Square foot gardening is a garden revolution that allows aspiring vegetable growers to grow an abundance of crops — very successfully, we might add — in a very limited amount of space.
You already know that much if you are considering starting your very own square foot garden, but there’s more to this gardening philosophy; square foot gardening also aims to reduce waste ever step of the way. In addition, it’s rather beginner-friendly!
This guide will walk you through the process of setting up a square foot garden, from that initial spark all the way to your first harvest!
Square Foot Gardening: A Brief History
- 1 Square Foot Gardening: A Brief History
- 2 What Are the Benefits of Square Foot Gardening?
- 3 What Defines Square Foot Gardening?
- 4 Getting Started with Square Foot Gardening: A Quick, Handy, and Thorough Guide
- 4.1 1. Picking the Right Location for Your Square Foot Garden
- 4.2 2. Building Raised Beds for Your Square Foot Garden
- 4.3 3. Filling Your Raised Garden Bed with Soil
- 4.4 4. Planning Your Square Foot Garden Layout
- 4.5 5. Planting Crops into Your Square Foot Garden
- 4.6 6. Watering Your Square Foot Garden
- 4.7 7. Inspecting Your Crops for Pests and Diseases
- 4.8 8. Harvesting Your Square Foot Garden
- 4.9 9. Onward and Upward!
- 5 In Conclusion
New gardeners who have recently stumbled on the concept of square foot gardening — most often because they are working with limited space and want to find out how they can grow as much as possible — may think they’ve discovered an entirely novel idea.
Although this gardening philosophy has evolved over the years, as more and more people have become invested in it, square foot gardening is far from new. So, where did square foot gardening come from, and why?
The term square foot gardening was coined by Mel Bartholomew, a civil engineer with urban planning experience who also happened to be a keen amateur gardener. Thinking about ways to make traditional gardening more effective, Bartholomew invented square foot gardening.
In doing so, he married his two passions — urban planning and gardening. Thus, square foot gardening was born, and it’s no accident that the result looks a lot like an urban grid.
Bartholomew soon decided to share his knowledge with the rest of the world, and his now famous book Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space and Less Work, was published as far back as 1983. More than a million copies were sold and treasured, and increasing numbers of people have adopted this unique gardening method since the book first appeared on the market.
Decades later, Bartholomew wrote a whole series of new books on square foot gardening, including, for parents, one on gardening efficiently with kids. Those who would love to get their hands on an up-to-date guide on square foot gardening from, so to say, the horse’s mouth would be best off buying Bartholomew’s 2013 book All New Square Foot Gardening II: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space.
Bartholomew may have perfected his technique, but his book sparked a global movement that soon took on a life of its own — and it’s indeed true that many gardeners don’t follow his guide on square foot gardening to the letter, but instead adapt it to suit their own unique needs and aesthetic preferences.
What Are the Benefits of Square Foot Gardening?
The premise of square foot gardening is simple, and embodied in Mel Bartholomew’s initial book title — to grow more food in less space, thereby taking efficiency to a new level and reducing waste.
Beyond that promise, square foot gardening offers a neat framework that is quite easy and predictable to follow along with, making this technique great for people who are new to gardening or growing their own food.
Learning more about square foot gardening is more than worth it for anyone who:
- Would like to begin growing their own vegetables, but has limited space available — and that would include people with a small backyard as well as those who only have a balcony.
- Wants to grow vegetables, but has absolutely no intention of sacrificing their beautifully-designed landscape on the altar of urban or small-scale homesteading — in this case you technically have the space for a larger vegetable garden, but are simply choosing to use that space in a different way.
- Is new to gardening and would like a framework they can get started with as soon as possible, without any ambiguity.
- Is lazy — no, not a pejorative. Square foot gardening, you see, allows gardeners to skip the often much-hated step of weeding when the technique is done correctly, and that in turn allows you to spend your time doing other things.
- Simply enjoys the look of those interesting containers, which are not only efficient, but also pretty cool!
- Has already decided that raised garden beds are the way to go — square foot gardening will offer maximum yields!
- Gardeners with health needs that make gardening quite tricky — square foot garden beds are sufficiently small to allow gardeners to reach every square from any angle. Raised beds are also tall enough to be able to sit on a small stool while working. People with back pain, arthritis, or other chronic conditions will find this an extremely favorable approach.
What Defines Square Foot Gardening?
While plenty of people have experimented with some of the techniques used in traditional square foot gardening and abandoned others, the defining features of this unique gardening method can be described as follows:
- The basic concept starts with raised garden beds that measure four square feet (1.2 square meters). These raised beds are typically created with wooden planks. Once they are filled with a potting medium, the gardener meticulously measures out foot-long sections (that’s a rather award 0.3048 meters, for the metric folks out there). They will end up with a neat four by four grid that consists of 16 unique sections.
