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Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
I've tried a number of different gardening styles for pepper plants over the years: the standard row, raised mounds and high-density containers to name a few. I got turned on to square foot gardening through a family friend who has been doing it for years. Square Foot Gardening (covered in detail in Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening) is a technique that uses small (4' x 4') beds of friable, high-quality soil and fairly dense plantings. The result is rapid, extensive root development and fast plant growth; the rapid growth combined with a heavy canopy of foliage (a result of dense planting) almost eliminates competition from weeds and the labor and pests that they bring. Higher-density planting also provides benefits; The Pepper Garden (Ref 11) quotes Arthur Pratt, professor emeritus at Cornell University, as saying "...pepper plants grow almost twice as tall when they're tightly spaced, and then there's usually less sunscald on the fruit because they are better shaded by the leaves" (Ref 11, 108).

The other benefit of the square foot technique is a dramatic reduction in labor; no tilling is required, and because of the planting density, much less surface area has to be prepared. There is some up-front work the first season: existing soil is removed and replaced with an optimum soil blend. This provides all of the performance enhancement of gradual soil amendment the first season, and minimal need for amendment after that. The water-holding capacity of the soil is also enhanced, decreasing the need for watering and allowing the plants to derive more benefit from those summer showers.

The technique itself is pretty simple; a 4' x 4' square area is dug out to a depth of 1 foot and the soil is replaced with 16 cubic feet of a high-quality soil mixture. I used a 6 cubic foot bag of sphagnum peat moss, two 40 lb bags of mushroom compost, two 40 lb bags of topsoil and 8 quarts of pearlite; the (dark but sandy) soil that I had originally removed made up the balance of the mix. The blend was dampened by spraying it lightly with a hose during mixing, and the hole was filled with the mix to a depth of 10 inches. Because of the relative lightness of this soil mix, the top two inches were filled with the original sandy topsoil to help keep the soil mix from washing away (this worked very well).

Proper plant spacing is obtained by treating the 4' x 4' plot as a 4 x 4 grid of sixteen 1' x 1' squares. A pepper plant is planted in the center of each of these 1' x 1' squares, so that the 4' x 4' plot contains 16 pepper plants at 1 foot spacings. Transplanting was done as usual: plants were watered well 2 hours prior to transplanting, which was done in the early evening; plants were countersunk by about an inch and were watered well with a solution of Miracle-Gro Quick Start after transplanting.

The results were excellent: big, healthy plants that provided large yields of quality pods with a minimum of upkeep. I set up a soaker hose on a timer to do the watering, and it was the closest thing to work-free gardening that I've ever done. This is definitely the gardening technique that I will use in the foreseeable future for those pepper plants that I don't grow in containers.

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