The square-foot garden was popularized by Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer and efficiency expert. The method allows you to get a high yield from a small area. It is well-suited for gardeners who have little time or space in which to garden.
In a square-foot garden, you plant seeds in squares instead of rows, wasting little space. “I garden with a salad bowl in mind, not a wheelbarrow,” Bartholomew said of his idea.
Using string or bamboo dowels, gardeners chart a planting grid in raised beds. Vining crops are grown with trellises – a space saver that also keeps vegetables from rotting on the ground.
The benefits of a square-foot garden? You can plant the same number of vegetables in 1/5 of the space. You use less water and no tilling is required.
How to Grow More with Less
- 1 How to Grow More with Less
- 1.1 1. Decide on a location for your square-foot garden.
- 1.2 2. Plan what you want to grow.
- 1.3 3. Build the frame for your square-foot garden.
- 1.4 4. Fill your garden bed with your choice of growing medium.
- 1.5 5. Plan the spacing and layout of your vegetables.
- 1.6 6. Plant your first crop of vegetables.
- 1.7 7. Maintain and harvest your vegetables.
- 2 Discovering Your Green Thumb with a Square-Foot Garden
The square-foot garden typically starts with a 4×4-foot raised garden bed filled with amended soil. You then subdivide the little plot into one-foot squares with markers like lattice strips or dowels.
How many plants you grow in each square is determined by plant size. The objective is to optimize your space and reduce the amount of effort needed to go from planting to harvest. Follow the steps below to start your own square-foot garden.
1. Decide on a location for your square-foot garden.
The first step to growing a square-foot garden is to decide where to locate your new garden bed or beds. There is no reason why you can’t devote 5, 10, or 15 square feet to square-foot gardening, although one bed makes for an adequate start.
Most fruiting plants and vegetables grow best in a sunny position that is sheltered from the wind. But you can also situate your square-foot garden in a shady area.
If you want to create more than one square-foot garden bed, be sure to leave enough space for a wheelbarrow between each.
Crops that do well in the shade tend to be those with edible leaves, such as chard and spinach, rather than root crops, such as potatoes and carrots.
Try to locate your square-foot garden as close to the house and water supply as possible. You are more likely to take better care of your crops if you see them every day.
Ideally, you should situate your square-foot bed against a vertical structure such as a wall or fence. This will be helpful for growing climbing vegetables such as peas and runner beans.
You can situate your square-foot garden on top of the grass, paving, or an existing bed. If you are growing on grass, lay a cardboard cover under the frame to prevent the grass from growing through.
But the most ideal site for a square foot bed is on top of an existing bed. This will allow the roots of vegetables to grow through to the ground beneath.
2. Plan what you want to grow.
One of the most exciting things about growing a square-foot garden is planning what you want to grow. If you aren’t sure where to start, we recommend that you grow things that you and your family like to eat.
Draw a sketch of your 16-square-foot boxes and decide which crop should go in which box. Grow taller crops at the back of the bed, and smaller plants at the front. This way the larger plants don’t block the sunlight for the smaller vegetables.
We suggest that you include crop rotation in your plans. The principle behind this technique is simple: Avoid growing vegetables from the same family in the same bed year after year to reduce the risk of certain pests and diseases.
Plant families include brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale; and legumes such as peas, runner beans, and broad beans.
The onion family includes leeks and garlic. In the potato family, you have tomato and pepper; and among root crops are beetroot, carrot, celeriac, and parsnip.
If you want to grow climbing vegetables, situate these at the back of the bed near the supporting vertical structure.
3. Build the frame for your square-foot garden.
You will find many square-foot garden kits online for the frame of your raised beds. But you can keep your costs to a minimum by creating your own.
Use reclaimed wood from old pallets. You can also build a bed with bricks, old concrete blocks, or even logs from your garden.
Make the sides of the bed at least 6 inches deep. Growing root vegetables such as carrots will call for boxes that are 12 inches deep.
Fast, Fresh Garden Edibles solves two problems for many home gardeners. It shows gardeners without gardens how to grow vegetables in the smallest of spaces, including turning a small mostly paved courtyard or patio into a bountiful garden and how to make use of window boxes, containers, and hanging baskets to produce healthful and tasty fresh vegetables.
Once you have assembled the frame, lay a grid to demarcate each square foot. The easiest way to do this is by using a string. You can also use bamboo canes, straight branches pruned from garden trees, or reclaimed plumbing pipes.