- Every single one of these square foot spaces will house a unique crop — so that even gardeners who are committing to installing just one raised bed are going to be growing 16 different vegetables.
- In most cases, you will be able to plant more than one of a crop in a single square. The magic lies in the fact that the number of plants you will be able to grow in a square foot has already been laid out for you — and you simply need to consult an established list and follow the instructions to get started with growing your very own veggies.
- This system has been created to maximize the number of vegetables that can be grown closely together while still giving each crop the space it needs. When done right, your square foot garden will not accumulate any weeds for you to have to eliminate.
- Crops are further planted to account for their growth cycle. The idea is that, once a certain square is ready to be harvested, it will not simply be left empty. Instead, gardeners quickly replaced the empty square with a new crop, creating a perpetual garden that can yield all sorts of unique crops throughout the year.
- The soil used in square foot gardens, as envisioned by Mel Bartholomew, also plays a key role in the success of the concept. While gardeners who like the raised beds and grids can, of course, proceed however they like, Bartholomew was a huge proponent of a potting medium that consists of one third compost, one third peat moss, and one third vermiculite.
Getting Started with Square Foot Gardening: A Quick, Handy, and Thorough Guide
It’s far from difficult to see why square foot gardening hasn’t just remained popular through the decades, but drawn a whole army of new followers over the last couple of years.
Square foot gardening is a space-saving, neat and tidy, and fairly easy way to begin to grow some of your own food — even if you have never had a vegetable garden before.
Having said that, you still need to make sure you have all your bases covered. Next up, we will be taking a look at all the steps a gardener would need to take to start up their own square foot garden (or two, or many) from scratch — in chronological order.
Read all the way through to get a better understanding of what you are getting yourself into when you begin a square foot garden, and consider how you can adapt this handy method to your own unique situation.
1. Picking the Right Location for Your Square Foot Garden
Some people start off with just one foot square foot raised garden bed, which will host 16 square foot portions. Others are immediately determined to grow as many vegetables as possible, and will want to get set up with more than one raised bed. The underlying principle remains the same in either case — before you start building your raised bed, or even buying the materials for it, you will need to know that you have a good place to put your square foot garden(s).
As you consider your options, keep in mind that the best location for a square foot garden:
- Should be placed in a spot that receives full sun — defined as at least six hours of sunlight per day.
- Should, ideally, be placed in a level area; sloped gardens are not great for traditional square foot gardens, although you can still learn from the concept if you have a sloping garden.
- Avoid rainwater catchment areas for your square foot garden. This will render the soil your veggies are growing in soggy, which you definitely don’t want.
- Is somewhere very much within your direct line of sight, as square foot gardens should ideally be checked up on daily and you don’t want to forget.
Some people grow food in square foot gardens on balconies in apartment complexes, and even on rooftops. This can work, but you will need to check if it is allowed, and also make sure not to create conditions that encourage concrete rot or fungal infestations. (Soil is heavy, and gardening indoors creates the humid conditions mold, mildew, and other fungi love.)
It is also, of course, possible to grow a square foot garden in an allotment, if you don’t have your own backyard. In this case, your allotment needs to be closed to your home, as it’s very much encouraged to interact with your square foot garden every day.
2. Building Raised Beds for Your Square Foot Garden
People who are planning to buy ready-made garden beds for their new square foot garden can mostly skip this step, but building your own bed can be very rewarding, as well as allowing you to save some money — so long as you have a few basic DIY skills.
Choose a durable wood, which should be treated but free from dangerous chemicals (for which reason you probably won’t want to choose recycled wood of unknown origins, to construct your raised garden bed from. To maximize the different kinds of vegetables you will be able to grow in a square foot garden, make sure that the planks from which you are constructing are wide enough to create a 12 inch-deep bed (that’s 30 centimeters).
Once you have your basic materials, you can go ahead and make your bed as durable as you can or want to, using a dovetail joint or simply going to town on your planks with nails and a hammer. With the basic frame in place, it is now time to create your grid — measure carefully!
3. Filling Your Raised Garden Bed with Soil
Are you new to gardening? Do you want to do everything you can to make your square foot garden a success? Don’t skimp on this step — and that indeed means that it is not a good idea to fill your brand new garden bed by shoveling ordinary garden soil into your frame, or by acquiring a potting mix meant for houseplants. Mel Bartholomew swore by his own potting mix, and so should you. To get it right, use:
- One part compost — but not from a single source! Bartholomew swore that it pays off to include compost from as many different sources as humanly possible!
- One part peat moss.
- One part vermiculite.
