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Square foot gardening is a relatively easy way to start a garden if you’ve never gardened before, but there’s still plenty of mistakes that can be made. I had gardened for several years before deciding to try square foot gardening and I thought I could do it with little guidance since I already knew how to garden.
Boy was I wrong. I made many mistakes in my first year of square foot gardening and decided I would share with you my mistakes so you could hopefully avoid these mistakes and have a better first year than I did.
If you don’t know how to square foot garden, you can check out this post where I go into more detail of how to square foot garden.
Mistake: Poor soil
When I made my first raised bed for square foot gardening, I did not use the best soil. We had just moved to a new house and had extra dirt from having to fix a negative grade around our house.
Since money was tight, moving is not cheap, we purchased a lower grade of dirt (but not the lowest). I used the extra dirt from that to start my raised beds.
We tried making the dirt better by mixing in the nutrient-dense clay soil that we had from having to dig down one end of the raised beds to make them level (our yard is not level at all).
We also added store-bought compost and manure from a friend’s farm.
Though the dirt mixture was better than it was, it still wasn’t good enough. Both the clay soil native to this area and the dirt we brought in were difficult to dig in, which makes it difficult to plant in. It also makes it difficult for root crops, like carrots, to grow.
Poor soil fix
To fix this situation we have continued to add compost, peat moss, and coconut coir to our raised beds. All of these amendments help to break up our clay soil and make it easier to dig in.
The worst part about this is that it is difficult to dig in the amendments due to the difficulty of working with clay soil.
Poor soil prevention
Overall the best way to deal with poor soil in a raised bed is to start with good soil. Don’t use the dirt in your yard for a raised garden bed. Buy a quality garden soil to start with.
There are soils made specifically for raised beds that you can try (though I can’t say how good they are as I’ve never actually used them).
You could also try a 50/50 mix of garden soil and potting soil. Potting soil by itself may work just fine, but it does cost more than garden soil.
Another option is using a mix of ⅓ compost, ⅓ peat moss (or coconut coir), and ⅓ coarse vermiculite.
Any of these options is better than trying to use what is already in the ground for many locations. And if you are starting a new raised bed, the best option is to start with good soil and avoid the problems of poor soil from the get-go.
Mistake: Not factoring in growth rate and final plant size
Another mistake I made was not thinking about how big some plants would get, and how fast they would get to that size.
Since I plant a variety of vegetables in my garden I end up planting some as seedlings and others as seeds. This means some plants have a head start and get bigger than others faster.
That added with the fact that some plants just naturally get bigger, like summer squash and cucumbers, can cause issues if you don’t factor that in when you plant your garden (like me the first year).
I ended up with my faster-growing summer squash and zucchini next to my slower growing peppers. I had other issues as well, but the squash/pepper issue was the worst.
My squash ended up covering my pepper plant and stunted its growth. I ended up not getting any peppers from those plants because they had to spend all their energy to stay alive.
The fix for plant size issues
Unfortunately, there is no real fix for this issue if you’ve already planted your garden. By the time you realize this will be an issue, it’s probably far enough into the growing season that you won’t want to try moving anything.
If you just recently planted you may be able to move the seedlings, but most plants that are planted by seeds don’t transplant very well at all.
You can try staking the bigger plants away from the smaller plants, but this may be of limited benefit.
The best thing to be done for this issue is to avoid it altogether.
How to prevent plant size issues
To prevent this issue you just have to plant larger, faster-growing plants together and the smaller, slower-growing plants together.
If you aren’t sure which plants are bigger you can start by keeping those that are planted by seed closer to each other and the ones that start as seedlings closer together. This may not help with which plants get bigger, but at least they are all starting close in size to those that are near them.
Another thing you can do is plant tall plants, like tomatoes, and those that need a trellis on the north side of your garden. This will help reduce the amount of sun they block.
Mistake: Not prepping the location good enough and not doing regular maintenance
When we put in our raised beds we dug up the grass (and weeds as my yard was horrible) but we weren’t extra careful that we got all of it. We also didn’t put down any sort of barrier to stop anything from coming up from the ground.
We chose not to do the barrier because our raised beds aren’t that deep and some crops will need to go deeper than what our beds currently allow for.
Those, combined with the horrible amount of weeds in the yard meant there were a lot of weeds coming up in my garden.
There were so many weeds that it was hard to keep them under control. We chose not to spray for weeds because we didn’t want any of those chemicals on our food. Plus we have dogs and they go into the back yard, where the raised beds are, several times a day.
And finding a pet safe, food-safe weed killer isn’t easy. We have since started spraying the yard but not the raised beds. The dogs just have to suffer with only going out front on the leash for a few days after we spray.
The other part of this mistake was not pulling the weeds daily. I just didn’t have the time to do it daily and would do it weekly. Unfortunately, there were so many weeds that weekly didn’t keep up with them and sometimes the weather wouldn’t cooperate with me either.
The fix for weeds
The best fix for too many weeds is to prevent them to start with. If you are placing the bed in your yard make sure to get all the grass and weeds dug up before setting up the raised bed.
Also putting a barrier between your raised bed soil and the ground will help as well. If you have a shallow raised bed, like mine, newspapers may work and will break down after a while.
Another barrier option is landscape fabric, though you will want to have a deeper raised bed, at least a foot deep, if you use this method.
Even with all these mistakes, my first square foot garden did alright. I still had harvestable produce, though not everything that I planted.
The best thing about gardening is that there aren’t many mistakes that can’t be corrected for the next year. Use my mistakes, and your mistakes, as a learning experience and make your next garden even better than the last.
And if you’ve never gardened before, use my mistakes (and their fixes) to hopefully have a great first garden.