Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Make a square foot garden this spring

Square foot gardening is a simple idea, one that seems almost too easy. It will appeal to those of you that like organized garden beds and scold your plants for taking more space than you allotted. If you are averse to digging deep beds in clay soil, or tilling the garden, you will also appreciate the laborsaving methods.
It’s not just another raised-bed garden, although the square foot garden boxes are raised beds. The original idea in square foot gardening (my apologies to Mel Bartholomew, author of the Square Foot Gardening books, if it was his unique idea to have raised bed gardens) is the precise seeding of the beds within a square foot allotment of soil.
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Square foot garden beds for sale at the store in Columbia
After you create the square foot garden bed, which can be of any length, but usually not more than two feet wide so that the gardener can reach easily across the bed without stepping on the soil, you lay a wooden grid across the soil. Each square in the grid measures 12 inches by 12 inches. Into the square foot, you place seeds or transplants spaced precisely in accordance with their needs. In the early spring, you would set out one broccoli plant per square foot, sow seeds for 16 carrots, or four lettuce plants. Remembering your multiplication and division facts will help you with this process; make four rows of four columns for carrots, to yield 16 holes, or plant your four lettuce plants three inches from each side of the box and six inches apart in the middle. This is a great project for a young child learning math skills.

Unfortunately for my daughters, the square foot gardening box I made for them to use is not precisely square. I had some cedar 4x4s lying around that were approximately the correct length (I didn’t want to saw them to precise lengths) and I laid them in a rectangle. They aren’t the correct 6 inches deep, either, but because I’m putting the beds on good garden soil, instead of clay or sand, the plants will be fine. I’ll let their father teach them precise woodworking skills; I teach them the axiom, “Close enough for government work!”

Then, I cut some stakes to approximately the correct length with some hedge loppers, and used my favorite tool, zip-ties, to hold them together. It’s not perfect, but it will work. I didn’t want to trouble my husband to overbuild another gardening project. I knew I would really need his help later on that day to fix the underground short in the electric fence, and without the electric fence, I wouldn’t need to worry about having a square foot garden because the deer would eat the plants.

I filled the bed with some of the square foot gardening mix I bought at the Square Foot Gardening Foundation’s retail store at 3100 North Main Street in Columbia, and we will plant the garden in a few weeks when the weather becomes reliably warm. The store sells soil mix, gardening books, and premade square foot gardening boxes. They also plan to have demonstration gardens in the spring, and they plant gardens in area schools. The books and the website, www.squarefootgardening.org, give details about making your own soil mix and grow boxes.
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Storefront of the SFG Foundation  in Columbia, SC
I have helped my children plant gardens every year, and usually they become another chore for mama. I hope that this year, with the organization of the square foot garden, I can instruct them to weed a square, and they will be able to see a clear end to the task. The easily overwhelmed adult gardener may also appreciate finite gardening chores.

The books and the website, www.squarefootgardening.org, give details about making your own soil mix and grow boxes.  If you live near Columbia, please visit the store at 3100 North Main Street.







Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It's Seed Starting Time

 Well, actually, it's been seed starting time for awhile, but it's not too late to start yours now.  Back in early March, I spent some pleasant hours in the garden shed starting tomato, pepper, herb, and flower seeds for the spring.
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Seedling flats filled with soil

I reuse the plastic 4- and 6- pack containers in which I purchase annuals and other plants for the garden.  They fit nicely in the rectangular trays the nursery provides, and also fit perfectly under my grow lights.  When I plant tomatoes and peppers, I sterilize the soil with a solution of bleach to kill soil-borne diseases.  I do not sterilize the soil for other plants because they are not as susceptible to disease.  I also use new seed starting mixture or potting soil to avoid disease.

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Some of my seed packets
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Ready for the grow lights!

I took these pictures earlier in the winter when I started my plants for the spring garden.  These plants are outside now (the ones that lived, anyway) and I now have a crop of tomatoes under the grow lights.
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Resting under the grow lights, waiting to sprout

On nice days, I put the growing plants outside for a little morning sun.  Artificial light is not as good as sunlight, and the plants become straighter and sturdier when exposed to the sun.  At this time of the year, I watch the weather carefully and bring them inside if the temperatures get into the high forties.  Temperatures below forty will damage tomatoes.  Of course, I leave my cool-weather-loving plants outside as long as the temperature remains above freezing.  

Every day, I leave the plants outside in the sun a little longer until they are able to tolerate being outside all day.  Like people, plants can sunburn from too much exposure to the sun at once, although they do eventually become accustomed to constant sun exposure, unlike people!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Celebrate Spring by Planting Potatoes

 Early spring is here, and it's time to plant potatoes.  I put mine in a couple of weeks ago, and there's still plenty of time to plant yours.  Purchase seed potatoes, available at garden centers or farm stores, to plant.  Do not use grocery store potatoes, although if you have some sprouting you can plant them; the yield may be less than seed potatoes.  Farmers may spray grocery store potatoes with chemicals to inhibit sprouting.

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Before you plant the seed potatoes, cut them into chunks with an "eye," or sprout, on each piece

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Dig a trench several inches deep, in rows 12 inches apart.  Carefully drop the pieces of seed potato into the ground about 8 inches apart.


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Cover the potatoes with about 3 inches of soil.  Here I'm using my hand plow to fold the dirt over the top of the potatoes.


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To the right is the covered row of potatoes; to the left is the one I'm about to cover.

As the potatoes grow, I'll push the plow down the row and cover the stems of the lengthening plants.  The soil will prompt the plants to form more tubers along the covered stems.  Applying soil to make sure the tubers remain covered is imperative; sunlight causes the potatoes to turn green and bitter.  I have also covered my potatoes with straw, but voles moved into the straw and ate tasty potato snacks all spring.  They do not enjoy having their homes disturbed with the plow.