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:
- Small, uniform raised beds (usually 4 x 4)
- Rich amended soil
- A physical grid dividing the surface of each bed into 1’ squares
- 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:
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
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.
Have you tried a Square Foot Garden? What advantages have you found? Disadvantages? Share your best tips!
Discussion (29 Comments)
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.
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!
What problems have you come across using sand?
Sand is recommended as a substitute for adding vermiculite (a somewhat controversial ingredient) to soil. The vermiculite helps to decrease soil density and increase drainage, making it easier for plant roots to anchor themselves. Sand is less controversial, but it just doesn’t do this as well.
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.
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 :-).
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!
Great, informative article. And thanks for all the resource links, etc. And thanks to Jake and Michelle for their input.
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.
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!
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.
I have been Square Foot Gardening for over five years now, it’s an amazing system! I’ll never garden any other way 🙂