An introduction to square-foot gardening

I grew up in the country. My family always had a vegetable garden. For us, gardening meant a large plot, plowed and raked, then planted with long, widely-space rows of vegetables. It also meant weeding and hoeing, weeding and hoeing. Lots and lots of weeding and hoeing.

Gardening was a chore.

When my ex-wife 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.

Bartholomew's method allowed us to enjoy reasonable crop production in a small space. With his technique, almost any homeowner can grow her own food.

How Square-Foot Gardening Works

The square-foot gardening concept is simple: Build a raised bed. Divide the space into sections of one square-foot each. Lastly, 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.

Back in the 1990s, Kris and I had raised beds similar to these (from Flickr user johnyaya).

raised beds

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. At the time, I most certainly was 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 like orderly grids.

After we built the raised beds and outlined the growing space, we followed the guidelines in Bartholomew's book.

The ten basic tenets of square-foot gardening are:

  1. Layout. Arrange your garden in squares, not rows. Lay it out in roughly 48 inches (125cm) x 48 inches (125cm) planting areas.
  2. Boxes. Build boxes to hold a new soil mix above ground.
  3. Aisles. Space boxes 36 inches (100cm) apart to form walking aisles.
  4. Soil. Fill boxes with Bartholomew'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. (The book and website insist that this is a must. I think a temporary grid works fine.)
  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 one, four, nine, or sixteen plants per square foot.
  8. Plant. Conserve seeds. Plant only a pinch (two or three 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 sixteen carrots in another. Using this system, you can cram a lot of garden into a small space and still get excellent yields.

The official square-foot gardening website includes several handy planting chart cheat sheets to help with planning and planting.

Square-Foot Gardening Cheat Sheet

My Square-Foot Garden

I haven't had much of a garden since Kris and I got divorced seven years ago. When Kim and I bought our country acre in 2017, it came with three ramshackle raised beds. We've made the most of these — well, Kim has, anyhow — but not in any sort of systematic way.

This year, we took down a gangly cedar tree that dominated one corner of our yard. In its place, we planted three fruit trees, four blueberry bushes, and four grape vines. Last weekend, in a mad fit of productivity, I decided to add two new raised beds.

Using scavenged lumber (we have a stack of good stuff after replacing our carport and back deck), I build two solid boxes. I filled them with the dirt I'd removed when we put in the orchard in March. (Although it's not the “official” square-foot gardening mixture, I topped the beds with bagged soil purchased from a local nursery.)

Because it's far too late for me to start most plants from seed this year, I opted to purchase starts from the same nursery.

In the smaller raised bed, I started an herb garden.

Square-Foot Gardening (Herbs)

In the larger raised bed, I planted both flowers and some cool-climate veggies (such as carrots, lettuce, and peas).

Square-Foot Gardening (Flowers)

As you can see, I applied the square-foot methodology but I didn't actually use a grid. (And because I don't own a copy of the book anymore, I guessed at spacing.)

Within hours, the herb garden was infested with pests. (Probably because I planted some “pestnip”.)

Square-Foot Gardening (Animals)

In retrospect, I ought not to have planted catnip next to my other herbs. Avery has destroyed both catnip plants already, and he took out the winter savory in the process. (Plus, he damaged the cilantro and the parsley.)

Further Reading

I'm very excited to have a garden again. It's been a l-o-n-g time since I've been serious about growing my own food. Plus, Kim is into it too. She's been growing seedlings this spring, and she planted them out yesterday. Once the weather warms a bit more, she'll plant some tomato and pepper and basil starts. By the end of the summer, we should have some good eating!

If you'd like to experiment with square-foot gardening, Mel Bartholomew's book is excellent. But you can also find info online at the square-foot gardening forum and this terrific tutorial from Journey to Forever.

If you don't have the time or space to construct raised beds, consider starting a container garden. Apartment-dwellers can get good results from plants grown in large self-watering pots on a patio or balcony. (Here's a review of The Bountiful Container written by my ex-wife in 2008.)

In any event, now's the time to get your garden space ready in many parts of the U.S. The danger of frost has passed for most of us. Garden fairs and plant sales have begun to pop up like weeds. Get out there and grow some food!

