Thursday, June 28, 2012

Square Foot Gardening - Mulching and Watering

Here is the next instalment in my series on Square Foot Gardening.  If you've missed the other posts you can read them here :

Today I'm covering two topics - Mulching and Watering.  Since one very much has to do with the other I think both should be covered together.


Mulch is like a protective blanket for your garden.  It serves a dual purpose really.  One, if you create a deep enough layer, it will keep weeds from sprouting in your garden and save you a lot of hours of work.  Two, mulch will help keep your garden soil moist even in the hottest weather.

As for what kind of mulch to use - there are many options.  At a garden centre the most common mulch is some kind of bark, and prices vary quite a bit depending on what wood is used.  The look of the mulch will vary as well because of the colour of the wood.  This kind of mulch can be ordered by the truck full for large gardens, but you can also buy bags of it in most garden centres and for a small square foot garden, a couple of bags is probably all you will need.

If you don't want to put out the money for mulch, there are cheaper alternatives though they do require a bit of work.  Newspaper and even cardboard can be very effective, and if you still have your daily paper delivered or have access to a lot of old newspapers this could be a great solution for you.  

You do however need to weight the paper down otherwise the first really good gust of wind will create a mess all over your garden.  A lot of people use compost to cover their newspaper, thereby giving their garden extra fertilizer at the same time.

Another good solution is to use grass clippings which most people have in abundance.  Just make sure to have a really thick layer of newspaper under the clippings which will prevent any weed seeds from germinating, and if you have your lawn sprayed with chemical fertilizer or weed killer then this solution isn't for you.

Another great mulch solution is dark plastic which will not only keep the earth moist but will also keep it warm - something that plants like tomatoes especially will love.  Again you need to make sure you weight it down somehow.  In the example above it was staples to the sides of the garden bed which works well.  Then all you need to do is punch holes where you want to plant.
How to water

When it comes to actually watering your garden here is what The Square Foot Gardening book recommends :

"Since your garden is one fifth (or 20 percent) the size of a conventional garden, you've automatically eliminated 80 percent of your watering and space requirements.  The 20 percent that's left can be taken care of with a time-tested method that is easy, quick, and compatible with good plant growth - hand dipping from the water pail !"

This is made easier if you have also planted your plants the way they recommend - in a "slight saucer depression" as illustrated in this drawing I made in one of my gardening notebooks.  This way the water will go exactly where it's needed - directly to the roots of the plant.  It's also a great way to conserve water, but unless you have a pretty small garden, this method could take more time than you are willing to spend, so I think it's worth exploring some other ways.

You can just water your garden with a hose, and having a water wand attachment that allows you to use a fine spray isn't a bad idea. In fact while your seeds are germinating I think it's probably ideal.  But once your plants are larger you have to be careful because you are watering the leaves not so much the ground with this method and there is more of a danger of fungus attacking wet plants.

Watering wands come in many different price ranges.  Here are just a few examples.
Orbit 18-Inch 9-Pattern Turret Wand Spray Nozzle 58291
Dramm 12501 Colormark Premium Rain Watering Wand 30-Inch Length with 8-Inch Foam Grip, Blue Dramm 12368 Classic Rain Watering Wand 16-Inch Length with 8-Inch Foam Grip, Silver

Watering systems are of course ideal if you can afford them, but that's a topic for another post.  Using a sprinkler hose is a good compromise between buying an expensive system and watering by hand.

A sprinkler or soaker hose is just a length of hose that has small holes punched into it.  This allows the water to slowly trickle out into your bed.  Over time this will soak your garden pretty thoroughly. The illustration above allows you to see how the water seeps out, though I wouldn't set it up this way myself because you run the same danger of  ending up with wet plants with this layout as you would watering with a hose.

Here are a couple of examples of sprinkler hoses that you can buy at a very reasonable price.

In the above layout you can see how a soaker hose can be permanently attached to the walls of your square foot garden, allowing you to attach the hose when you want to water.  And as you can see with the planted version, the plants will slowly grow up over the hose so the water will end up where it's needed - at the roots.

Here is another view of the soaker hose in action.  You can see that the water is ending up exactly where it is needed.

How much to water

It isn't really enough just to have a watering system in place, you also need to know how much to water, and this very much depends upon the kind of soil you are working with.  There are basically three types of soil and each of them have different requirements.  

Clay soil has a very fine, tightly bound structure and water drains through it very slowly.  You have to apply a lot of water before the moisture will sink in to any useable depth and you have to water slowly or it will just run off the surface.  If you are growing plants in clay soil you need to water very slowly for a long period of time, so for you using a soaker hose is probably a good solution.  Especially since clay soil also dries out very slowly so you won't need to water as frequently.

Sandy soil is just the opposite.  It drains so fast you need to water quite frequently, but when you do water you don't need to water as much or as long for your earth to get thoroughly soaked. 

Loamy soil is the happy medium, and if you have built up your beds using a good soil mix this is what you hopefully have.  

In the Square Foot Gardening book, Mel has a chart of how much to water for each type of soil, but he also states that really there are so many variables involved that it's impossible to tell anyone exactly how much to water.  The weather conditions, the type of plants your growing, as well as the type of soil you have will all affect how much you need to water.  As Mell says :

"The best approach is to make sure your soil contains plenty of organic matter, and to observe your garden carefully and water when your plants need it, not just when this book or any other one tells you to."

Using warm water

Also recommended in The Square Foot Gardener is to water your garden with warm water as cold water puts your plants into shock and they temporarily stop growing.  Mel recommends leaving buckets of water out in the sun and then using those when you hand water.  

Leaving buckets of water actually by your garden is another good tip for when you have warm days during the spring but the nights are still cold.  Plants like tomatoes don't like any cold weather.  If you put your water buckets by these plants, they will warm during the day and then at night release their heat helping to keep your plants warm.

If you use a hose system, you really can't do too much other than to leave your hose out in the sun while it's still full of water.  This will help for at least the first few minutes of watering.

Again, for more information, you can buy the Square Foot Gardening book here.

Continuing with my watering theme, in today's inspirational garden I'd like to give you a glimse of Monet's garden in Giverny seen through a watering mist. (photo from  This isn't a vegetable garden, but it's a lovely garden image just the same, and shows how beautiful a garden can look, even when wet.

"Almost any garden, if you see it at just the right moment, can be confused with paradise."
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