Whether you’re a traditional gardener or a newcomer, square foot gardening is a concept that has a lot to offer. Designed to help you make the most of your growing space, this model is taking the gardening world by storm. It offers tons of benefits and is relatively simple to implement.
However, you shouldn’t get started without a little bit of background. Here’s everything you need to know to start your own square foot garden at home.
Where Did the Idea of Square Foot Gardening Come From?
Square foot gardening, or the idea of incorporating intensive spacing and companion planting to get the most food possible out of limited space, is a concept coined by Mel Bartholomew. The author of Square Foot Gardening and an experienced civil engineer, Bartholomew developed the concept in 1981. However, it’s only recently begun to gain traction.
As a seasoned urban planner, Bartholomew noted the inefficiencies of traditional single-row planting styles. Combining his city planning skills with his own green thumb, Bartholomew developed a method of producing a thriving garden no matter how little space you might have.
What Are the Benefits of Square Foot Gardening?
Grow a square foot garden, and you’ll reap the benefits almost immediately. This style of planting allows you to grow just as much food – if not more – in the same amount of space as traditional row- planted gardens. Because everything is planted in raised beds, you’ll be able to access the plants more easily.
Square foot gardening makes it possible for gardeners to grow their own food regardless of how much space they might have – you don’t need a huge backyard. All you need is a balcony, patio, or small chunk of yard to get started. In many cases, wedding chores are nonexistent, meaning you don’t have to spend as much time or energy tending to your garden.
Plus, since you’ll be growing all your food in a raised bed, you don’t have to tear up the soil to get started. You don’t need to damage the soil or do any tilling in order to get started. Square foot gardening is a quick way to start a new garden, making it a good choice for beginners. Plus, it can be done anywhere – even over pavement! – making it a good alternative for city dwellers.
You’ll get higher yields per square foot with your square foot garden. You can harvest more with less work and of course, less space.
How to Set Up a Square Foot Garden
Find the Perfect Growing Space
As with any garden, you will need to start by securing the ideal growing space. Even though you will be building or buying raised beds, you need to make sure the location you select is in a good spot. It should receive at least six hours of sunlight each day, be guarded against the wind, and be within reach of your watering system.
Once you have the ideal spot secured, go ahead and build or buy your raised bed boxes. The best raised beds for this task will be those that are about 4 feet by 4 feet in size. You can go larger if you’d like, but keep in mind that it may be difficult for you to reach the interior of the bed to cultivate your plants.
Some people line their beds with plastic before planting. This can help keep out weeds but does add an additional step to the beginning.
Choose a fertile, weed-free potting soil to add to your beds. For best results, mix together compost, peat moss, vermiculture, or other organic matter. It should be relatively well-draining, too.
Set Up Your Grid
Once your beds are filled with soil, you need to lay out your grid. The easiest way to do this is to make divides out of narrow strips of wood. These should be laid out in a uniform, square-foot design that is specifically 1-by-1 foot. You don’t have to make these yourself, either – you can purchase grids online that are premade and ready to go.
Plant Your Seeds
Next, add your seeds! Below, we will give you some options as to what to plant in each square. The methods of planting your seeds will be identical to the steps you’d follow if planting seeds in a traditional single-row garden layout. You can also start with seedlings if you’d prefer.
Care For Your Plants
Nothing new here – once your plants are in place, it’s time to care for your crops. Water, fertilize and weed regularly – just as you would with a typical garden.
Square Foot Gardening Options
The one-per-square layout is the easiest way to make use of the square foot gardening method. To do this, form a single hole in the center of the square and then plant your seeds as normal. The plants that work best when planted in this style or those that require a bit of room to sprawl and don’t benefit from dense plantings, such as okra, kale, eggplant, corn, and celery.
In this technique, you will plant two seeds side by side with a bit of space in between. You will also add a support trellis. The best plants for this method are vining options including cantaloupe, watermelons, winter squash, and cucumbers.
With the four-per-square method, you’ll plant a seed or a seedling at each of the four corners. These should be equal distances apart from each other and form the border of the grid. These plants don’t have to be planted four-per-square (you can also plant them in a one-per-square fashion) but this method will allow you to produce more food. Good options include basil, garlic, leeks, onions, lettuce, radishes, and summer squash.
In this method, you will plant in a grid-like pattern within the square space, forming a square-shaped border. You can plant quite densely with this model, but again, you don’t have to plant as many plants if you don’t want to – it will simply allow you to grow more food.
Good options for this model include spinach, turnips, tomatoes (choose varieties that don’t require cages), onions, beets, green beans, and cilantro.
This model is best only for plants that don’t require very much space. Make sure the seeds are equidistant from each other as well as from the edge of the grid to prevent overcrowding. You will need to thin these plants later on, but this dense model is a good option for plants like carrots, parsnips, and radishes.
Challenges of Square Foot Gardening
Need to Keep Height in Mind
Be mindful of the mature heights of all the plants in your square foot garden. If you have short plants, like basil, in a corner of the bed, they should not be shaded by taller ones, like tomatoes. It’s perfectly fine to plant these species close to each other, but you need to keep sunlight requirements in mind.
Try not to just plant one species of plant in your square foot garden. It’s better to choose a variety of mutually beneficial plants. If you only plant one kind of plant in such close proximity to others of the same type, you run the risk of inviting pests and diseases.
There are some startup costs to be considered when you build a square foot garden. As with any raised bed, you will need to purchase building materials (or the beds themselves) along with soil to fill them up.
There are some plants that need lots of space to flourish, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage. You can easily grow these plants using the square foot gardening model, but you need to do a bit more planning to make sure they have room to sprawl.
Similarly, there are some perennials that aren’t a great idea for square foot gardening because they require so much room. For example, full-grown asparagus ferns will tip over and crush other plants, while rhubarb and artichokes can easily crowd out your other plantings. Keep these out of your square foot garden for the best results.
At most, the beds you build for your square foot garden will only be about six to twelve inches deep. Some plants need depths much more than this so that their roots can extend all the way down into the soil below. Make sure you research the types of plants you decide to grow to ensure that square foot gardening is the right choice for their unique needs.
Need for Maintenance
A square foot garden is often easier to maintain than any other type of garden. However, that doesn’t mean it’s totally carefree. You will still need to water, and you may also need to weed occasionally. It can be a bit more challenging to weed if unwanted plants spring up in your beds – since the plants are grown so close together, it can be tough to remove them once their roots get established.
You will also need to water your square foot garden more often. The soil in raised beds has a tendency to dry out more quickly than the soil in traditional beds. It can also be harder to rewet if it dries out – you may need to water every single day in the summer. Installing soaker hoses or another type of drip irrigation can be a good way to alleviate this.
Is Square Foot Gardening Right for You?
Square foot gardening is a fantastic gardening method for home gardeners who are short on space – or short on time. While there are some challenges to be aware of, there are plenty of simple solutions to make this space-saving gardening method work for just about anyone.
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.