Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gardening Series: Square foot gardening with Emily from "The Harried Homemaker Preps"

Today's guest post is by Emily from The Harried Homemaker Preps:

Our family moved to a house on 5 acres in the country in 2007. Over the past four years, we have been slowly increasing our self-sufficiency. One day, I hope to have chickens, an orchard, and to grow most of our vegetables ourselves.  We’re still far away from that goal, but we are making determined steps in that direction.

This is what our backyard looked like when we moved in.

That’s a whole bunch of new-construction fill dirt you see there. Underneath the fill dirt is hard-packed clay. Not so great for gardening.

Nevertheless, I figured that since we live in the midst of farm country, gardening would come naturally. The following spring we bought a tiller and began breaking ground for a large garden.
My husband, the wannabe farmer

As you can see, we had a hard time even getting grass to grow, which should have been a clue! Despite adding manure and organic fertilizer, we didn’t get much of a harvest in 2008 or 2009.

I had heard someone talk about the wonders of Square Foot Gardening, so in 2010, we decided to give it a shot. Square Foot Gardening was conceived by Mel Bartholomew and is described in his book, All New Square Foot Gardening.  The gist of it is that you plant your crops closely together in raised beds that are filled with a special soil mix. This has the effect of a greater yield per square foot and a significant decrease in the amount of weeding and watering that is necessary.  

My husband used the following materials to construct a 4 foot by 4 foot box:
Cedar boards, wood lath and weed cloth

Then, we created the special square foot gardening soil called “Mel’s Mix”.
Mel’s Mix is made from 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost.

A completed Square Foot Gardening box

We placed landscape fabric under the box, filled the box with Mel’s Mix, and placed the grid on top. The grid is a guide for planting; you plant a certain number of seeds/plants per square foot, depending on the type of plant.  We planted the rest of our garden as usual and filled our square foot box with two varieties of green beans. We were completely astounded by the result. We had TONS of green beans and no weeds.  The rest of our garden? It was same old story – lots of weeds, few vegetables.

This year, we decided to completely convert our garden to the Square Foot Gardening system.
 Our garden in mid March

We made 7 boxes that total 380 square feet. The paths between the boxes were lined with weed cloth and covered with pea gravel.   

Here’s the master plan:

The planting dates are based upon our location in Zone 5, with adjustments for our property’s chilly microclimate.

Even though we’re still experiencing some glitches (mainly due to rampaging rodents, with poor weather and a family vacation thrown in), things are looking up.
This is part of the box we reserved for our children. My eldest child is growing beets, pod peas, cabbage, and romaine lettuce. We allowed each child to select, plant, and maintain their own veggies. It is precious to see how much they are embracing their roles as gardener-in-chief.
These cute baby leaf lettuce sprouts will soon be tall enough to harvest. You snip off the leaves and they grow back.

It is particularly important in a Square Foot Garden to have some sort of support for plants that would sprawl about and take up too much room. Sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, cucumbers, and tomatoes are examples of plants that should be supported.
Four types of tomatoes, both hybrids and heirlooms

Our experience is that the tomato cages sold at garden centers are too flimsy. We used those cages in our first year of gardening and our tomatoes were so vigorous that the whole thing collapsed into a sad heap. (I should mention that the tomato incident happened at our previous residence. We have yet to grow monster tomatoes at our current home. Keeping my fingers crossed for this year!) Our solution is to make our own cages. These are constructed out of 5’ remesh wire (with 6” openings) and fastened to the ground with T posts. Nothing short of a tornado is going to move these! We also use the remesh wire as trellising for the vining crops we grow, like watermelons and cantaloupe. 

If I could grow only one type of plant, it would have to be herbs. If you’re buying those little packages of herbs they have at the grocery store, you are getting ripped off! Herbs take little space or effort to grow and will save you tons of money.
My herb garden in mid-May

My herb garden is located near my kitchen, which is super handy.  It’s hard to kill herbs, and they don’t care if the soil is poor. I grow chives, sage, oregano, lavender, thyme, mint, and French tarragon as perennials. My dill and cilantro reseed by themselves each year, but I have to replant basil and rosemary since our harsh winters kill them off.  Parsley is technically a biennial, but I have yet to be able to keep it alive over the winter so I can harvest seed from it. I end up replanting it new each year, too.

Here’s a tip I learned the hard way: plant mint in a container. Mint is incredibly invasive and will take over your entire garden if given half a chance. We ended up digging out our mint and replanting it in a large terra cotta pot that we sunk into the garden. The pot keeps the mint from spreading.  

We have plantings of two types of thornless blackberries as well as raspberries. We also started some strawberries in our Square Foot Garden this year, though they don’t seem to be doing so well.  
Blackberries in the foreground, raspberries in the middle

How does all of this fit in with food storage and preparedness?
Our goal is to become more self-reliant in all aspects, but especially when it comes to our food.  We will probably never grow our own wheat, but we can certainly grow our own vegetables and preserve some of them for future use.  

I currently dry and freeze herbs for future use. Chives freeze well. I also freeze basil pesto in ice cube trays and then store the cubes in freezer bags. I never have to buy oregano because I dry my own. 
Air drying oregano in my laundry room

I am also a huge fan of canning – pickles, tomatoes, jams, applesauce, green beans, meat, you name it.    This summer I plan on processing my tomatoes into ketchup, salsa, and other condiments as well.

Another way I plan on preserving my harvest is through dehydration.  By using a dehydrator, you can dry tomatoes, green peppers, and other vegetables and fruits. You can then vacuum seal them in bags or canning jars for a lengthened shelf life.  

I even bought a cayenne pepper plant this year and I think I’ll try my hand at making red pepper flakes.

I’m hoping for a bountiful harvest of these pepper plants so I can dehydrate the excess

We didn’t start off this large and we certainly have had our share of failure. The point is to do something, anything.  Any size garden can produce delicious fruits or vegetables and give you an education on horticulture. It’s fun for the whole family, great exercise, and a valuable preparedness skill. 

Emily is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mom to four children in the Midwest. She blogs about her family’s misadventures in preparedness at The Harried Homemaker Preps.


Bethany said...

Love it! We're moving this summer, and I'm hoping to get a decent harvest from my current, tiny, Los Angeles garden before we go. I had never thought about suing the square foot method, especially on such a large scale. BTW, your strawberries will probably look sort of miserable this year, and then produce for you next year. That's what happened for me last year. They look great this time around!

Thanks for your post!

The Harried Homemaker said...

Thanks, Bethany. I'm not holding out much hope for the strawberries, though. They are pretty crispy! I'll keep watering and hope for a miracle rebirth next year. :)

Michael Martin said...

That is an amazing garden, I wish I had any room for a garden, apartments aren't ideal, good luck! On the drying of herbs, depending on how much of a hurry you are in, there is a fairly quick and cheap way to do it that can also be used for stuff like jerky and drying fruit. Basically you take a box fan, and use bungees to connect several non fiberglass furnace filters (upon which the items to be dried/preserved) to the fan, and run it on high for about 24 hours. I've seen in on the FoodTV program Good Eats. It's cheap and quick and is good because you aren't cooking anything and since it's fast, there's little chance of spoilage. :)