How to Get Started with Square Foot Gardening (and Why)

How to get started with square foot gardening and why you should

A little research on starting a backyard garden will quickly show there are many (maybe too many?) ways to plan your own plot. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Of the many methods I’ve tried in our garden over the years, Square Foot Gardening makes a tidy, productive garden possible even for those with little know-how, time, or space, and the neighbors won’t even mind looking at it!

What Is Square Foot Gardening?

In the early 1980s retired engineer Mel Bartholomew came up with an easily replicated concept to grow more food in less space, coining the term “Square Foot Gardening™.” His method has not lost popularity in the years since and has been improved and modernized. (1)

A Square Foot Garden has several unique characteristics:

  1. Small, uniform raised beds (usually 4 x 4)
  2. Rich amended soil
  3. A physical grid dividing the surface of each bed into 1’ squares
  4. A set number of plants per square foot

Square foot gardens can be a simple wooden frame or can even become more elaborate vertical gardens:

Square foot raised bed gardening-how to get started

While I love the idea of a sprawling garden in all its glory, you can see how the tidy, manicured look of a square foot garden might be appreciated in a variety of residential settings, especially if you’re tight on space.

Square Foot Gardening vs. Traditional Gardens

In the traditional row garden, between every long row of green goodness there is an equal bare space for an aisle or path. Not only are these paths taking up space in your yard, they are prime territory for weeds and compact nearby roots.

Now imagine a small 4 x 4 foot raised bed capable of growing all the produce a traditional garden can. The uniformly spaced plants crowd out weed growth, the ideal soil mix reduces the need every inch of soil remains aerated and fluffy, all areas of the bed can be reached easily for tending, and the small footprint means water savings.

And it gets better:

With square foot gardening’s easy but precise formula for deciding what to plant in each square foot, simply based on a plant’s general size at maturity, amateur gardeners are spared having to learn every plant’s particular spacing and nutritional needs.

Sound too good to be true? How about this claim:

Square Foot Gardening yields 100% of the harvest of a traditional garden in 80% less space, and with a mere 2% of the work. (2)

Here’s how to get started on your own square foot garden bed in a few easy steps:

How to Start Square Foot Gardening

Before you get started creating your new garden, there’s a few things to keep in mind:

1. Size it up

No clever garden design can make up for lack of sun or poor drainage. Track sun and shade patterns to find a location with 6-8 hours of sun in a level part of the yard, with no trees or other obstacles blocking the rays from the southeast.

If possible, keep the garden close to the house for ease of watering and harvesting.

Consider how much food you want to grow. One 4 x 4 foot raised Square Foot Garden bed can produce enough food for a small family, but you may want more if you plan to can or freeze some of your harvest. Leave 3 foot aisles between garden beds and mulch them well for weed control.

Garden boxes can also be raised off the ground in areas without green space and set at any height, easy on the knees and back.

Now it’s time to get to work!

2. Make Your Bed

While you can buy ready-made Square Foot Garden boxes in a variety of forms, with a few simple supplies you can construct your own for about $20 a box:

  • (4) 2 x 6 in. boards, 4 ft. long, untreated (Cedar is a good choice)
  • (12) 4 in. wood screws
  • (6) 4 ft. lattice strips
  • (9) machine bolts
  • Weed barrier
  • Power drill
  • Staple gun
  • Screws/nails

This helpful video tutorial shows the process of building your garden bed step-by-step, and even gives cost estimates for building materials and soil.

The boxes can be as decorative or as simple as you want them to be, depending on budget, time, and the surrounding landscape. Once you build your box you may also want to add a vertical trellis for climbing plants like cucumbers or beans (again, more produce in less space!).

The lattice strips go on top of the finished planter box forming a grid or tic-tac-toe-style box of 16 (one-foot) squares. While this may seem strange at first, you’ll see why in Step 4.

3. Mix the Perfect Soil Cocktail

For filling your new boxes, Mel Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening creator, recommends his “Mel’s Mix” soil blend:

1/3 compost + 1/3 coarse vermiculite + 1/3 peat moss (by volume)

While paying for dirt may seem counterintuitive, genuine top-quality garden soil is the key to garden growth as well as to cutting down on fertilizers and pesticides. You’ll be glad you invested now to save time and produce down the road.