This is an updated version of an article originally published here on 21 April 2007. The info is the post is current, but some of the comments might be outdated.

More about...Home & Garden, Food

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Jennifer
Jennifer
13 years ago

We built our raised beds last week and are going to be getting them into position this weekend. My dh bought Square Foot Gardening for Christmas this year, I love it! We just moved and knew we had to start from scratch. We are currently trying to figure the best place to put them that will get the most sun. We have a wooded lot and will be taking down trees to help get more sun. I can’t wait to start growing things!

Maitresse
Maitresse
13 years ago

I’ve been square foot gardening for years.

Rather than double dig all that ground, I just laid newspapers and (livestock) feed bags on the ground and covered them with good soil. I bought a truckload of mushroom compost from a local mushroom farm for my soil.

Be sure to mulch, and if you install drip irrigation on a timer you can be a lazy gardener, like me. 🙂

Wallet Rehab - Ways to save money
Wallet Rehab - Ways to save money
13 years ago

I love Sq. foot gardening! Especially the information about growing musk melons on trellises. I’ve never had the chance to try it out yet.

Dylan
Dylan
13 years ago

I’ve been doing square foot gardening for three years now. It is so simple, and I’m still amazed by the amount of food that can be grown in such little space. I have two 4×4 beds and end up giving food away every year. Planting a few marigolds and sprinkling some red pepper flakes have kept most of the pests at bay and weeding has been minimal. By the time the garden fills in there is no room for weeds. Square foot is to gardening, what index funds are to investing: good returns, minimal effort, no guess work, and low… Read more »

Whitney Nelson
Whitney Nelson
9 years ago
Reply to  Dylan

Can you plant marigolds with any/all veggies or are there certain ones you should be careful with? Also, what pests are deterred by red pepper flakes. Sounds super easy! My tomatoes were infested last year with stink bugs. Would be great if it helped with that.

Catherine
Catherine
1 year ago
Reply to  Whitney Nelson

Marigolds help, as does basil. I’ve been successful with tomatoes combined with those two plants for years.

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
13 years ago

I’m glad to see this topic come up as this is ‘where I live’. To tell where the sun will be at noon on any day of the year, check the shadows cast by the moon at midnight, 6 months earlier. It’s that simple. I’m familiar with Bartholomew’s methods but have taken them a couple steps further. Your readers might be interested in this. Mels’ methods are an adaptation of a form of cultivation known as “French intensive”. You might also research the writings of Jon Jeavons for another variation on this theme. Both of these methods produce yields that… Read more »

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
13 years ago

Sorry for such a long post above. I hope it was informative enough to justify its length. I’d also like to point out that the spacing given on the back of seed packets is based on row. Don’t use it. Instead, use the average of the between row and within row numbers to derive a spacing to be used with triangles. You will get about 50% more plants in the same square footage without excessive crowding. Also, research interplanting for some tips on really great yields for every single inch. Examples to consider: Leaf lettuce beneath climbing peas / beans.… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

@BillinDetroit No worries about long comments like yours when they’re that good! 🙂 You mention that you figure your raised beds will last ten years. Ours lasted exactly ten years at the old house, and then we moved. Two of them had several more years of life in them, but one would have needed repair if we’d stayed. I can’t remember how much we spent to build them, but I know that to build my three beds, I used: * 16 non pressure-treated 2×6 * 3 non pressure-treated 4×4 * a lot of nails (I would use wood screws if… Read more »

Kris
Kris
13 years ago

“For all things produced in a garden, whether of salads or fruits, a poor man will eat better that has one of his own, than a rich man that has none.”
-J.C. Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Gardening (1826)

Brian W
Brian W
13 years ago

Wow, BillInDetroit should do his own gardening blog! I bet it would be great!

Anyway, J.D., all I wanted to add is that I found it a little funny that you recommended passing up the newest edition of Square Foot Gardening, but then lamented the amount of digging you had to do. The new edition has a new soil-enrichment method that doesn’t require digging into the existing soil! Heh! Oh well, hard work is good for ya.

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

The great thing about this type of gardening is that it is so adaptable to any shape or size of container or bed that you want to have.

