Back in August, I wrote about my plan to try grow in a square foot garden. In a nutshell, my garden is huge. And it’s hard to keep up with the water requirements and pest management over summer. It means that each year, I lose my gardening mojo as plants die, pick up diseases, or just get attacked by insects.

So, while I have a lot of the same plants in other parts of the garden, I also have one small garden bed where I’m growing everything I want to regularly harvest throughout summer. I’ve set it up with bug protection and irrigation. If everything else fails, then (at least in theory) we’ll still be eating out of the square foot garden.

The bed is 1.4 x 1.8m. In that space, I am now growing tomatoes, capsicum, basil, coriander, lettuce, mesclun, spring onions, cucumbers, carrots, and a couple of marigolds.

What didn’t work

When I wrote in August, I was writing a plan. And, of course, not everything always goes the way we think it will.

In my plan, I was just going to sow seeds directly, which I did in September. I got absolutely no return on them. Nothing grew. Or if it did, it was wiped out by slugs and snails before I had a chance to see it. Direct sowing was a total failure.

Likewise, it took 3 tries to get my carrots to germinate. Again, slugs and snails may also have been implicated. Transplanting isn’t a great option for carrots as it disturbs the roots too much, so I had to get direct sowing working. This week, I finally succeeded, but they’re definitely running behind schedule.

Then I had trouble sourcing a really big red capsicum plant. I found lots of yellow and orange ones. There were also plenty of chili in a bunch of varieties. But a red capsicum wasn’t happening in the larger grades. I ended up purchasing 2 well-developed 10cm California Wonder plants. Combined with some store credit I’d accumulated, I paid about $4.50 for both plants – a massive saving over what I’d planned.

Finally, some of my seeds were too old and even when I tried germinating them again in a more controlled environment, I didn’t see results. So in some cases (lettuce, rocket, marigolds), I resorted to buying a 6 pack of seedlings and planting them instead.

What did work

Toilet rolls worked! I sowed a lot of my seeds (rocket, lettuces, mesclun, coriander, cucumbers, and basil) in toilet rolls. They worked a freaking treat! When it came time to plant, I chucked the whole thing in. The toilet rolls degrade, and my plants are thriving!

Seedlings germinated in toilet rolls
Getting a bunch of multiplying spring onions (via Koru Kai Herb Farm) turned out to be a good idea too. They were the only thing I had planted when I last posted about this project. The clumps have easily multiplied to four or five times the size since then.

The bug net is really working. I’ve found two insects inside it so far, and took the time to identify them both. I had a Black Soldier Fly and a New Zealand Looper – neither of which were going to cause any damage. I think the black soldier fly may have grown up inside the bed, while I saw the moth fly in while I was working on it.

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens)
New Zealand Looper (Epyaxa rosearia)

There’s still the occasional slug or snail that makes it through, but I’m not seeing caterpillars or green vegetable bugs in this bed, which is the main thing. It’s worth the effort of lifting it up and putting it back down each time I want to get in there.

What I changed

I decided I didn’t need chives in the square foot garden. I’ve got them growing in another part of the garden where they’re utterly thriving. As a result, I decided to swap out the chives for a second lettuce square.

I also ended up planting three tomato plants over two squares. I’m not quite sure why when I planned to plant two, but they’re doing OK so far, so hopefully it stays that way.

Tomatoes, lettuces, and cucumbers in the square foot garden

There’s also the minor possibility that I may have accidentally planted spaghetti squash instead of cucumber. I sowed both at the same time and didn’t label them (so smart! Don’t be me.) Anyway, my logic was the seedlings with the small leaves would be my cucumber, and the one with larger leaves would be the melon.

Except now they’re in the garden and it’s starting to look the other way around. My fingers are crossed my cucumbers are actually just happy in the sheltered square foot garden and my melons are finding it harder on a more exposed bed… but I don’t know yet. If I did mess it up, obviously the melons will need to come out of the square foot garden.

How is the square foot garden going?

The tomatoes are about 40cm high and have begun flowering. Cucumbers/melons have begun taking off and we have our first flowers. The basil was a little slow to start, but I’ve been thinning them out and I have a feeling it’ll take off soon. The lettuces are works of art.

As I mentioned above, the carrots have been a problem, but this week they’ve finally begun germinating. I sowed one square under a sheet of plywood, and one as an exposed square. It will be interesting to see the difference between the techniques as time goes on.

Carrots germinated under a square of plywood
Germinated under a sheet of plywood. A bit leggy, but will probably come right.
Carrots germinated without an additional covering
Germinated under seed raising mix. A bit patchy. Seems to mostly have germinated in the shade of other plants.
I’m harvesting mesclun, lettuce, spring onions, and coriander fairly regularly now. It’s nice to have them there when I want them. I’ve really struggled to get them growing well in the main garden, but they seem pretty happy in the square foot garden.

And I have some baby capsicums!! One plant seems to be struggling for reasons I can’t put my finger on. I’ve added extra compost, and some extra fertiliser. No improvement yet, but it’s neighbour looks set to be a whopper, so I don’t think I’ll be disappointed either way.

Capsicum plants

What’s next

Turning on the irrigation! You may be surprised to know I haven’t used my carefully set up irrigation yet. I haven’t needed to – the rain’s been pretty great this year. But also it turns out my hose doesn’t reach the garden!

I have a plan for fixing that, but in the meantime the bug net seems to be doing a great job creating a microclimate the plants love. There’s a huge difference between plants in the square foot garden and those in the main garden. I can only put that specifically down to the bug net. So far, it’s been enough.

Capsicum, coriander, mesclun, spring onions, tomatoes and carrots in the sfg

I’ll have to keep an eye on my cucumbers in case they’re melons, but other than that – it looks like it’ll be a fully-functioning and harvestable square foot garden by early January. I’m already harvesting off the lettuces, mesclun/rocket, spring onions and coriander.

This experiment seems to be working so far. Obviously there’s still some months to go, but so far this one little garden bed makes me really happy, and means I’m less worried about what’s happening elsewhere.

Edit: a final update on this experiment is available here.

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