which was exactly what I wanted!  Unfortunately, he said, they were closed on Mondays. Bummer.  But then he asked if I were going right away and when I said that I had hoped to,  he very kindly suggested that I follow him just a few miles up the road to the nursery and he would get the trees for me anyway.  And so he did.  As he was loading them into the trunk of my car he explained exactly how to plant them, how and when to fertilize and what to use to help the fruit to set. I must say I was very impressed with the amount of information he shared and so thankful that he was willing to go out of his way on his day off to help me!  Anybody in NW Florida looking for fruit trees (and probably any other type as well)?  I recommend Maphis Tree Farm in Chipley!

  As far as planting, I think I'll let Bob do that this weekend. The process entails getting your hands in and playing in soupy mud, and he's great at that! Not to mention I can then take pictures and document the process for a future blog.

  When I arrived home I did, however, take pity on two citrus trees that have been living in pots for way too long and decided to plant them.  I had always thought that it was too cold to grow citrus this far north, but these two trees have survived outdoor freezing temperatures in pots much too small for their roots, unprotected from the north wind, so I can't help but think they will do fabulously on the south side of the greenhouse, which will block the wind and emanate warmth during the winter.

These are Calamansi trees, otherwise known as Philippine Lime - a tart, thin skinned, fruit that can be used in any recipe that you would use limes or lemons as well as traditional Philippine dishes. I eat them skin and all. Our plan is to use these very hardy trees to graft several different varieties of citrus on to: oranges, grapefruit, lemons, tangerines... Now that they are in the ground I predict they will become robust in no time!

As I was planting  I happened to look over at one of our goat pens and saw this....

The first baby goat of 2013!  He must have been born this morning while I was away at the feed store. Unfortunately, he was a twin, but his brother was not alive.  I could find no indication of his death - he was large, unscarred and completely soft and dry on a pleasantly warm day, so his death is a mystery.  He was beautiful and I am so disappointed.

I watched to be sure the healthy buckling was nursing properly and am pleased to report that all is well!

And although this is enough for one day, this story does not end here....