Ben
Ben
13 years ago

Wow! Thanks for all of this! We bought a house last fall that has one spot in back, and were not quite sure how to go about this. I am starting tomorrow!

Daniel Jamieson
Daniel Jamieson
13 years ago

I love the concept of square foot gardening. has anyone heard of a company called nurtur (i think its spelt like tht)? they make products that use this sorta principle. i dnt think it gets release for a while tho. there website is http://www.nurtur.co.uk . great blog guys!!

Beth
Beth
13 years ago

For those of us city-dwellers that don’t have space for raised beds, The Bountiful Container is a *great* book on container gardening.

Florabora
Florabora
13 years ago

You can grow most anything in a container on your patio/balcony. I’ve had success growing tomatoes, carrots, hot peppers, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, scallions and tons of herbs. Buy the plants at a decent nursery. Invest in some large plastic self-waterning pots (with the chamber at the bottom).

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
13 years ago

If you don’t care for the expense of a self-watering pot, you can poke a small hole in the cap of a soda-pop bottle, fill the bottle and upend it in the soil surface near the plant. Make sure the hole is small, though … about 1/8″ or less … so the bottle doesn’t empty all at once. Most plants don’t need “dunk & dry” … but grow most rapidly when the soil is kept uniformly moist. And constant healthy growth will thwart a lot of bug & disease attacks before they even get started. Many times you will see… Read more »

Steve
Steve
13 years ago

All of the methods you mention work

However if you take some time and research you will find most of these methods originated from Dr. Jacob Mittleider Even Mel worked with the Dr. I use the Mittleider method and get about 8 times the yield of my old traditional garden. Do not starve the plants for light, like us they need “elbow room: 🙂

Micron The Cat
Micron The Cat
12 years ago

Hey there. I see it’s been awhile since the last post, but I have a question I hope someone will answer for me. I have just built a raised bed. It is 2′ tall, 6 x 3′ and I have it filled with lasagna layers up to about 4-6″ from the top. Should I fill the thing completely, or leave some room at the top? Mel talks about “side dressing” some things with compost, which I take to mean scooping some compost around the plants. The Lasagna Gardening lady also mentions this. So should I leave the room at top… Read more »

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
12 years ago

No. Fill it. In fact, crown it over. Then rake it slightly concave to assure maximum absorption / minimum run-off of water. The edges should be slightly higher than the center. The lower layers WILL recede enough by fall that, even crowned over, there will be room to dig in additional material. I garden in wooden boxes. My boxes are 2′ deep by 4′ by 20′ and I am speaking from approx. 10 years experience with them. In the fall, cap them with as much compost as you have … ready or not (this is a new garden so you… Read more »

plantgirl
plantgirl
12 years ago

SFG is definently the way to go – would of never gotten into gardening without it. Great article, though I think the new book is the better one to buy (even if it is a couple bucks more).
~plantgirl of http://squarefootgardenblog.com

rita
rita
9 years ago
Reply to  plantgirl

I bought the new book for $5 at dollar general.
yahoo.
Happy gardening
Rita

Lou
Lou
12 years ago

Thanks for all the invaluable advice. About to start, but due to back problems am getting the hard work done for me. Has anyone ever block built the beds for SFG? Want something permanant without much/any maintenance.

Heidi
Heidi
12 years ago

It seems to me like square foot gardening would combine very naturally with the theories behind self-watering containers. Has anyone tried to build a square-foot garden with some kind of water reservoir and wicking system on the bottom?

And how about modifying the construction so it could be used as a cold frame (some way to put a glass roof on it for the late winter to start seeds early). I just moved to Colorado and maximizing my short growing season and minimizing water use are a priority. Thanks for any help!
heidi

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
12 years ago

Heidi, Raise the boxes higher than for SFG. Orient them east-west so that the south side of the box is the long one to capture max heat from the sun. Keep a LOT of rotting vegetable material / manures worked into the soil as a natural heat source. We just had a pretty hard (and very late) frost in Mich. while I was out of town and I lost NOTHING. All I had for heat was some half-finished compost … but my beds are ~2 ft above the ground and the cold air sinks BELOW the level of the plants.… Read more »

Heidi
Heidi
12 years ago

Bill,
Thanks for the advice! I think building the boxes high up is a great idea, and I was just thinking last night that since I’m going to have to replace the windows in my home soon, I could adapt them to put a temporary cold frame over the whole structure to grow from seeds and then remove it when they get too tall. Temperature here drops all summer long, so the more time I can give them…
Heidi

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

This will be my first vertical garden. I want to trellis pick-n-pick yellow crookneck squash from Burpee. Will it take to a trellis?
If not, I can trellis butternut, but I’m going to plant new seeds for the trellis, and crookneck is what I don’t have much of.

