You can grow “a lot” of food. That is the bare bones sales pitch of square foot gardening.
When my self reliance epiphany occurred, I knew one thing: I wanted to grow my own food. I also didn’t know one thing: where do I begin? While both of my parents were raised on farms, and even ran their own small operation for a time, I had no experience growing when I started 8 years ago. The farm had been sold by the time I came along. Although Dad moved the family to a two acre country plot, growing food was never undertaken for whatever reason.
So, when my gardening journey began, it was literally “growing from scratch”. I didn’t really know where to start, what to grow, or how much to grow. Thirty years ago, this would have meant several trips to bookstores, the library, or even tracking down “how to” VHS tapes. In the modern age of course, this ignorance was greatly aided by the nearest search engine.
Somewhere along the quest, I got wind of the “square foot gardening” method as being a great option for beginners. I began researching it. By all accounts, it sounded manageable, and relatively low cost. Big positives in my book. It also had its detractors. On an EP (emergency prep) forum I frequent, I distinctly recall one poster referring to it as “gimmick gardening”. That gave me pause, but I proceeded to investigate.
I believe gardening in any form is a good way for us to connect with our creator. God created man and put him to work in a garden let’s not forget.
Ultimately, it checked off a lot of the boxes on this greenhorn’s “how do I start gardening” list. There was practically no weeding involved. No need to rent a tiller, or commit to tearing up your yard. It required very little space, water and time. As we had kids in diapers at that point, free time for gardening was not in great supply. So this method made sense for me given the circumstances. I purchased the Mel Bartholomew book ,and set off on the adventure.
It was an interesting experience. With good seed, the nutrient rich soil mixture that Mel’s book instructs you to make, got them off to a great start. Positive reinforcement goes a long way when undertaking a new endeavor! It was a bit of a task tracking down the various ingredients (peat moss, specific blend composts etc) needed for the mix. Additionally, the recipe gets a little tricky since the content amounts of the various products don’t align in a simple “1 bag of this to 1/2 bag of that” type format. But its not rocket surgery either!
My concoction left me with more than was needed to fill two 4′ x 4′ boxes. Some of this was used in other container set ups the following year. For example, the square foot beds were not deep enough for carrots. So I cobbled together some masonry bricks and filled it high enough to accommodate them. Mostly, it was an experiment to see if I could get carrots to grow.
No doubt about it though, the square foot method worked. And it was pretty easy. Immediate success also goes a long way when undertaking a new endeavor. The pictures below are from the following year. By this point, I had already begun to attempt to utilize added containers. Its so hard to thin seedlings out and let them go to waste. I figured I had nothing to lose by trying some in pots. What I didn’t know at the time was that the root systems for some of those would require a lot more space and soil to amount to anything useful. There is definitely a learning curve when you’re a beginner.
By year 2 and 3 however, it quickly became evident that square foot gardening was not suited for my food production goals. While you can indeed grow a lot of food by some measure, it was not enough. With self reliance and EP in mind, I desired to grow an organic surplus that could be preserved, rather than merely used to supplement the grocery bill. The photos in Mel’s book mostly display compact plants like greens and radishes, or low producers like “one head of cabbage” per square foot box. That wasn’t going to cut it. It makes little sense to me to grow one head of cabbage or broccoli. Now I understood the “gimmick” comment on that discussion forum. As you can see from my early notes in the picture below, I was attempting to grow things that don’t really fit in such a confined system. But I didn’t realize that at the time regardless of how obvious it may seem in hindsight.
All in all, while it is marketed in some sense as revolutionary, square foot gardening is little more than intensive sowing in a raised bed using a potting soil. While that may sound critical, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from utilizing this system. It is an effective approach for certain people in specific circumstances. I believe gardening in any form is a good way for us to connect with our creator. God created man and put him to work in a garden let’s not forget. There is definitely a communion with that creation that comes with gardening. I truly believe we glorify God by getting our hands in the soil. In addition, it is inarguable that we are stronger as a nation when we are less dependent upon the government and industrialized systems to provide for our basic needs. Food is basic need number one.
But square foot gardening wasn’t the answer for my personal journey towards a more self sufficient lifestyle. It has been valuable though. It allowed me to dip my toe in and learn the basics. It developed a passion for growing healthy, natural food, and appreciating this aspect of God’s provision. That is something that is taken for granted far too easily in our selfish, hedonistic culture. It has always disgusted me to see food wasted in nonchalant fashion. Now, even more so.
Lastly, the square foot growing experience served as a gateway drug. From these two humble beds, it didn’t take me long to desire to expand my growing space, and to continue to seek even more land. A return to my country roots is my goal. For now, I do still use those original square foot beds, and will continue to do so until the soil mix has been sufficiently depleted.
Ultimately, I found myself in an unforeseen quandary. I was simultaneously charging after several pursuits that were in some ways opposed to one another: self reliance, organic food production, and emergency prep. The collision of these worlds was the genesis of this blog’s premise: grid down growing. I’ll speak more to that in another post.
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Thanks for reading. God bless, and happy growing!