Being square in a green way

Being square in a green way

Being square in a green way

Developed in 1970s, the square foot gardening method is fast becoming popular in the city. Pooja Mahesh talks to enthusiasts who are looking to spread this trend among more homeowners.

The gardening world, in the past few years, has changed immensely. This is particularly true for urban spaces today, as people are looking for alternative sources for their food. One such method that homeowners are resorting to is urban gardening, which offers to make our food as ‘local’ as possible. Within urban gardening, there have been several methods that have sprung up — and they don’t necessarily need to be planted in the ground.

One such method is ‘square foot gardening’, which is a perfect way to add a bit of green to your home without spending too much or putting in too much effort. It is an easy, minimal work, low-weed and chemical-free way to grow plants in a small area. As a result, it makes for an ideal gardening option in urban or suburban areas where space is a major constraint.

Developed by Mel Bartholomew in the late 1970s, square foot gardening was his solution to the belief that the conventional gardening system of planting in rows was a waste of time and space. This method continues to be a popular form of gardening today as it’s easy to manage and produces high yields of quality food. If you are wondering why, it is primarily because one can produce a greater number of produce in less space with less work.

Bound by four sides

So, what does it entail? Unlike regular gardening, the plants are arranged in blocks of squares instead of rows. Each block, which is small square sections, contains a different vegetable, herb or flower. It is essentially a 12”X12” square with a grid that is divided into nine squares with equal lengths of four feet on each side. As a result, one can bring in a lot of diversity in their box by bringing in different plants together. All of this makes it easy for a
gardener, especially someone who is just beginning.

Bringing this form of gardening to Bengaluru is Squarefoot Farmers. Started by Vishwas Makam, Arun Gundmi and Ritesh Nahar, the Bengaluru-based firm aimed “to do something nice and also make it economically sustainable”. They set up food gardens, edible landscaping and at times, a mix of both in their clients’ gardens. However, their focus is on setting up small gardens that are organic in nature, which are customised according to the needs of the customers.“We started out spreading the knowledge we had about growing food to interested people. One thing led to another and we started setting up small gardens,” says Vishwas. Additionally, they focus on bringing to their customers a holistic, natural and organic solution. What makes the square foot gardening more unique is the fact that you can have complete control over it.

As gardening is often thought to be labour intensive, many people tend to shy away from doing it themselves. However, square foot farming is quite the opposite and setting up one is quite simple. It can be set up using a simple wooden frame or as a more elaborate vertical garden. It can be designed using any material available (such as wood and concrete) that can hold the soil above ground. Squarefoot Farmers offer boxes that are made out of repressed coir and pine.

The rationale of keeping it above the ground is that by using potting soil instead of dirt, one will enjoy the benefits of having perfect soil conditions from day one, making it less labour-intensive. “As a result, it makes it easier to do the growing in balconies or terraces,” elaborates Vishwas. However, if you are using wood, it’s important to stay clear of pressure-treated wood, as the arsenic and other chemicals can leach into your beds and your vegetables.

Today, many people are beginning to realise the importance of clean, good food and want to start a garden in their terrace and/or backyard. “Shifting to square foot farming has been really convenient as I was keen on growing vegetables that I use on a day-to-day basis,” says Sheila Gupta, a resident of Jayanagar, who was looking to expand her garden when she came across Squarefoot farmers. With their help she has set up around 20 square foot gardens, placed at convenient heights, growing a variety of greens and microgreens mostly.

Salient features

What makes such a garden unique is the fact that it is easy to maintain, easy to keep pest-free and fetches different vegetables at every harvest which is apt for small, nuclear families in urban spaces. “When you understand what you really want, the whole process becomes rather simple and helpful in the long term. I would advise everyone to grow at least greens as they last much longer than the ones you may get at the store,” suggests Sheila.

Squarefoot Farmers also hold periodic workshops, which enable one with self-sustainable methods of composting and offer a wide array of flowering and edible seeds as well.

But if you are still wary about giving it a try, wondering how different it could be from regular gardening, the answer is simple. It differs with respect to its soil medium, alignment, and is mostly done above the ground. The soil medium consists of vermiculite, cocopeat and compost, which makes the garden very friable as it can hold high amounts of water and is nutrient rich. While this concept has picked up very well among many urban dwellers, the fact remains that the plants need regular watering and maintenance. This can prove to be difficult for those who frequently travel. “However, there are a lot of equipment that help automate gardening today,” says Vishwas.

To ensure that these are maintained well, it is important to have the ideal space to help the gardens thrive. Such a space would get ample sunlight (at least five to seven hours of direct sunlight) and should also be away from tree roots and shadows, and should  let water flow easily. If sunlight is less, the plant selection becomes a narrower process. One can plant anything that they want to. However, seasons play a crucial role in what can be grown when. For example, vegetables like carrots and cauliflowers can only be grown during the winter season.Bengaluru’s weather, however, makes it convenient to grow most of the vegetables through the year. Outdoor terraces are the most ideal in urban spaces.

Maintenance-wise, there is much to be kept in mind, particularly if you are looking to grow organically. “Regular sprays of neem, sour curd and cow urine needs to be administered to keep the plants immune from diseases and keep the pests at bay,” advises Vishwas. “This will help in maintaining the plant’s overall growth and health.”

What can also help maintain the plants’ health is ensuring that there are no pests behind its leaves and that they have a good compost, which is key for growing in small spaces. Having good compost would mean good health for the plant as it is their food. All the kitchen waste generated at homes can be composted and be used to enable their growth.

However, it is important to start slow before you delve into it completely. “It takes not more than 30 minutes of your weekly time, which is more than enough to produce clean, good food that is fresh and sustainable. Knowing how to grow your food can turn out to be a very valuable asset in the near future,” signs off Vishwas.