If you would love to grow your own fruit and veg but only have a small space to cultivate, try ‘square foot gardening’. Popularized by American gardener Mel Bartholomew in the 1980s, the practice uses organic gardening methods to grow vegetables in close proximity to one another, rather than in traditional rows, and in doing so, utilizes every inch of available space.
Get down to earth
To ensure this intensive cultivation method is successful, take time to prepare your soil before you start sowing. Dig in well-rotted farmyard manure or compost a few weeks before planting or sowing, which will condition and feed the soil, ensuring it retains nutrients well and drains easily.
Mark your grid
To create a square foot garden, divide up your plot into a grid of 12in x 12in (30cm) squares using canes or string – in a tiny plot you should be able to fit nine squares, but you can make more in larger gardens. Alternatively, set out your square foot grid in a raised bed on a patio or in a courtyard garden. A sunny site is best, but a garden in part shade can be successful if you select leafy crops that will grow well in these conditions. The small plot size means that you can tend all the plants without walking over the soil and compacting it, although in larger plots, construct a few narrow paths for access.
Plant to fit
Plant one type of seed or young plant in each square, setting them out as closely as possible so that there will be no exposed soil between the mature crops. In his book, All New Square Foot Gardening, Mel recommends planting one large plant, such a broccoli, beans and tomatoes, per square, and four medium-sized plants, including lettuce, parsley, strawberries and chard. Plant nine small to medium-sized vegetables, like spinach and beetroot, in each square and 16 small plants, such as carrots, onions and radishes.
For potatoes and other deep-rooted crops, create boxed sides to your squares with wood or slates. Plant potato tubers just below the surface at ground level, and as the plants grow, earth them up by covering the stems and leaves with soil, until you have filled the boxes. The potatoes will then continue to grow and should be ready to harvest when the plants flower, when you can remove the squares to reveal the tubers inside.
Plant different types of crop in adjacent squares to avoid a build-up of pests and diseases. Some gardeners also find that planting marigolds between crops helps to ward off some pests, while growing carrots in raised beds over 60cm (2ft) in height deters carrot fly (a low-flying pest). Alternatively, surround your carrots with a 60cm barrier of clear polythene.
Care for your crops
Your crops will need to be watered regularly, but you may find they require less moisture than those grown less intensively because the leaf cover helps to reduce surface evaporation. Try watering by hand to conserve water supplies and connect butts to your downpipes to capture rainwater. To prevent pest damage, cover brassicas with netting to guard against cabbage white butterflies, and cover ripening soft fruits to deter birds. Most plants will not need extra fertilizer, but onions benefit from an application of potash as the bulbs start to form.
Smothering the soil with plants helps to reduce weed growth, as the vegetable leaves shade the surface, thereby preventing them from germinating, but any that do make it through this defence should be removed promptly. Support tall plants, such as beans and tomatoes, with sturdy canes, tying in the stems with twine as they grow. In the autumn or after you have harvested your crops, add a layer of well-rotted manure or compost over the surface, which will help to replace lost nutrients and condition the soil.