The Roots of Square Foot Gardening

comments (3) March 24th, 2010

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WesternGardener Jodi Torpey, contributor
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Like modern-day square foot gardens, waffle gardens make efficient use of small spaces.
The Three Sisters is one example of companion planting in a waffle garden.
Like modern-day square foot gardens, waffle gardens make efficient use of small spaces.Click To Enlarge

Like modern-day square foot gardens, waffle gardens make efficient use of small spaces.

Photo: Jodi Torpey

Ancient Planting Method Conserves Resources

The square-foot vegetable garden, made popular by best-selling author Mel Bartholomew, probably had its roots in an ancient dryland farming method called a waffle garden.

Waffle gardens are sunken planting beds that Native Americans used for planting in some of the driest areas of the country. This planting method allowed crops to be grown using meager amounts of precipitation because they’re designed to capture every raindrop and hold it close to plant roots.

Would you like to take a step back in time and try your hand at this ancient planting technique? You and your family can work together to turn an ordinary vegetable garden into a do-it-yourself history lesson. Together you’ll discover how the Zuni in New Mexico were able to make the most of small space gardening and conserve water at the same time.

Build a Waffle Garden

Here are the main steps to building your own waffle garden:

  1. Measure a 6’ by 8’ area in a prepared vegetable garden bed.
  2. Create 12 planting waffles, each 2' square so the garden is 3 waffles wide and 4 waffles long.
  3. Build berms between each planting area to create a waffle pattern; use unamended soil and build the berms several inches high.
  4. Amend the soil in each planting area using your favorite soil amendment.
  5. Plant in each waffle depression and add mulch to reduce evaporation.

The Zuni Indians often surrounded their waffle beds with short adobe walls or large rocks to help their gardens remain warm during cold night-time temperatures. They also used gravel mulch to pull any rainwater deep into the planting holes and to slow evaporation.

Waffle gardens were used to grow chile peppers, tobacco and other important crops like corn, squash and beans. The three-vegetable combination of corn, squash and beans is called “Three Sisters” because each vegetable helps the other when planted in the same sunken waffle hole. Corn stalks function as poles for the beans to climb, the beans add nutrients to the soil and the squash leaves shade the soil like a living mulch.

If you’d like to plant the Three Sisters companion planting in your waffle garden, start by planting corn in the middle of each waffle depression. Plant pole bean seeds around the corn so they can be supported by the corn stalk. Plant two squash plants in opposite corners of the waffle.

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posted in: vegetable gardening, companion planting, waffle garden

Comments (3)

aupannr writes: The Iroquois used a three sisters method designed to account for the increased rainfall they received. Here they planted on mounds. Instead of a depression a mound is made about 4 inches high, on this mound the corn and beans are planted. This improves drainage and increases soil temperature. To help watering you can make a small crater at the top of the mound so all the water doesn't just roll down hill!
Posted: 9:28 am on May 30th
plantlady35 writes: I live in NM and can't wait to try this! Our water bills are HUGE in the gardening months.
Posted: 9:42 am on April 12th
WhatsTheMuck writes: Great discussion Jodi, I've only in the past couple of years read about 'sunken bed' gardening. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, it would probably be the death knell for many gardens, as we have WAY more than enough moisture during a normal year, but everyone must adapt to their own local climate.

And that's the lesson- the techniques that work for any given climate have usually been in use for umpteen years, but may not be in use by local industrial ag. We all need to find what works and is sustainable in our own climates, and looking to traditional (i.e., non-industrial) methods is one of the best ways to achieve this.
Posted: 10:40 pm on March 31st
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