This is the first of three arti­cles geared toward help­ing a sub­ur­ban or even an urban dweller become more food self suf­fi­cient. It doesn’t take a lot of space to grow food but it does take a dif­fer­ent type of think­ing than the tra­di­tion­al gar­den. I’ll break down my expe­ri­ences into skills every square foot gar­den­er should have… but first, a few caveats.  One, this write­up is not com­pre­hen­sive, I wont go into great detail and Ill take for grant­ed each read­er has some basic gar­den­ing skill.  Two, this is based upon my expe­ri­ence in sub­ur­ban NJ, Im not a mas­ter gar­den­er by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, so don’t count this as accu­rate advice for some­one in a dif­fer­ent cli­mate with a very dif­fer­ent soil type.

Choos­ing your crops wise­ly

Some plants are well suit­ed from square foot gar­den­ing and oth­ers aren’t. Try to choose plant vari­eties that 038lend them­selves to high yields in small areas. Great choic­es are leaf let­tuce (as opposed to head let­tuce, both grow quick­ly but leaf let­tuce plants will con­tin­ue to pro­duce if they stay picked), pole beans (as opposed to bush beans because they can be grown ver­ti­cal­ly for a high­er yield), and sun­flow­ers for aes­thet­ics (they are unique, look nice, and pro­duce edi­ble seeds). Plants to avoid are corn (uses up a lot of space for a lim­it­ed yield and needs a lot of water), pump­kins (same rea­sons as corn), and straw­ber­ries (pro­duce well but only after sev­er­al years of send­ing out run­ners). Keep in mind, you may be plant­i­ng in pots or even in buck­ets so plants with a shal­low root sys­tem and lim­it­ed water require­ments is impor­tant.

Start ear­ly

Since youre lim­it­ed by a small­er amount of plantable space, its best to start things ear­ly and try to extent beds 1your grow­ing sea­son. Hot box­es are a great way to heat up your soil and planters for seedlings. A sim­ple wood frame or a set of shelves and some plas­tic sheet­ing can extend your grow­ing sea­son quite a bit. I have made my box­es out of left over lum­ber from a home improve­ment job and the glass panes from my storm doors.

Pots, planters, and hang­ing buck­ets

Grow­ing veg­eta­bles in planters is a great way to get more yield out of your small­er space… and to grow in DSC03983places that nor­mal­ly couldn’t be used to grow at all. Some of the things Ive used are flower pots, wood­en box­es, and buck­ets. With a wood­en frame and some hooks, I was able to turn some planters (and even­tu­al­ly buck­ets since the com­mer­cial planters only last­ed only a few years… click here for a link to the hang­ing planters) into hang­ing planters that grew my toma­toes potand cucum­bers down­ward. I have grown let­tuce and bush beans in rel­a­tive­ly shal­low planters using reg­u­lar pot­ting soil (and adding com­post half way through the grow­ing sea­son). One thing about con­tain­er plant­i­ng that is both a bless­ing and a pain, is the soil is changed year­ly (atleast par­tial­ly). If a crop fails, the soil can be changed com­plete­ly the fol­low­ing sea­son (or lat­er in the same sea­son for a fast grow­ing crop) with­out hav­ing to improve the soil over time like in a stan­dard gar­den. The prob­lems are, dis­pos­ing of the used soil if you have no yard and buy­ing new soil each year to replace old.

Small raised beds

A small raised (or a bed sep­a­rat­ed from your yard) can be used the same as a reg­u­lar gar­den­ing plot. It is a per­ma­nent fix­ture of the gar­den so the soil can be improved over time by till­ing to add in new organ­ic mat­ter or using per­ma­cul­ture techniques….the result is a more con­sis­tent­ly pro­duc­tive soil. I grow a 3 foot wide gar­den bor­der­ing my mulchprop­er­ty on both sides… both sides have fences but the plants still get good full day sun. The nar­row­er gar­den allows for plen­ty of yard and eas­i­er access to veg­eta­bles with­out hav­ing to step over one plant to get to anoth­er, I sim­ply lean in and pick what I need. Also, I can use a a com­poster to get all the organ­ic mat­ter I need for gar­den of this size… I sim­ply add kitchen scraps, leaves, dirt, grass clip­pings, etc and when its ready, I add the com­posed mate­r­i­al to my soil. I don’t recy­cle my leaves with the rest of my neigh­bor­hood… I use them as mulch and ulti­mate­ly as com­post when they decom­pose.

Tools of the trade

Much of what you will need for square foot gar­den­ing is found in your local home depot or TillerWal­mart….although I pre­fer to give my busi­ness to local co-ops (we can help the econ­o­my by buy­ing local and Amer­i­can wher­ev­er pos­si­ble… but that’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent top­ic). Aside from the basic tools like a shov­el, rake, etc, you may want to look into pur­chas­ing a small tiller. They are easy to run don’t take up much shed space. I have a ryobi mod­el (click here for info) that allows me to change heads from a weed trim­mer to tiller to a hedge trim­mer. I like it because it takes up less space in my shed and its one engine for mul­ti­ple gar­den tools (any­one who main­tains gas engines and win­ter­izes them year­ly can appre­ci­ate that).


Water­ing can be done rel­a­tive­ly eas­i­ly with a small gar­den plot. I use an old gut­ter attached to my shed and 006a bar­rel to catch the rain water. Its in the back of my prop­er­ty behind some oth­er things so its out of the way and doesn’t draw atten­tion (in some loca­tions it’s a vio­la­tion to catch rain water… again anoth­er sto­ry). This cuts down on my water bill and makes fill­ing water­ing cans fast and con­ve­nient. Use mulch… a lot of it! The more mulch used in raised bed, the less water your plants will require….except your plants in pots and oth­er planters. Planters have a ten­den­cy to dry out very quick­ly so make sure you water them thor­ough­ly every­day.

This should give you a few ideas of how to approach your gar­den­ing in an sub­ur­ban or urban area. My clos­ing advice would be three things…1. Don’t expect to become self reliant square foot gar­den­ing, the best you can hope for is to grow a por­tion of your food (or some spe­cial­ty foods that are hard to come by) but you will still be mak­ing trips to the gro­cery store. Even with can­ning and inten­sive prac­tices, you will find the lim­it­ed yields are inad­e­quate for being self suf­fi­cient. 2. START… you don’t know what you can grow or how much fun it can be until you try your hand at gar­den­ing. Don’t be afraid of mak­ing too many mis­takes either… learn as you go and you’ll find your gar­den (and nature in gen­er­al) is pret­ty resilient to rooky mis­takes. 3. Look for more advice from your local coop, agri­cul­tur­al exten­sion, or gar­den­ing groups.  They will have much bet­ter advice for your par­tic­u­lar cli­mate and soil type… as well as advice on what crops may grow well in your area.

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