Thanks,
Mary

Janna
Janna
11 years ago

What type of wood are the raised beds generally made of? I imagine people just use pine, but here in the south I think I would only get a couple of years out of pine. Just wondering if something like cypress might be better. Any thoughts?

Jim Kirby
Jim Kirby
11 years ago

@Janna: Last boxes I build I made with 1″ cedar. They were still going strong on their 6th season when I had to leave them behind last summer. This year I plan to use redwood instead.

DO NOT use treated pine. You don’t want the chemicals in your food. You can use untreated pine, but expect to replace parts of it every year or so.

Jeff
Jeff
11 years ago

I have some guard railing 1’X16′ I am considering using for the sides of raised beds. They are painted over Galvinized steel. Do you see any problems?

Jim Kirby
Jim Kirby
11 years ago

@Jeff: Personally, I’d take the paint off of any surface that touches dirt. But otherwise it sounds like a cool idea. Should look good.

The Happy Rock
The Happy Rock
11 years ago

Just delicioused the article so that when we finally have a house with some land we can do this. I love the idea of less work.

I am hoping to do a couple of fruit trees too.

It will make a nice dent in the summer budget.

Lizzy
Lizzy
11 years ago

I am excited about my 40×40 fenced in square foot garden. I wished I would have done this 30 years ago. It’s amazing how much you can actually grow and produce. I am working on another 30 foot section. Answering to some questions, Melons are easily grown and squash, if craddled when the veggies get to a certain size. ANYTHING can be attached to a trellis, if the trellis is properly supported. 🙂 Happy Gardening

ddm
ddm
11 years ago

I’ve been trying to decide between Mel’s square ft. method and the Mittleider method. I’ve heard that the Mittleider method has an even much greater yield and deals more with lowering acidity levels. Does anyone know which method offers more yield or are they about the same. Thanks for any advice.

carol in il
carol in il
11 years ago

Hi. There are some great posts here, but I wanted to add my two cents on bed building. I used cinder 4″x8″x16″ cinder blocks to build my beds. They came out slightly larger than 4’x4′. I only managed to finish one bed last year, but I planted it with tomatoes and they went crazy. I would have gotten really great yields if the dogs hadn’t have eaten most of them! 🙂 Using the cinder blocks helps warm the soil/plants even better! Plus, I left the top of the blocks open and use the holes to grow herbs, etc. There is… Read more »

Micki in Denver
Micki in Denver
11 years ago

I’m about to start building raised beds (and I, too, want them more like 30 inches high because my knees are shot). I was planning on using 2x10s and was wondering about longevity of the boards if I line them with a really thick plastic. I used off the shelf plastic stapled to my board fence where I wanted to plant a short raised bed against it–and that was 15 years ago. Still no rot on fence. I have some ridiculously think clear plastic left over from an asbestos removal project (the plastic is new). Any reason I shouldn’t line… Read more »

Diane
Diane
11 years ago

If you have a higher raised bed, just what the heck do you put in the bottom so you are not having to put expensive dirt in – I want to start with 4 courses of the cinder blocks for 32″ height. I LOVE the idea of herbs and flowers in the open holes on top. The base has to be solid or the frost would get it from underneath – I’m in northern Minnesota near Fargo, ND. When I moved here, it was 61 below wind chill so it gets a bit cold.

Bruce K
Bruce K
7 years ago
Reply to  Diane

Hi Diane,

I just finished building two raised beds, 24″ high – nice height to sit on while working in the beds. I filled the bottom foot with plain old dirt (tri-mix) – at $31 a cubic yard, it’s not expensive to fill. Compost is even cheaper at $20 per cubic yard…. the perlite was the expensive part. Here’s an image of my finished beds… just put the last plants and seeds in today.
http://greenterrafirma.com/square-foot-garden-construction.html

Good luck, Bruce K.

