Our Experiences With Square-Foot Gardens


As we start to bring in our harvest for the season, I wanted to share our experiences with fellow gardeners in the hope that some may find what I have learned useful.

Our home is an experimental permaculture site, and our goal is to adapt permaculture practices as they are done in other parts of the world to our wet Northcoast climate. As such, we will be planting a wide range of "test" species and varieties and trying out a number of cultivation techniques over the next few years. We hope to share the knowledge that we gather with others of similar interest. So ... this is what we learned this year.

Predators

Deer - there is virtually no hope of gardening in this community unless you physically exclude the deer from your garden. I have tried a number of deer deterrents over the years (soap, blood meal, predator urine, noise makers, water hoses, etc.), but none of them have been 100% effective. Unfortunately, it takes only one day for a deer to make a total mess of your hard work of the season. Fences may not have aesthetic appeal, but they work.

Slugs - next to deer, slugs are the worst predator of our garden. The slug that causes the most damage to gardens in the Rupert area is the brown-banded, or grey, garden slug (Arion circumscriptus). This slug is native to Europe, but has been introduced to British Columbia, and is considered an alien invasive species. It is found mainly in gardens, disturbed areas, and woods close to human settlements. It can also be found in greenhouses, and may become a serious agricultural pest. Unlike deer, there is no simple way to completely exclude them from your garden. Keeping your garden free of grass and weeds helps alot - these slugs really like to hang out in grass. Raised cedar beds also help, as the slugs don't seem to like to crawl over the cedar very much. However, plastic containers do not seem to deter the slugs at all. Beer (or yeast) traps are effective, but seem to attract slugs in from everywhere, which may not be much help in the end. Iron phosphate (non-toxic slug bait) works, but has very limited effectiveness as a result of our heavy rains. Planting particularly slug susceptible plants next to fragrant herbs, such as mint and chives, doesn't work either. I've gone out and found slugs all over my herbs - they don't eat the herbs, but they are actively searching for the first thing they can find that is edible. Hand picking and killing them may be the best way to reduce their population - it seems to have been somewhat effective in our garden. Possibly one of the best solutions would be to get a pair of ducks (if and when the city bylaws allow this) - Indian Runner ducks are apparently the best breed for slug control.

Cabbage moth caterpillars - the cabbage moth is not a moth at all, but actually the common Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae). The butterfly itself is harmless to the garden; however it lays its eggs on Brassicas, and these eggs hatch into medium-sized green caterpillars which eat large holes in the leaves of Brassicas and members of the mustard family. Hand picking and killing the caterpillars helps, but probably the best method of control is to cover your Brassicas with a row cover. This year, I intermingled my Brassicas with my other vegetables, hoping that this might hide them from the cabbage moths. Not a hope - even when the Brassica plant was completely hidden from view underneath another plant, there were caterpillars on it! Next year, I will grow my Brassicas together in a few raised beds that I can easily cover with row cover.

General Observations

Spacing for planting - I followed the generally accepted guidelines for spacing (e.g., number of plants per square) in our square-foot gardens. However, those guidelines didn't take into account the spectacular growth that some of our plants can achieve once we have reached summer solstice. The single biggest "mistake" I made was to interplant my potatoes with other vegetables. Potatoes in Prince Rupert do not grow to a respectable 2' height, like they do in the drier regions of the province. Rather, they become jungle-like 4'+ tall monsters that then fall all over any other plants in the bed. In recent discussions with other Prince Rupert gardeners, this is normal for the region. However, my potatoes completely shaded out most of my other vegetables, resulting in poor yields from some of my other crops. So ... next year, the potatoes will go in separate beds from other plants where shading will not be an issue. Other plants prone to massive growth are peas, some beans, turnips, and a few Brassicas, so this is something to be careful about when planting your garden.

Interplanting and Companion Planting - "interplanting" uses the plants natural growth pattern to match crops together and maximize the space in the garden. Interplanting systems tend to increase production and decrease erosion. Interplanting also can be used to attract beneficial insects to the garden to help ward off harmful insects. "Companion planting" is based on the idea that certain plants benefit each other when grown in close proximity. Companion plants can be used to add nitrogen (e.g., beans), repel nematodes (e.g., marigolds), or discourage insect pests (e.g., herbs). In planting this year, I tried to implement both interplanting and companion planting in our garden beds. However, sadly I discovered that some things in Prince Rupert simply do not work according to the theories:

  • Some plants, like potatoes, grow so luxuriously that they simply do not make good plant "companions" for anything else (they rapidly overgrow any other plants in the bed). Next year, I will grow them in separate, rotating beds, where they will be in close proximity to other plants for the diversity benefits of interplanting, but not in a position where they can "take over" an entire bed.
  • The use of companion plants to repel pests was completely unsuccessful for our particular suite of pests. While slugs and cabbage moth caterpillars did not eat chives, sage, oregano, or mint, they were not deterred by these herbs either. Slugs could be found crawling all over the herb plants, on the look-out for the next good thing to eat. "Choice" plants could be hidden underneath a "protector" plant and still be consumed by the predators. Furthermore, our marigolds were one of the "choice" delicacies for the slugs, and few survived to maturity. Next year, I will grow particularly pest-prone plants in separate beds which I can cover with a crop cover to protect them.

