I grew up in the country — gardening meant a large plot, plowed and raked, and then planted with long, widely-space rows of vegetables. It also meant weeding and hoeing, weeding and hoeing. Gardening was a chore.

When Kris and I bought our first home, we both wanted a vegetable garden, but we didn’t want the drudgery that came with it. Besides, we didn’t have a big space in the country — we had an average city lot. Fortunately, we discovered Mel Bartholomew’s Square-Foot Gardening.

The square-foot gardening concept is simple: Build a raised bed, divide the space into sections of one square-foot each, and then plant vegetables (and/or flowers) in just the amount of space they need. The advantages of this system include reduced workload, less watering, easy weeding (and not much of it), and easy access to your crops. This is a great way to learn to grow some of your own food.

Our raised beds were similar to these (photo by johnyaya)

We built our square-foot garden one Saturday in mid-April. I spent the morning constructing three raised beds out of two-by-sixes. Each bed was twelve feet long, four feet wide, and twelve inches tall. I am not a handyman, yet I was able to build these in just a few hours. It was fun.

Digging was less fun. I spent the afternoon double-digging three patches in our lawn. We maneuvered the frames into place, leveled them, and then filled them with rich soil (purchased from a nearby nursery-supply center). Finally, we created a grid over each bed using tacks and twine. When we were finished, our raised beds looked similar to the one my friends Andrew and Courtney built recently:

After we built the raised beds and outlined the growing space, we followed the guidelines in Bartholomew’s book. (A revised edition was published last year. It’s lovely, but if I were looking for this book I’d buy the older version, which is available cheap. Your public library should even have a copy — it’s a classic.)

According to the official site, the ten basic tenets of square-foot gardening are:

  1. Layout. Arrange your garden in squares, not rows. Lay it out in 4’x4′ planting areas.
  2. Boxes. Build boxes to hold a new soil mix above ground.
  3. Aisles. Space boxes 3′ apart to form walking aisles.
  4. Soil. Fill boxes with Mel’s special soil mix: 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite.
  5. Grid. Make a permanent square foot grid for the top of each box. A MUST
  6. Care. NEVER WALK ON YOUR GROWING SOIL. Tend your garden from the aisles.
  7. Select. Plant a different flower, vegetable, or herb crop in each square foot, using 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants per square foot.
  8. Plant. Conserve seeds. Plant only a pinch (2 or 3 seeds) per hole. Place transplants in a slight saucer-shaped depression.
  9. Water. Water by hand from a bucket of sun-warmed water.
  10. Harvest. When you finish harvesting a square foot, add compost and replant it with a new and different crop.

You might, for example, plant a single tomato in a square, but you’d plant 16 carrots in another. Using this system, you can cram a lot of garden into a small space and still get excellent yields. For more information, check out:

If you don’t have the time or space to construct raised beds, consider starting a container garden. We’ve never done this, but I’ve heard reports from apartment-dwellers that good results can be achieved from plants grown in large self-watering pots on a patio or balcony. (Edit: In the comments, Beth recommends the book The Bountiful Container for those interested in the subject.) Find more information at these sites:

Now’s the time to get your garden space ready. The danger of frost has passed in many parts of the United States. Garden fairs and plant sales have begun to pop up like weeds. Get out there and grow some food!

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