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Life Off-the-Grid

The Great Garden Grow Off!

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! Or start your hoes. The great “Garden Grow Off” is getting under way. You’re looking at our “square foot” garden. We’ve just started work on our gardening book and with the interest in our gardening DVD we’re very excited about it.
square-foot-garden-blog2

One of the things I want to do some research on is the concept of “square foot gardening.” There are a number of books about growing a lot of vegetables in a very small space. This is very counter-intuitive to me. I’ve read the books and their rationalization, but I’m afraid I’m skeptical. Plants, like all living things, need nourishment and room to thrive. When you crowd too many living organisms into too small a place you usually encounter unexpected consequences. You certainly see this with predators and prey. When you have too many predators and not enough prey, eventually there will be a reduction in the number of predators and the ecosystem will return to equilibrium.

I feel the same way about plants. When you have too many plants in a limited space competing for a limited amount of nutrition and water, something’s going to suffer.

In a series of workshops I did on rainwater management and irrigation I learned how water moves through soil using capillary action. If you take a big bulky towel and dip the corner in water, then withdraw it, then wait a few minutes and dip in again, and keep doing this, eventually the whole towel will be soaked. That’s because the capillary action of the cloth pulls the water throughout the towel. In a sandy soil water will tend to move vertically or down as the soil is well drained. In a clay soil the water will move more laterally or horizontally because it has trouble working its way down through the clay.

Roots do the same thing. They seek the path of least resistance. They also grow and seek out water and nutrients in the soil. Soil can only hold so much water and so many nutrients, so if you have a larger number of plants and therefore roots trying to access a finite amount of either water or nutrients, something is going to suffer if there is not enough to go around. When you look at the size of a mature lettuce root system you can well imagine what the soil in a garden packed full of a variety of vegetables producing root systems like this would look like. It would be very matted and there would be extreme competition for resources.
mature-lettuce-root

Now that’s not to say you can’t garden well in a confined area, I’m just biased towards a larger garden. After growing in restricted spaces for much of my life I believe you can get a pretty significant output from a limited space. The key is that you really have to be aggressive in building the soil’s health and I’m not sure everyone is that committed. On a small garden plot, grabbing your neighbor’s grass clippings and leaves and adding them with your own compost, you should be able to produce a reasonable harvest. If you want to offset a large percentage of your family’s food expenses, I don’t think it’s possible.

Because I’m skeptical we’ve decided to grow a “square foot” garden as a control to compare to our regular ½ acre one. Michelle will be in charge of it just to make sure my bias doesn’t influence the outcome, i.e.… it would be pretty easy for me to just throw stuff in and not water it and claim it doesn’t work.

So we’ll be scientific and make a competition of it. Let the games begin. We’ll keep you posted over the summer.

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1 Comment

  1. ellen

    Cam Cam Cam!!!! That is not a square foot bed – they have to be no bigger than 4×4 so that you can easily reach into the bed from all sides (no feet allowed) and they should be at least 8″ deep and that soil looks like sand. Please tell me that you are at least going to move that lovely rich manure laden soil from your real garden into the square foot to make the competition equal?
    The premise with square foot is that you must continually replenish your soil after every crop so that your soil is not depleted and you move your crops around so that you grow different veggies in different spaces. The pros to Square foot – is if I want to grow 30 spinach plants I put in 30 -40 seeds not a package of 100 – I have never thinned anything other than carrots (those seeds are so small and sticky). In the space of 16′ by 2′ I have 128 pea plants coming up ( I planted about 160 peas). Will send pics of the harvest later. I have next to no weeding to do and companion planting helps keep the pests away. Plus it is easy to rotate crops to avoid disease. As part of your challenge I will send pics and records of what we produce this year in our space and I challenge you to come out and spend a few days working in a square foot garden so you can compare to the time spent in the traditional farming methods ok? Oh and don’t forget the square foot grid on your garden – can’t plant without the garden divided into square feet!!! I just use string and nails to utilize the space well. Send another pic of the updated garden bed ok? 😉 Lots of Love ellen (square foot garden guru)

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