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Why You Should Give Square Foot Gardening a Try

Short on garden space? Square-foot gardening can give you prolific results without eating up a lot of acreage.

Written by Elizabeth Millard
Many log homes are, understandably, built in densely wooded areas, on the edge of steep, sloping hillsides or along lakeshores, and that “tucked away” feeling is a huge part of the charm. But if you fancy yourself a backyard farmer, the tough terrain and heavy shade that comes with these locations don’t offer much in the way of extensive garden space. Should you give up your dreams of a bountiful vegetable harvest or a profusion of flowerbeds? Not at all! You just need to change your strategy.
Developed in 1981 by gardener and retired engineer Mel Bartholomew, “square foot gardening” has become highly prized by folks with limited growing area — even city dwellers — because it allows for high productivity in very small spaces.
The basic premise is that you build raised beds; a common choice is a 4-by-4 foot square, but many people also opt for long, narrow rectangles. Regardless of shape, you build the bed to a depth of about 6 inches — and fill it with a rich soil mix that drains and aerates well, rather than taking dirt from a surrounding area. Each section of the bed is divided into one-foot squares, so you end up with a grid. Then, you grow something different in each.
Using this method allows you to plant compactly instead of sewing your seedlings in long rows, and you can configure your beds in any available space that has adequate light, rather than just in areas with flat terrain or the right soil conditions. Planting in packs also minimizes weeds, and using a variety of vegetation within such a tight space improves the biodiversity of the beds — a strategy called companion planting — and that can reduce pests, which tend to thrive on large amounts of the same plant.

When creating square foot gardening beds, here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Choose the logs or lumber for your border carefully, since it will be exposed to the elements and watered frequently. Also, if you’re growing edibles, make sure the wood is not treated with chemicals that can leach into the soil, be absorbed by the plants and poison your crops. Untreated cedar is a popular choice, but you also can use non-wood options like bricks or stones.
  • Although the soil mix (Bartholomew suggests sandy loam, peat moss, matured compost and vermiculite) is excellent for drainage, it dries out faster than an in-ground garden, so you’ll need to water more frequently.
  • Choose a spot that suits what you want to grow. For example, full, all-day sunlight isn’t ideal for lettuces or delicate flowers like columbine, but tomatoes and peppers love it.
  • Install your plants next to neighbors they’ll get along with. Certain varieties will yield better fruit if planted near a compatible species. (Tomatoes and basil; potatoes and squash; or carrots and onions are prime examples.) 
Whether you decide to have one raised bed or several, this method can be a boon for space-challenged log cabin owners yearning for a big garden harvest.

See more on outdoor design for log homes here.

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