Square foot gardening is an excellent way for any gardener to grow an abundant amount of food in a small space.
By using a grid pattern and utilizing every single square foot instead of planting in long rows like typical farming practices, the benefits of growing more with less allow for the perfect amount of crops for feeding individuals and families.
One of the most popular vegetables to grow in square-foot gardens is carrots. Here's a great how-to guide on growing healthy, delicious carrots in your square-foot garden.
What Is Square Foot Gardening?
Square foot gardening uses raised beds to grow crops in 1x1-foot increments. The use of a grid within the frame is helpful to achieve the exact measurement, and can be marked out in various ways.
Square foot gardening is often used in conjunction with polyculture practices rather than monoculture. Instead of growing one crop in a large field, or long rows, the grid allows for many different plants to be grown together in a single bed.
Vertical gardening, crop rotation, and proper spacing are all important tactics to use in square-foot gardening to help utilize space to the fullest while also replenishing the soil's nutrients for a healthy planting medium that you can use for years.
If done correctly, you can grow the same amount of food using one-fifth of the space compared to traditional planting of rows.
Benefits of Square Foot Gardening
One of the biggest benefits of square-foot gardening is the amount of space that's saved by using smaller plots in raised beds. Square foot gardening can be done in urban gardens where only a balcony or small patio is available.
The concept was developed by a retired civil engineer named Mel Bartholomew after he became frustrated by row planting. He found there was a lot of waste and inefficiency in this type of small-scale farming, and came up with a better approach for backyard gardeners who wanted enough to feed themselves or their families.
When you shrink traditional rows into one-foot squares, the same amount of plants can be grown using only 20 percent of the space you'd normally need. Smaller spaces require less watering, and less work in general, making them much easier and more successful for even beginner gardeners.
Raised beds are built with "no-till" practices in mind, reducing the labor needed to turn over the soil and perform daily weeding, while also making it more ergonomic for the gardener to work.
Crop Rotation Yields More
Along with the no-dig or no-till method, crop rotation is very important for reducing weeds and keeping the soil healthy. Once a plant has gone or seed or been harvested fully, a new, different one is planted in its absence.
This means beds are always working, and while it takes some planning to time the crops right, it's not difficult to learn companion planting with some trial and error or a little research.
Summer veggies can be replaced by cool-weather veggies as the temperature changes, as well, offering you at least three seasons worth of growing food (and possibly four, depending on your climate).
Active beds keep weed formation at bay, and companion planting greatly reduces the amount of pests. Much less water is needed to keep smaller sections of raised beds moist, and organic gardening practices are easier to implement.
The main benefit of this is that you end up with a constant supply of food without having too much or too little, especially since you aren't relying on just a few crops to do well.
If one section in your square foot garden doesn't perform, there's enough diversity of crops to make up for any losses, which happen with any type of gardening.
Not Just for Veggies
One of the common issues with the square-foot gardening method is growing enough to fill in the one-foot sections. While you can decide on how big or small your raised bed is, there will be gaps along the way with crop rotation.
If you're finding it hard to keep your spaces filled in with food crops all season long, there's no reason why you can't plant herbs and flowers, as well. In fact, these can often be great ways to reap the benefits of companion planting.
Many herbs are excellent at repelling garden pests, while annual and perennial flowers can also deter the unwelcome bugs in your soil and balance nutrients. Herbs like mint, basil, sage, oregano, and thyme are all common herbs with strong scents that reduce the need for pesticide use.
Basil is also great to plant next to tomatoes, for an example of good companion planting.
Marigolds, nasturtium, petunias, bee balm, geraniums, and chrysanthemums are all wonderful flowers to plant along different crops to prevent pests while adding color; most are edible or have medicinal qualities, as well.
Let's not forget that anything that flowers is going to attract beneficial pollinators and provide nectar to the "good" bugs of the garden world. This will only end up making your garden healthier, giving it an even better chance to thrive.
Growing Carrots in Square Foot Gardens
Carrots are a kitchen staple, and thankfully one of the easiest crops to grow in square-foot gardens. In rows, you would plant them two-inches apart, and in a square you can do the same, but instead of just down the middle, they can be planted all throughout the square.
To simplify, you can plant four rows of four, which will total sixteen carrots per square foot. If you think you'd like more, or want to plant different varieties, then plan for more carrot squares in your raised bed.
Generally it's best to direct sow seeds about three weeks before last frost date, but sometimes you can plant them even earlier depending on your climate. The soil can be worked once it's around 68 degrees F.
Germination times will depend on the variety, as will the length of the mature carrot. Keep this in mind when constructing your garden bed: it must be deep enough to allow for the carrot to grow.
Harvest times are usually between 70-80 days, but again, check the seed packet for all of the information about how deep to plant the seed, time to germinate, and expected harvest time.
Choosing the Location
One of the most appealing features of square-foot gardening is the flexibility it provides. Since the raised beds can be as big or little as you like, they can be positioned around your yard where space allows.
