Square Foot Gardening
Grow more in less space!
Square Foot Gardening as covered by Mel Bartholomew's book: “All New Square Foot Gardening” has so many advantages... for the beginning gardener as well as for those more advanced.
- Square Foot Gardening for Beginners.
Most beginners tend to enthusiastically plant a much bigger vegetable garden than they can possibly manage. This results in a big mess of an untended, weedy vegetable garden, with little yield. It also provides a generally unpleasant gardening experience.
The square foot garden, however, is far more manageable and actually requires less work.
- Square Foot Gardening as a family project.
Give each child their own square foot garden (sfg) to plan, plant, and manage. Besides learning about the science and art of vegetable gardening, a square foot garden project also teaches planning/reasoning skills, basic mathematics, patience, and discipline.
- Very Few Weeds with Square Foot Gardening
Because you’re using a perfect blend of soil, there should be few weeds that you "inherit." However, there may be a few weeds that land in your gardening bed through nature (wind, etc.). You'll find that they're very easy to pick out.
When weeding, many gardeners worry about correcly identifying a weed. With square foot gardening, you know precisely where you planted your seeds. Anything growing outside of that precise location, is a weed and needs to be removed.
It Doesn’t Matter What Your Soil Is Like, With Square Foot Gardening
In your square foot garden, you build your vegetable garden bed from the ground up. It doesn’t matter what type of soil is underneath, as you create the perfect soil for your vegetable garden in the raised bed. It’s far more efficient, as you’re more concentrating your efforts to the actual gardening space.
In a traditional garden, you spend hours (years) and significant money to treat and condition the soil into something that’s usable. Most of the dirt that you so carefully created doesn’t get used, except by weeds. Square foot gardening concentrates your soil-building efforts to only the garden space that you’re actually going to use.
- No More Rotor-Tilling, with Square Foot Gardening
(Need I say more?)
- No Fertilizer Needed, with Square Foot Gardening
If you use the recommended blend of soil (6” of soil is all you need for your square foot garden bed), you will not need to fertilizer your vegetable (or flower) garden. The soil will provide all the nutrients that are needed.
- Less Water Needed, with Square Foot Gardening
Because you will be growing your vegetables and flowers in a concentrated space, you will spend less water (and less time) watering your garden
- Less Seed Needed for your Square Foot Garden
You will be maximizing your yield in a small space, so you will find that you need much fewer seeds for your garden than you did with the traditional in-ground “row” style garden.
Note: in the above example, the pvc frames provide a convenient means to convert the raised bed garden into a mini-greenhouse. Use the plastic cover to plant early in the season, or to extend your gardening season in the fall.
Note: Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses for more efficient watering. This type of watering system also helps minimize your garden's exposure to plant diseases.
** Many thanks to Colorado Master-Gardener Len Lumar for these wonderful photos of his raised bed garden, using many of the Square Foot Gardening principles!
Location: Pick a spot that’s not too far from your house. Your square foot garden bed will be pretty & you want to be able to enjoy it. Plus, the closer it is to the house, the more likely you will be to keep it tended. Pick a reasonably flat location, with plenty of sunshine. It’s best to place the garden bed away from trees and shrubs.
You will need the following materials, for one complete Square Foot Garden Bed.
- four (untreated) boards, 2”x 6”x 4’ (most lumber yards will cut the boards to size for no additional cost)
- six lath boards (4 feet long)
- weed (ground) cloth
- coarse thread wood/deck screws
- soil mixture (see description)
You may be tempted to make a larger garden bed than the 4x4 square. When considering this, please keep in mind that the 4’x4’ bed was designed specifically so that you can easily reach into the bed without ever having to walk on (compress) the soil within the bed.
Fasten the corners using 3 wood (deck) screws at each corner. Rotate corners so that you end up with a square inside.
Note: Excellent photographs & diagrams showing the easy assembly instructions are included in Bartholomew’s book.
Roll out the weed cloth so that it completely covers the area that you wish for your square foot garden. (I prefer to overlap the weed cloth, so that the weeds don’t push their way up through a gap in the fabric.)
Place the frame over the weed cloth.
Note: Plan to allow at least 3 feet between the square foot garden bed and any other obstacles (including other square foot garden beds). This gives you room to mow in-between and to comfortably work in the garden bed without feeling crowded.
How to Square Foot Garden - Soil:
Use this soil mixture for the best results:
- 1/3 coarse vermiculite (16 cubic feet)
- 1/3 peat moss (16 cubic feet)
- 1/3 compost * (total of 16 cubic feet)
* It’s best to use compost you’ve made, but if that’s not available, use a mixture of several types of (store-bought) compost. This will give you the best mixture of nutrients.