Mix these components together thoroughly to build a solid foundation for the crops you are planning to raise in your square foot garden. This unique soil mix won’t just be rich, but also airy. The end result is a beautifully fertile medium that your vegetables will thrive in.
Hold up, though — you are not done just yet! The topsoil, the top five inches (13 centimeters) of your potting mix needs to be different. Use a half compost (again, as varied as possible, including manure) and half commercial topsoil mix for this purpose.
4. Planning Your Square Foot Garden Layout
Reading Bartholomew’s book All New Square Foot Gardening can help you out if you would like to gain further insights in which case you’ll find the answers you are looking for in chapter three, but the beauty in the square foot gardening technique lies in the fact that everything has already been considered by someone.
The basics every aspiring square foot gardener should be aware of before they actually start planting vegetables are:
- Crops that grow to be significantly taller than others should be placed on the north side of your square foot garden frame, a choice that ensures that these taller crops will not overshadow your smaller ones.
- Trickier crops that need more TLC should be grown on the edge of the grid, where gardeners can easily reach them to prune them or inspect them for pests.
To decide how to space your plants — which, in the case of square foot gardening, translates to deciding how many individual plants may be placed into one square, you can consult any seed packet, but you can also stick with tried-and-trusted square foot gardening recommendations. These essentially amount to:
- Extra-large crops, like broccoli or a pepper plant, need more space. Plant one per square.
- You can plant four slightly smaller crops, like cabbages, into one square.
- Medium-sized crops can be planted in groups of nine, and these include onions and beets.
- Small crops like radishes can be planted more densely, meaning 12 can fit into a square foot.
Spreading crops or those that are truly outsized will need their own separate beds, meanwhile, and watermelons are one example.
Once you get the hang of that basic idea, you can go ahead and sketch your garden plans out on some graph paper. With this design plan in place, you can check and double check if you’re placing the right crops in the right squares.
5. Planting Crops into Your Square Foot Garden
Keen gardeners who have already followed along with the previous four steps already have a lot to be proud of — but now, they’ll be ready for the most exciting step, where crops are actually planted. In square foot gardening, it is most common to start crops from seed or to get plant starts from a nursery, which can be placed directly into the square foot garden.
Whichever route you choose to go with (or you may be mixing and matching), keep the spacing guidelines in mind as you plant your crops. Consult guides on how deep to plant seeds and plant starts before proceeding.
Crops that grow vertically will need the support of stakes or trellises, which can be prepared in advance and put into place right away.
6. Watering Your Square Foot Garden
Mel Bartholomew recommends watering your crops close to their base, rather than from up above. This saves water and thereby conserves resources, but it also protects your plants from sun damage. Have a look at your square foot garden every day, and check if any crops need to be watered. When the topsoil has dried out, or is beginning to, another watering session is in order.
7. Inspecting Your Crops for Pests and Diseases
Square foot gardening generally relies on an all natural approach to pest control. That means it is essential to inspect your plants frequently — ideally, every single day, which does not have to take very long — for signs of pests and plant diseases.
Should you spot any pests, like aphids or mealybugs, the recommended approach is to eliminate them by manually removing them from your crops. Disease branches or stems should be cut off, meanwhile. Those gardeners who are growing vertical crops such as beans should remove them from their support system once a week and reapply it. They can use this opportunity to look for pests and diseases.
8. Harvesting Your Square Foot Garden
After you have patiently and lovingly tended to your square foot garden, your crops should mature and become ready for harvesting at different times. When a square is ready to be harvested, do so — and take great pride in the fact that you have now become a successful vegetable gardener!
Celebrate the win by incorporating your homegrown veggies into a fresh dish.
9. Onward and Upward!
You are not going to leave that sad-looking square all empty and sad, right? After the harvest comes the next step — replanting, never forgetting to rotate your crop.
If you have successfully grown a bunch of radishes, you can perhaps see about some zucchinis next, for instance, or whatever else happens to be in season. Pay attention to the planting schedule in your locality to decide what to grow in your square foot garden next, and keep going!
Square foot gardens are designed to reduce waste and maximize yields, so they’re perennial. Don’t think of your harvest as your end point, but as a new beginning. Return to step four, and start your process all over again!
After this peek, you’ll have understood that square foot gardening is simple — its founding father considered every aspect, and every question has an answer. Square foot gardening is not necessarily easy, however, as plenty of work awaits you if you choose to accept this quest!
Because conservation — of space, but also the natural world — lies at the very heart of this unique but amazingly popular approach to gardening, it’s quite hands-on.
Despite that, all the work you’ll have to do remains confined to neat four square foot squares, separated into neat equal grids.
As long as you follow the tried-and-trusted guidelines closely, you, too, can achieve success with square foot gardening!