Late start - Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, we got off to a very late start in our gardening this year. Our planting took place during the month of June, with some beds being planted the first week of July. While this late start has affected the yield of some of our crops, we have done surprisingly well nonetheless.

What Grew Well and What Didn't

Potatoes

  • Russian blue (spacing = 2) - grew well; this is a second year trial and we used seed potatoes from last year's crop; good yield
  • Chieftan (spacing = 2) - grew poorly; this is a second year trial and we used seed potatoes from last year's crop, which had good yield; not sure why the poor productivity this year
  • Yukon Gold (spacing = 2) - extremely strong growth; early starters - they were the first potatoes to emerge; high yield - we are already harvesting 6" long potatoes
  • Russian Banana Fingerling (spacing = 2) - grew well, even when planted in July; this is a second year trial and we used seed potatoes from last year's crop; unfortunately, yield for these small potatoes is low, and while they provide variety to our potato crop, I wouldnt recommend them as a main cropping potato

Beans and Peas

  • Blue Lake Bush Beans (spacing = 4) - grew well, but suffered from shading by the potatoes; some beans produced; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Dwarf Green Stringless Beans (spacing = 4) - grew well, but suffered from shading by the potatoes; some beans produced; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Romano Bush Beans (spacing = 4) - suffered from shading by the potatoes; late floweriing and no beans produced; will plant away from potatoes and earlier next year
  • Windsor Broad Beans (spacing = 4) - grew well, and flowered, but suffered from shading by the potatoes; no beans produced; may be a pollination problem as well as lack of light; will plant in a different location next year
  • Red Runner Pole Beans (spacing = 4) - grew well but flowered late; some beans produced; this is a second year trial and we had good yield last year; pollination has been an issue, and we will need to work on attracting pollinators to the garden
  • Blue Lake Pole Beans (spacing = 4) - grew poorly; no flowers
  • Romano Pole Beans (spacing = 4) - very robust growth, but late flowering; some beans produced; this is a second year trial and we had good yield last year; pollination has been an issue, and we will need to work on attracting pollinators to the garden; will plant this variety earlier next year
  • Oregon Sugar Pod Peas (spacing = 8) - planted very late, but robust growth once they got started; we have planted these peas in a southern exposure for the last 2 years, with relatively low yields and poor growth; however, this year, with a west exposure, the peas are growing tall, flowering abundantly, and producing well

Parsnips and Carrots

  • Hollow Crown Parsnip (spacing = 9) - germination was very slow and poor; some plants are now growing more robustly, but have suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Harris Model Parsnip (spacing = 9) - germination very low, with the few successful plants growing poorly; this is a second year trial and we had poor yield last year as well; will not use this variety again
  • Nantes II Carrot (spacing = 16) - germination rate was a bit low, but grew well where they were not shaded by the potatoes; grew best with west exposures
  • Flakkee Autumn King Carrot (spacing = 16) - germination rate was a bit low, but grew well where they were not shaded by the potatoes; grew best with west exposures
  • Napoli Carrot (spacing = 16) - germination rate was a bit low, but grew well; grew best with west exposures; this is a second year trial and we harvested large, well-shaped, sweet carrots last year

Brassicas, Turnips, and Argula

  • Champion Collard (spacing = 2) - very susceptible to cabbage moth predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes and under crop cover next year
  • Winterbor Kale (spacing = 2) - very robust; resistant to cabbage moth predation; highly recommend this variety
  • Lacinato Kale (spacing = 2) - slow growing; spacing could probably be increased to 4; highly susceptible to cabbage moth predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes and under crop cover next year
  • Redbor Kale (spacing = 2) - slow growing; spacing could probably be increased to 4; resistant to cabbage moth predation, but highly susceptible to slug predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Red Russian Kale (spacing = 2) - slow growing; spacing could probably be increased to 4; resistant to cabbage moth predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Queen Charlotte Islands Mixed Kale (spacing = 2) - slow growing; spacing could probably be increased to 4; only moderately resistant to cabbage moth predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes and under crop cover next year
  • Vates Blue Curled Kale (spacing = 2) - poor germination, with slow growth; highly susceptible to slug predation; this is a second year trial and we had poor growth last year as well; will not use this variety again
  • Everest Broccoli (spacing = 1) - very robust; resistant to cabbage moth predation; highly recommend this variety
  • Green Sprouting Broccoli (spacing = 4) - bolts quickly; very poor yield of edible greens; will not use this variety again
  • Zamboni Raab (spacing = 4) - bolts quickly; very poor yield of edible greens; will not use this variety again
  • Sorrento Raab (spacing = 4) - bolts quickly; very poor yield of edible greens; will not use this variety again
  • January King Cabbage (spacing = 1) - very susceptible to cabbage moth predation; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes and under crop cover next year
  • Long Island Brussel Sprouts (spacing = 1) - very susceptible to cabbage moth and slug predation; will plant under crop cover next year
  • Pak Choi (spacing = 4) - grew well, but very susceptible to slug predation; will plant under crop cover next year
  • Old Gai Lan (spacing = 2) - grew well, but somewhat susceptible to slug predation
  • Purple Top White Globe Turnip (spacing = 9) - grew very well; we are already harvesting 4" diameter turnips; spacing was a bit tight as virtually all the seed planted germinated; tops made good salad and pot greens, although they were subject to predation by cabbage moth caterpillars
  • Wild Arugula [Diplotaxis tenufolia] (spacing = 16) - grew very well; doesn't bolt; wonderful nutty-flavored salad green; plants grew large, and we will use a spacing of 9 next year
  • Astro Arugula [Eruca sativa] (spacing = 16) - very small; bolts quickly; will not use this variety again

