Square-Foot Gardening in Style
A beginner’s guide to small-scale spring planting.
One of the simplest ways to experiment with growing your own food is a square-foot garden. All you need is a sunny spot that measures 12 inches by 12 inches, and you can start tomorrow. Literally. The only equipment you need is a trowel, says horticulturist Elizabeth Spiegel at Missouri Botanical Garden.
Sound too good to be true? Spiegel, who espouses the motto, “Your backyard garden should only take you two cocktails,” is a firm believer that overachievers don’t last long. “My basic rule is you don’t want your garden to get any bigger than what you’d do for fun.”
Square-foot gardening is perfect for beginners because it’s a low-cost, efficient, scalable way to organize planting. Since the concept arose a few decades ago, it has appeared in books, videos and countless websites. It even has its own TV show, so there’s plenty of how-to advice out there. Spiegel recommends starting with the square-foot gardening guidelines at the local Bowood Farms website, bowoodfarms.com. Note the suggested planting dates (starting in March), then prepare your location ahead of time by adding well-aged compost. Bowood Farms supplies that, too, but Spiegel says St. Louis City residents have an extra advantage: Gateway Greening’s free compost, available at around 75 sites listed at gatewaygreening.org.
Next, think about what you’ll grow. “Plant things that you know you want to eat,” Spiegel says. “I love to combine herbs and leafy greens so you can make a salad.” Before you shop for seeds and those cute little seedlings, be realistic about the amount of space your full-grown plants will need. Bowood’s site walks you through which plants to buy from seed and how many weeks you can expect to impatiently wait until your first harvest. The experts’ tips at squarefootgardening.org will also help you figure out how many plants to grow in your grid.
You’ll Be Surprised What You Can Do With …
1 Square Foot
Bigger plants need more space—remember that. It might seem obvious, but Spiegel says most of us overplant out of sheer optimism. Use the online guidelines to estimate what your limitations are. Choosing smaller options will allow you four, nine or even 16 plants per foot. Yes, 16 plants—if you choose smaller varieties like green onions, carrots, radishes and microgreens.
2 Square Feet
As the grid grows, interplanting is fine, Spiegel says, but you need to make sure there’s space. If your green thumb is untested, herbs are a good place to start. “I’ve found oregano to be extremely easy,” she says. So are chives, parsley, dill and cilantro. Small tomatoes will also thrive at this size.
4 Square Feet
This is the largest your grid should get; otherwise, you’ll have to step into the garden to tend to it—a big no-no because your weight will compact the soil. A large tomato will have plenty of room here, and you can experiment with all kinds of combinations. As you add more plants, shade starts to matter more. Corn is tallest, so grow it on the north edge. Long vines like cucumbers and squash will need to go vertical on trellises or stakes.
Spiegel works on her garden at MoBot’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening eight hours a day and doesn’t tire of the work. You, however, likely don’t have her weed-pulling stamina—or 200 master gardeners at your beck and call. Cut yourself off after two cocktails, but do go visit Spiegel’s vegetable display garden to see her square-foot plots and get ideas for your own. When questions arise, visit MoBot’s Gardening Help page, gardeninghelp.org, or call 314.577.5143 between 9am and noon on weekdays.
As you finish harvesting the first wave of fruits, veggies and herbs, think about which ones need to come out. “When things are starting to terminate or get a bit bigger,” Spiegel says, “pull them out and start over.” The growing season in Missouri extends so far into winter that with a small cover (aka cold frame), you might be able to continue harvesting all year round—just like Spiegel, who was picking parsley and cilantro from her square-foot garden in January. We’ll drink to that!