To achieve a balanced nutrient mix, use a variety of compost sources such as chicken and cow manure, mushroom compost, and worm castings. If you don’t find vermiculite at your local garden center, check a farm supply store. (Note: Vermiculite is a somewhat hard-to-find and controversial ingredient. If you can’t find it or don’t want to use it, some sources recommend substituting sand or extra compost in its place.)

For one 4 x 4 foot garden box with 6 inch sides, you will need 8 cubic feet of soil mix. Since you will be measuring by volume and not weight as marked on the bag, use a 5 gallon bucket to measure your ratios. Mix in a wheelbarrow or right in the garden bed.

Lay your weed block right over the grass inside the box in your desired location and fill with the soil mix, trying not to compact it.

On to my favorite part of Square Foot Gardening: the planting grid.

4. Choose Your Plants (with Confidence!)

Think about your family’s likes and dislikes before you choose what to plant. Do you eat a lot of salads? Do you want to be able make fresh salsa? If you have young children, go for fruits and veggies that are naturally sweet and easy to snack on like snap peas, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and carrots. Fresh herbs are useful, easy to grow, smell amazing, and even help deter pests.

Here’s where the Square Foot grid comes into play. Look at the plant spacing (not the row spacing) on the back of your seed packet. From there you’ll think about the plants in terms of small, medium, large, and extra large:

  • Small: 3” apart (or smaller) = 16 per square (radishes, beets, etc)
  • Medium: 4” apart = 9 per square (carrots, onions, et)
  • Large: 6” apart = 4 per square (lettuces, etc)
  • Extra Large: 12” apart = 1 per square (cabbage, broccoli, peppers, tomato, etc)

Melons, squash, and other very large growers can be placed in the middle of four squares in the grid. Save space by training cucumbers and other climbing vines up a trellis attached to your garden box.

A quick search will turn up many visual “cheat sheets” to take any guesswork out of the process.

A time-saving tip for the ambitious: make your grid double as an irrigation system!

5. Maintain with Ease

Since the right nutrients are already present in your amended soil mix, Square Foot Gardening should reduce your need for additional fertilizers and pesticides. Add a scoop of compost to each hole before planting, keep evenly watered until plant growth begins, and then let the greenery create its own living mulch.

Weed around plants as needed, catching them when they’re small.

Raised bed gardens have another bonus: Cold frames or pest-deterring frames can easily be designed and fit to the 4 x 4 box. A box made from 4-foot 2 x 2 boards and chicken wire makes a tidy and not too unattractive floating cover to prevent garden pests from stealing your precious fruits and veggies–a lifesaver for strawberry patches and tender greens.

1. Illinois University Extension, “Square Foot Gardening Still Popular in 2016
2. Square Foot Gardening Foundation

Have you tried a Square Foot Garden? What advantages have you found? Disadvantages? Share your best tips!

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Reader Comments

  1. I have been Square Foot Gardening for over five years now, it’s an amazing system! I’ll never garden any other way 🙂

  2. I bought Mel’s first SFG book when it was published in 1981(?). I started doing it without using raised beds and used regular compost for soil. It’s not about the raised beds or soil mix, it is more about his spacing, using the one seed/ one plant method and spacing. It is also a great reference to show proper rotation and companion planting. I also have used his SFG system in my aquaponics grow beds. This is the best system for any small space, but would be too time consuming on a much larger scale (I tried it). Still a great reference.

  3. I followed your link for the grid irrigation system. Thanks so much for including it in your post! Will definitely be using this since watering my garden and flowers on a routine basis has always been my downfall. Now my plants will have a fighting chance! Thanks Wellness Mama!

  4. I am absolutely loving straw bale gardening. While similar, I find it better in a lot of way. I don’t have to measure ph, I can plant on the side, difficult to overwater, easy greenhouse. Something to look into.

  5. Great, informative article. And thanks for all the resource links, etc. And thanks to Jake and Michelle for their input.

  6. Could the boxes be bigger than 4×4?

    • You can make your boxes any size you want, but the 4 ft X 4 ft system is designed so you can reach everything within the box from the sides, the average person can reach 2-3 ft (which is half way into the box). I made a lot of mine 20 ft long and four feet wide. You don’t even have to build boxes, I had a lot of my garden, the larger plants like corn, tomatoes, zuccini, etc. in 20 X 4 ft rows, but planted with the SFG system. Raised beds are mainly to bring the plants up a little higher so that tending them isn’t so back-breaking.