Keep in mind that most fruits and vegetables prefer full sun conditions, and need a location that receives six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day.
Not all crops want full sun, especially if hot, dry weather comes with it. Extreme heat will cause plants to bolt, which signals the end of their production. Cool-weather crops would prefer to be planted in part-shade, and many other veggies may want a break from afternoon sun.
It may be beneficial to have two different raised beds for the different needs of various plants, but you can also utilize the shade of taller, sun-loving plants like tomatoes to shade cooler crops like lettuce and other greens.
Carrots prefer full sun locations, but can handle part-shade and would rather the soil was kept cool during the summer. While carrot tops naturally shade themselves, consider planting something taller next to them to help block out any intense afternoon sun.
Locate your boxes within close access from your home, particularly your kitchen if possible, so it makes it easy to go out and pick as needed. Beds that are closer to the house won't be as susceptible to animals like rabbits or deer, but squirrels may be more brazen.
Building the Frame
To grow lengthy carrots in your square-foot garden grid, you need your frame to be deep enough. Some square-foot gardens are "bottomless," allowing roots to extend into the soil underneath, whereas some opt for a weed barrier.
This is up to the gardener, but if a barrier is installed, then the frame should be at least ten-inches deep to allow carrots enough room to grow.
The length of the boards you choose will also depend on how many square feet of growing space you want. Remember, you can make multiple smaller boxes, or one large one, depending on the space you have and the requirements of what you want to grow.
Tip: leave room for expanding or changing your layout. Gardening is all about learning things "as you grow."
Building the frame is relatively easy, and simply involves creating a box out of the four pieces of wood. This can be done with a hammer and nails or drilling them together with outdoor-rated screws.
Boards can be cut to length at the hardware store if it has a cut shop which will make the job even easier. Choose exterior-rated wood, but keep in mind that pressure-treated lumber has chemicals added that keep it from rotting, and you may not want that leaching into your soil.
Cedar is ideal because it's naturally weather-proof without added chemicals. It will be more expensive, so other mediums to consider are galvanized steel frames, bricks and stones, or reclaimed raw barnboard (untreated and unpainted).
The grid can be constructed in a few different ways, and feel free to get creative with what you have. String or twine can be run and tied around nails or screws at 12-inch increments from each end, or you could simply lay bamboo sticks or use one-inch pieces of wood to create permanent grids.
Just remember to keep the thickness of whatever medium you use in mind when measuring your squares. Also, consider how you will access plants in the middle of the bed when you are planning the measurements of your frame.
Type of Soil
As with many other types of vegetables grown in square-foot gardens, you don't want to use dirt or garden soil for growing carrots in a raised bed. Create your growing mixture with equal amounts of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite.
You can purchase bags of these items at local nurseries or garden stores, but you can also make your own compost to help with the cost and to provide the best variety of nutrients for your carrots.
Either way, mix the components together thoroughly and add enough of the mixture to the riser frame to bring the level within 2 or 3 inches from the top of the frame.
You don't want to use the soil directly from the garden because it's heavier, and not meant for raised beds. It will become too compacted unless you spend time properly amending it to use in raised beds.
The great thing about creating your own soil mixture is that you don't have to worry about the state of the existing soil on your land. You won't need to do a soil test to make sure that the medium is worthy of planting.
As long as the mix is full of organic, nutrient-dense material, carrots aren't fussy about pH level. Soil should be kept consistently moist (about an inch of water a week), and it should be well-draining.
Harvesting Carrots and Care Tips
Just as with regular gardening, it's important to thin carrots so they don't grow into each other. To properly thin carrots, wait till they've come up through the soil and have developed true leaves. If you see a group of two or more, save the healthiest looking sprout and snip the top off the other one(s) with scissors or shears.
As mentioned, keep the soil around your carrots moist, especially as seeds are germinating, just be careful not to disturb the soil when watering seedlings, and don't over-water.
Plant them among other crops that have similar watering needs.
Once the carrot plants have started growing and are 2-3 inches in height, add organic mulch around the carrot plants. Use 1-2 inches of your favorite mulch to retain moisture in the soil, but don't use too much or this may impede growth.
Keep in mind that in square-foot gardens it may take longer for carrots to reach the desired length than the time listed on the carrot seed packet, but it's better to harvest carrots earlier than later.
Periodically check your carrots as leaving them too late means they'll get woody. Younger, smaller carrots are sweeter.
If you want to store your carrots, don't wash them until you're ready to use them. Keep them in a cool, dark place, and they will keep for weeks. Remember, you can eat the greens, too!
Carrots are wonderful vegetables, full of important vitamins and nutrients like beta-carotene. They are also extremely versatile in the kitchen, and can be eaten raw, added to salads, or cooked in soups and stir-fries.
They're easy to grow as long as a few simple needs are met: mainly enough sun, water, and nutrients to keep them healthy.
If you're planning on trying a new garden method to save space and keep things simple, carrots are an excellent choice to plant in your square-foot garden.