Whoa! what’s this all about then?
Recycled, square foot, seaweed, that’s a lot of ideas all in one short phrase. It is, but that’s essentially what my garden is all about. It won’t win prizes for layout and design and many folks would consider it a visual nightmare but it suits me and goes a long way towards giving us all the fresh fruit and vegetables we need.
The recycled bit is the fact that I took someone else’s idea of a garden and converted it to what I want. Plus I filled it with loads of stuff that I’d scrounged from hither and thither or had been dumped by others. I don’t like waste and I don’t like the unnecessary squandering of resources, oh, and I’m also a Yorkshireman but that’s another story.
And what’s this square-foot thing?
When I started gardening I grew things in rows because that’s what my grandad did and it’s what the books tell you. Then I had a eureka moment. I read somewhere that the reason for growing in rows is because that’s the only feasible way in mechanized agriculture/horticulture due to limitations of the machinery involved. There is really no need to do it in a small vegetable patch for home consumption and where you are growing quite a wide variety of plant types in close proximity. In fact it’s a positive waste of space for the vast majority of crops.
The alternative is block planting, or its variant square foot gardening. Basically, you take your plot and divide it into small areas, each of which will be used to grow a certain number of each plant type. You will obviously get more spring onions in each block than, say, cauliflowers but the point with this system is that you can grow at much closer spacings than in conventional row planting. Sixteen full-size onions in a square foot sounds a lot but it can easily be done if your soil is sufficiently fertile. And it must be fertile if you want to start down this road. Which is where the seaweed comes in.
I live on the coast so it’s quite easy for me to gather seaweed but until I started adding it to the compost and making a liquid feed from it I had no idea just how good a plant nutrient it actually is. Not only does it contain about twice as many trace elements as land plants but it also has growth hormones, amino acids and lots of other stuff that make plants thrive.
Next step was to divide up the plot into small blocks in which to grow a variety of plants. I used those plastic fruit trays with the bottoms cut out. You should be able to scrounge these from your local greengrocer or market. They give young plants a bit of protection and you can cover them with netting to keep out predators.
Four months down the line it was looking a bit more like a productive garden. Lots of different vegetables in small amounts and growing in close proximity. The flowers are marigolds which help deter certain pests by exuding a strong scent. This is known as companion planting and is also in evidence with the onions planted next to carrots, etc. Now, those of you reared on the idea of crop rotation will be saying how can you fit that in with block planting. The answer is you don't. With small numbers of different plant groups grown together you don't get the build-up of pests and disease that might be experienced by commercial growers. I still have a sort of rotation in that every three years one bed will be all potatoes and the other two block planted.
By October it was providing plenty of fresh veg. with leeks, carrots, turnips, beetroot and more leeks in this small section which had previously given me a good crop of early potatoes. I try to get two crops per season from each patch of ground or container but you can only really do this with a fertile soil otherwise it quickly becomes depleted of essential plant nutrients. You can achieve this fertility not with expensive chemicals but by bunging on as much muck and compost as you lay your hands on. There are gardens in China which have been under continuous cultivation for two-thousand years.
All the materials used to make this rather Heath-Robinson looking garden were acquired for nothing. No expensive raised beds, no commercial compost. Everything made with my own fair hands...and boy, does it show!!
Although I still follow more or less the same route as described above I have now modified it slightly. After all, that's what successful growing is all about - you try something and adapt it to suit your needs and circumstances in order to maximize production. Plants are still grown in blocks rather than rows but the blocks are much larger than in traditional 'square foot' gardening. In a typical year I'll grow 120 - 150 onions and this is much easier if they are together in big groups.
I've also adopted a more conventional rotation pattern using four beds: potatoes, legumes, aliums and brassicas. Plants are mixed within the beds so that, say in brassicas, I might have half a dozen cauliflowers next to a block of turnips next to cabbages, etc. Small sowings in modules are made constantly through the season so that there is always something available to fill any gaps as they arise. Far too many gardeners seem to bung everything in at once and end up with a glut and much that is wasted. We like fresh food throughout the year and that is what I strive for.
If anything, I now grow more in containers and, once again, these are sown in succession through the season. They can be started off under glass or even under the kitchen table so long as you're as happy to accept chaos as I am.