The grid is a visual tool to help you allocate exactly one square foot to each crop you choose to grow. You do not need to divide the soil.
If you have decided to situate your square-foot garden on top of the grass, lay your sheet of cardboard before you set the frame in its permanent position.
4. Fill your garden bed with your choice of growing medium.
You do not need special soil for a square-foot garden. You can use what you have as long as you amend it. First, loosen and aerate the ground soil. Then mix in compost to fill the frame.
Work the compost into the soil at the rate of one-third by volume. For example, if you have six inches of soil, be sure to mix in a two-inch layer of compost.
You may also choose to use the soilless mix recommended by Bartholomew rather than amending the ground soil.
For this, use one-third compost, one-third peat moss, and one-third vermiculite. You’ll need 8 cubic feet of this mixture to fill a bed with 6-inch sides. A bed with 12-inch sides will require 16 cubic feet of the mix.
Bartholomew’s mix will cost you. But it creates a weed-free bed that retains moisture and is rich in nutrients.
You can also skip the mixing altogether and fill the frame with high-quality bagged garden soil from a nursery or gardening centre.
Once the bed is filled and you’ve raked the growing medium smooth, create a grid on top using lattice strips, PVC pipes, or string. You can then cover the prepared garden with a thin layer of fine mulch to conserve soil moisture and slow the growth of weeds.
5. Plan the spacing and layout of your vegetables.
Depending on where you live in the world, planting your first crop might involve sowing seeds directly into the soil. If you live in a colder part of the world that sees frosts well into the growing season, starting plants indoors under glass might be the way to go.
The formula for spacing is simple. You can grow one extra-large plant for each 1×1-foot square. If your plants are not too large, four will fit into the square.
In the case of medium-sized plants, you can grow nine in a square. If the plants are small, you can grow as many as 16 plants per square.
For example, you can plant one vine tomato, pepper plant, or eggplant per square foot. You can grow four bush tomatoes, heads of cabbage, or heads of lettuce per square.
If you want to grow onions or beets, nine plants will fit into a square. For small plants like radishes, you can grow as many as 16 plants per square.
6. Plant your first crop of vegetables.
If you’re planting seeds in your square-foot garden, plant one seed per hole spaced appropriately. Consult the back of the seed packet for instructions.
Poke a finger through the mulch into the soil, drop in a small amount of vermiculite, and then the seed. Cover the hole with more vermiculite to keep the seed moist while it’s sprouting.
Mist the newly planted seeds with water every day. Do not let the soil dry out. Once plants are established, water them once a week.
Use the same spacing method if you’re transplanting vegetables from a nursery or gardening centre. Place the plants in the dirt and be sure to leave a shallow depression around each to help hold water.
Experts recommend shading newly transplanted vegetables to protect them from wilting. Water your newly transplanted wards daily for a few days, then remove the shade and water them weekly.
Growing vegetables in small spaces or under adverse conditions can be a bit of a challenge at times! This is where niche gardening ideas like the Keyhole Garden come into play, and small spaces can be converted to produce great results.
7. Maintain and harvest your vegetables.
While a square-foot garden does not require as much work as a traditional garden, you still have to tend to your crop. You need to water when the soil feels dry, but you won’t have to waste water on the soil between traditional rows.
Do not water your plants from overhead. Instead, use a small container to water each plant by pouring it into the depressions you made when you planted them.
If your schedule permits, water in the morning. Remember, you’ll need to water more often on days that are hot or windy because the soil will dry out faster.
Plan on weeding every week. You can either pull weeds when they’re small or use scissors to cut them off at the base. You can make it easier on yourself by weeding every time you walk by the bed.
You probably won’t need to fertilize because weeds won’t be competing with your vegetables for nutrients.
You should also inspect your garden for pests every day. You can either hand-pick and destroy insects or spray them with insecticidal soap.
You can harvest your vegetables when they’re tender and at their flavour peak. Harvesting a square-foot garden is easier than harvesting a traditional garden as you have less ground to cover.
Discovering Your Green Thumb with a Square-Foot Garden
After harvesting each square, you can then plant another, different crop, allowing for a continuous harvest on your square-foot garden. One of the best things about the system is that it encourages you to try a huge variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
Square foot gardening is a basic growing system, perfect for beginners and children. By choosing to grow a square-foot garden, you will not only learn new skills, but you’ll be healthier as a result.