Garlic, Onions, Chives, and Leeks

  • Red Garlic (spacing = 4) - planted the garlic too earlier, and some has rotted; will see what the yield is next year when it matures; would like to try Heirloom Red Russion garlic in the future
  • Yellow Onion Sets (spacing = 9) - good growth of greens, but soon became shaded by the potatoes; bulbs are still quite small; would like to try overwintering Walla Walla onions in the future
  • Red Onion Sets (spacing = 9) - a few grew well, but most did not; shading and late planting may have been the problem/li>
  • Bunching Onions (from seed) (spacing = 9) - although planted late, they grew well
  • Garlic Chives (spacing = 1) - growing slowly, but well; as this is a perennial, we will wait and see what happens next year
  • Giant Musselberg Leeks (spacing = 6) - growing very poorly; this is a second year trial and we had poor growth last year as well; will not use this variety again; would like to try perennial sweet leeks in the future

Beets and Chard

  • Early Wonder Tall Top Beets (spacing = 9) - grew slowly and poorly; root is not very large; suffered from shading by the potatoes; however, this is a second year trial and we had poor growth last year as well; would like to try Rodina and Winterkeeper Lutz Green Leaf in the future
  • Queen Charlotte Islands Beets (spacing = 9) - grew slowly and poorly; root is not very large; suffered from shading by the potatoes; will plant away from potatoes next year
  • Canary Yellow Chard (spacing = 4) - always a winner for us - we have grown it successfully for 3 years; large abundant leaves; good slug resistance; we use a spacing of 4 rather than the recommended 2
  • Rhubarb Chard (spacing = 4) - also a good variety, although not as vigorous as Canary Yellow chard; moderate slug resistance; we use a spacing of 4 rather than the recommended 2

Squash

  • Partenon (mildew resistant) Zucchini (spacing = 1) - grew well, but the leaves did get some powdery mildew later in the summer, and blossom end rot was a problem (hard to find exactly the right time to remove the blossom without damaging the developing zucchini and before the rot takes hold); we harvested several good-sized zucchini; would like to try Romanesco heirloom zucchini in the future
  • Queen Charlotte Islands Spaghetti Squash (spacing = 1) - grew very well and is producing small squashes; however, we probably planted too late to get much of a harvest; will plant this variety earlier next year
  • Butternut Squash (spacing = 1) - growing well but planted too late to flower; will plant this variety earlier next year
  • Table Queen Acorn Squash (spacing = 1) - growing well but planted too late to flower; will plant this variety earlier next year

Spinach

  • Bloomsdale Savoy Long Standing Spinach (spacing = 9) - we have grown this variety successfully for 3 years; grows rapidly and will tend to bolt if the location is too sunny or hot; leaves can be picked from a plant over a period of a month or more

Lettuce and Endive

  • Salad Bowl Lettuce (spacing = 16) - a frilly light-green, oakleaf looseleaf lettuce; good flavor; grows well; handles repeated harvesting; would like to try Red Salad Bowl lettuce in the future
  • Grand Rapids Lettuce (spacing = 16) - a lime-green, tender, looseleaf lettuce; good flavor; grows well; must be careful not to pull the plant out by the roots when doing repeated harvesting; would like to try Speckled Butterhead (head lettuce) and Winter Density (romaine lettuce) in the future
  • Italian Dandelion [Cichorium endivia] (spacing = 4) - no germination; seeds may have been bad; will try again next year with fresh seed; would like to try common chicory [Cichorium intybus] (mostly for the roots) in the future
  • Curly endive [Cichorium endivia] (spacing = 4) - very curly, frilly, bright green leaf with a bitter flavor; grows well and handles repeated harvesting; gets more bitter with age; this is a second year trial and we had good success last year as well

Calendula

  • Crackerjack Marigold (spacing = 2) - we planted pot marigold as both a predator deterrent and as a useful herb; however, as it turned out, the calendula was a choice plant for slugs, and few of them survived to maturity; will try a different (more potent) variety next year