    • While beds can be larger than 4×4, they should never be wider than 4 feet. This is because you can easily reach the center of the bed but once you go wider, you cannot. A wider bed would require you to step into the bed and you never want to step on your bed soil because that causes compaction. Make them as long as you want adding side supports to keep them from bowing out. I’ve used raised beds and square-foot gardening for years and it works wonderfully!

  7. The little cinder block mini-gardens are such a great idea. I think we are going to go this route and get them up off the ground a little bit so that dogs cannot get at them :-).

  8. What a perfect timing. I was about to start buying building materials for my raised bed.
    Thank you for sharing. I have never heard of Square Foot Gardening.

  9. My family and I just moved to a new home and were really wanting to start gardening this summer! Thanks for the article! I do have a couple of questions. We would like to raise organic vegetables, so I am wondering if the makeup of Mel’s Mix is considered organic? If they are considered natural, how do I know when purchasing them if they have been treated with chemicals/pesticides? Also, will the weed cloth prevent the roots from my vegetables from penetrating my lawn soil? Since I am not completely aware of the condition of my soil, I would prefer for my vegetable roots not to go down into the dirt in my backyard. Your thoughts? Thanks!

    • The weed cloth will keep the roots from penetrating the soil. The vermiculite in Mel’s mix is somewhat controversial. I personally have substituted sand, though it certainly isn’t as effective. The peat and compost would certainly be considered fine in the garden and some sources recommend using extra compost or sand in place of vermiculite. Another option is to just use organic soil (which should be available at most local home improvement stores now) in place of the vermiculite and add a little sand as well. Good luck!

  10. A great idea for those people who love gardening but are refrained to do so due to the unavailability of space. Such a cosy, beautiful garden with variety of plants is an awesome way of saving space and resources.

  11. Do you still need to have the utility come and look for underground wires and pipes or septic systems? I’m disabled and I was using some 5 gallon buckets and milk crates. Zucchini did great, beans were small, cukes were a no go. Tomatoes tried. I’m pretty sure it was the cucumber beetle and squash bug. Suggestions for those?

    • You shouldn’t have to call the utility company as you aren’t digging any type of hole and are just placing it on top of the ground. Going to write specific posts about each plant soon with some specific natural recommendations for pests but I also shared some ideas in this post:

  12. I know in the past there was a problem with asbestos in vermiculite. I am wondering if you think this should be a cause not to use it to be on the safe side for organic gardening? I understand though that it seems to have a lot of benefits. Not sure what to do, as I know that Mel’s Mix is the most important part when doing square foot gardening. I would love your thoughts!

    • There seems to be mixed reports on this. On the one hand, most sources report that this problem was identified and fixed, though I haven’t seen any third party testing that would verify it. It is something I’m personally still researching, but in my own garden this year am using a much smaller amount of sand instead. It definitely doesn’t work as well, but I wanted to research more before using.

  13. Do you have any suggestions in finding organic compost? I can’t seem to find any locally. I really wouldn’t want to buy chicken manure compost from a local conventional farm to grow organic veggies.

    • We have a university close by who has an ag program with a farm, and they create and sell it, so you might want to see if anything like that is available near you.

      • Is it important to ask for organic compost, meaning compost that has come from livestock on organic pastures?

    • Any horse stable or farm, which most major towns have nearby, will have plenty of manure/shavings mix that is free or very inexpensive. You may have to compost it yourself which is not difficult and contrary to popular belief, does not stink! Post on Craigslist for anyone who may have horse manure, many are looking for someone to haul it off.

      • This is so true!!! Every horse person I know has an excess of manure to share!!!

  14. Wonderful article Wellness Mama! Happy our Garden Grid watering system could be a part of it!

    Best of luck growing this spring!

  15. I read your article and thought it was a great idea and decided to plant a square foot garden this year.

    The interactive website is great! So user friendly! It was fun to plan my garden and even more fun to plant it. Here’s hoping the outcome will be equally fun and great in “not always sunny Nova Scotia”.

    Waiting until next week to plant the cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. Forgot to plan space for flowers in the veggie garden, so I’ll put some in after the radishes are harvested.

  16. Where is the best place to find cedar at a good price? It seems to be impossible to build a box for $20 with the price of cedar..