Diane
Diane
11 years ago

Have any of you checked out Lasagna Gardening? It’s layers of newspapers, grass, compost, etc. right over grass or even packed down dirt. I did it in my first raised garden and the next year I dug down to check the bottom and the sod was GONE and so was the newspaper – all decomposed beautifully.

Laurie
Laurie
10 years ago

I’ve successfully combined lasagna gardening with square foot planting. Another method I love comes from Ruth Stout’s No-Work Garden Book.

Meggan
Meggan
8 years ago

I recently saw a large-ish garden seemingly built around the idea of square foot gardening. I think that when I have a large garden of my own I’d like to set up boxes even if there is plenty of land to forego boxes, because maybe that saves time weeding and helps to keep everything organized. Do you think this could be a good idea?

Sophie
Sophie
1 year ago

I grow pest-nip also, but in hanging pots far, far away from where interested parties may discover and reach it. They are motivated and agile, as you know, so that’s the only solution.

Also, about 30 years ago, there waas a book called Postage Stamp Gardening, and I used that as a guide. It recommended extra additions of nutrients to the soil (Manure, bone meal, etc.), and called for pretty much “cramming” in the veg. Sounds iffy, maybe, but it worked great! Good luck with your home grown!

Catherine
Catherine
1 year ago

I have both editions of SFG, and they’re both interesting. The only thing I’ve found that works better where I live is that squash prefers my NW MO clay with compost and gypsum to the perfect medium in the SFG method. I don’t know why, as I’m quite the amateur, but zucchini and cucumbers kind of stare at me in the raised beds I built, but go crazy in growth and fruit when I put them in the ground. Tomatoes do well with both, lettuces need the SFG soil, and only potatoes can make themselves at home deep in the… Read more »

Steveark
Steveark
1 year ago

My wife grew up on a 400 acre farm, and at our house has generally tried to raise veggies in a plot in our backyard. We’ve got a two acre property with a large back yard but the problem is that we live in the woods and the towering trees around our property shield everything from many hours of sunlight. Then if you do get something to grow in the shade the deer just eat it about three days prior to time to harvest it. She has cut back to just growing some herbs and spices in pots, the deer… Read more »

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
1 year ago

No matter how I try to plant vegetables, no matter how many nets or cages I put around them the squirrels and chipmunks get to them and eat them. They even dig under the ground outside of my cage and borrow inside the cage if they have to. I’ve kind of given up, but I do enjoy the fact that so many critters live behind my house….. it’s just frustrating

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

I try to garden so I’m ready for the zombie apocalypse. But it seems weird to me to spend $ in order to work in order to eat veggies that I can pick up at Sprouts in 1/100 of the time.

The biggest thing holding me back is bears. It seems that bears love to eat everything that isn’t onions.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Oh yes. They come right up to the house if there’s something interesting. Bobcats and coyotes, too. I think there might even be a mountain lion or two in the area. But bears are the only omnivores. The others only help with rabbit population control.

Marc
Marc
1 year ago

My wife followed this approach at our old house. She had two boxes for the raised beds and used them for a few years until we moved. It worked out really well, because, like you said, the maintenance is pretty low.

JoDi
JoDi
1 year ago

Oh no! Not the winter savory! That is one of my very favorite herbs. I have three 8 ‘x 4’ raised bed gardens, and I love them. I plant flowers in one and herbs and veggies in the other two. This is my 3rd year and I’ve been learning a lot. Last year was a bit of a bust because it rained so much. None of the plants were very happy so I didn’t get nearly as much yield as the year before when we were overflowing with tomatoes! The weather has been better already this year so I’m hoping… Read more »

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

I’m curious if you’ve examined the ROI of this activity at all. I gardened for several years in my last house (where I built four 4’x8′ raised beds). But I found that without spending more time on it than I wanted to (weeding and pest prevention, mostly), it wasn’t productive enough to be profitable.

Of course there are many other reasons to garden than just saving money buying veggies, but I found it hard to be motivated to work in a money-losing garden, and when we moved, I did not try again.

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