You can use a tarp, laid out on the ground as your mixing bowl, to mix the soils. Then fill the garden frame to the top. (6” of soil is all you need for all gardening, except for root crops like potatoes and carrots. You’ll want a deeper garden bed for those.)
Once the square foot gardening bed has been filled with the soil mixture, water the bed. Once it settles, add more soil mixture, filling it to the top. Repeat this process a total of 3 times.
How to Square Foot Garden - Apply the grid:
For the grid:
- Measure along the edge of the frame & mark at the 1 foot, 2 feet, 3 feet measurements. Do this along each side.
- Attach a lath board , so that it rests at the 1 foot mark, and at the same point on the opposite side of the frame. Attach to the frame with screws.
- Repeat step 2, setting the boards 1 foot apart for the 2' mark and the 3' mark.
- Repeat the same process on the adjoining side.
The end result should be a grid attached to your square foot gardening bed that provides you with 16 1’x1’ squares.
You know that you will have a total of 16 x 1 foot by 1 foot squares to plant. To get the most out of your square foot gardening adventure, it is important that you plan out the garden first.
- For starters, you’ll want to place tall plants on the north side of your square foot garden bed (so they don’t shade the other plants in your garden).
- Consider companion planting (click here for info on companion planting). This is a natural process of placing plants that thrive together, near each other. Also, you want to avoid placing plants near each other that tend to stunt each other’s growth.
- Timing. Some plants grow well as early or late season crops. Some need the heat of summer. Some grow in a short time frame, some take the entire growing season. If you plan your square foot garden right, you can get several crops out of each space before the growing season is over!
For very large plants (like cabbage, peppers and broccoli), you’ll want to place one plant per square (place it in the center of the square).
Large plants (like leaf lettuce, swiss chard, marigolds) can be placed 6 “ apart, at 4 plants per 1’ square. (You would simply draw a cross in the dirt in your 1 foot square, dividing it into 4 sections. Then plant each item in the center of the smaller squares)
Medium plants (like spinach and beets) can go 4” apart, so 9 plants per square.
Small plants (like carrots, radishes, onions) can go 3” apart, so 12 plants per square.
So, except for the largest plants, you will have a grid within each square of the larger grid.
Note: If this sounds confusing, please check out the description, diagram, and instructions included in the book… it will all make perfect sense!
How to Square Foot Garden - Planting Seeds:
After you've designed your planting plan (above) for each grid, you're ready to plant. Poke a hole in the dirt with your finger, and sprinkle a couple of seeds in the hole. Fill lightly with soil, but leave a slight saucer like indentation over the area where the seeds are. (This will allow more water to get to your seeds, and to the plant’s roots once it’s grown – rather than the water just running off!)
Once the seeds immerge, take a scissors and cut the weaker looking sprouts, leaving only 1 sprout per planted area.
(Note: Don't pull the sprouts out - pulling the sprouts out can damage the survivor’s roots, causing a weaker plant more susceptible to plant diseases and pests.)
How to Square Foot Garden - Planting Seedlings:
Some plants will produce sooner and better if you start them indoors, then later transplant them outside in your outdoor square foot garden (ex. Tomatoes, peppers, etc.).
For any seedlings that you grow, be sure to harden-off the plants before moving them to the outdoor garden.
Hardening-off simply means getting them used to the out of doors. Placing them immediately outside will shock and burn the plants. Instead, start first by placing them in the shade. Then day by day, move them a little more into the sunlight.
How to Square Foot Garden - Watering:
It’s best to water from beneath the plant (not from the top down). Top down watering tends to invite plant diseases and funguses. Consider installing drip-irrigation hoses.
Bartholomew recommends keeping buckets of water by your square foot garden. The sun will warm it, keeping the water temperature from shocking the plant roots. Ladle the water into a saucer-like depression around each plant. This way you target where the water goes... right to the plant’s roots.
The book “ All New Square foot Gardening ” also has instructions for:
- table top gardening for gardeners that are physically challenged
- railing and planter gardens
- structure design to add to your square foot garden, so that it can support melons, pumpkins, squash, more easily. (These plants can actually climb successfully – no need for them to sprawl all over your garden!)
- structure design to easily turn your square foot garden into a mini-greenhouse
- suggestions for keeping critters out of your square foot garden
Note: the advice and information contained herein is based upon our experience and study. As with any advice, please apply at your own discretion.