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!

More about...Home & Garden, Food

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