If you want to maximize the space you have in your vegetable garden, the square-foot gardening method is a great way to do it! You may find that plant spacing in a small garden bed can be much easier. You may also find you have much more to harvest from your garden than you ever had before.
Mel Bartholomew developed this method in conjunction with the publishing of his first Square Foot Gardening book in 1981.
Since then, the method has been a huge part of garden planning for many gardeners, as you don’t need a large space to be a successful backyard gardener. You can find the All New Square Foot Gardening 3rd Edition in stores everywhere!
Whether you work in raised beds or directly in the garden soil, you can easily develop your own square-foot garden. When you begin vegetable gardening with this method, you may find you love square-foot gardening just as much as other gardeners do!
What Is Square-Foot Gardening?
So where did this currently beloved gardening method begin? It all started when Mel Bartholomew co-managed a community garden, which utilized the traditional gardening row method of production. He noticed how much space those rows took up and how few veggies could be produced in that system.
As he reflected on successful row cultivation, he noticed inherent difficulties involved. Planting tomatoes meant there wouldn’t be a lot of space for other plants.
Zucchini plants were prolific to the point of overload. He also noticed a diversity of plants was hard to produce. Bolting lettuce heads and other cool-season crops reduced the potential for that too.
In light of all these issues, Mel developed the square-foot gardening method to solve these problems. By employing a square-foot garden grid, gardeners could maximize their harvests in amount and variety of veggies. They also had access to parts of the garden they couldn’t access in rows.
What Goes Into A Typical Square-Foot Garden?
So what are the basic elements of square-foot gardens? It’s actually very simple and easy for both experienced and new gardeners alike. Let’s run down the framework of a square-foot garden. Then we’ll discuss ways you can implement the method in your own garden.
A Square-Foot Garden Has Its Limits
Every square-foot gardener can rest assured they’re maximizing the space they’re cultivating. Square-foot gardeners don’t see limits as restrictive. Instead, limits are parameters you can work within to yield the best results. With this limited space, you won’t dedicate too much attention and energy to one plant.
By minimizing your garden space, you prevent wasted produce, and in turn, you conserve seed for next season. If you want more of a plant than one square foot can hold, you can succession plant some in another empty square a couple of weeks later.
Squares Instead of Rows
While the row method has its applications, most home gardeners can get a lot more out of planting in multiple square feet. Each square is 12 inches by 12 inches, and the squares are arranged in a rectangular or square fashion.
The basic concept considers how plants should be spaced and also includes maximizing that space within each one-foot square. If you’re planting seeds for pepper plants, you should plant them directly in the center of the square based on their need for at least 12 inches between plants.
You can then add seed plantings for four different lettuce plants in that same square on the corners. This is just one example of how you can cram even more plants into one area. The plants benefit from growing next to good companions, and each supports the next.
Every Plant Size Applies
While how many plants you can grow is dependent on the size of the plants, you can grow all sizes in the square-foot garden. We’ve discussed one example where you can maximize space, but what about large plants?
Well, if you know a zucchini plant needs 3 feet of space, you’ll plant one in the center of two empty squares. You can plant smaller plants in these adjacent spaces that grow well with summer squash.
Large vining plants can be grown vertically over one or more squares to maximize your yield and to make the maintenance of your garden more ergonomic.
Medium plants, like bush beans, can be planted with herbs that tend to be more low-lying. Along a trellis, an extra large plant can be planted on the side furthest from the sun. Proper spacing is always utilized in a square-foot garden despite the size of the plant. There is no wasted space!
The Square-Foot Garden Layout
A basic layout for your square-foot garden would generally be made from a four feet by four feet square of 6-inch deep beds. Typically, boards are placed within the bed to demarcate square feet and allow you access to plants without compacting the soil around them.
When you orient your garden, remember that many vegetables like full sun, while other veggies can handle a little bit of partial shade in the heat of the afternoon.
You’ll get more out of your garden if you plant in an area with full sun. Then you can plant to shade certain plants or build structures into the garden plan that will provide it as needed.
Start With Good Soil
You want healthy soil in your garden. In this case, Mel has you covered! He developed what is known as Mel’s Mix, made of three elements: 1 part peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part blended compost.
This mix can be incorporated into the existing soil to improve tilth, or it can be laid on top of the cardboard in the garden.
Before you add these elements, sift them together to ensure the soil in the bed stays loose. This allows plants to create healthy root development easily. A good soil mix is important for improving poor soil and ensuring your success from the get-go.
Disease and Pest Control
While it’s not always the easiest way to garden, Mel Bartholomew suggests avoiding the random spraying of pesticides, fungicides, and bacterial deterrents.
Instead, in a square-foot garden bed, you’ll deal with those issues as they come. Because you’re companion planting, intercropping, and rotating plants, you may not have as much of an issue to begin with.
Remove dead and diseased foliage as it crops up in your garden beds. If you’re working with plants that tend to attract pests, make them trap crops, and you can pull them to prevent pest expansion into other areas of the elevated beds. Of course, you can always adapt your usual way of handling pests and diseases to the method as needed.
We’ve touched on the benefits this gardening method can bring to the average gardener up to this point, but there are a couple of things we have yet to mention. Yes! That means there’s more goodness involved in using this method.
In a traditional garden or in traditional rows, it may seem easy to space your plants properly. But you won’t get the most out of an area with less space in this mode. In fact, with rows, you need more space to produce less. In square-foot gardening, you can grow a huge variety of crops, all in a relatively compact area.
You can also use all the same techniques you would in rows. Crop rotation is almost easier as certain kinds of plants can be planted after others. Because they take up less space, it’s easier to know what to rotate in. In that same vein, planning for upcoming seasons and companion planting is easier.
While the benefits of square-foot gardening are numerous, there are some downsides. Most of the time, your beds aren’t more than 6 inches deep, and it may be difficult to grow those larger root crops, like daikon radish, carrots, or parsnips. In this case, you may opt for growing in a raised bed.
Another pitfall involves spacing. Yes, you have enough room for your smaller crops, but large plants like some squash, melons, or tomato plants may take up spillover space. Keeping these within the square foot depends on your ability to maintain the plant. With this in mind, it would be a pretty bad idea to plant a whole row with a tomato plant in each square foot.
One thing that could deter would-be gardeners is that the initial cost of setting up the square-foot garden can be fairly high. If this is someone’s first garden, gathering all the materials to set up the garden beds, enrich the garden soil, and install a watering system can be daunting.
Do you have a garden already that you’d like to adapt to the square-foot gardening method? Here, we’ll discuss ways to do it in different garden settings.
Adapting Raised Beds
Since most raised beds are square or rectangular, it’s very easy to employ a square-foot system. For instance, our Birdies Original Raised Garden Beds are perfect for square-foot gardening. While you may lose out on complete square feet on the rounded corners, you’ll still be able to get the most out of your raised bed.
You can use small rocks, thin wood panels, or even garden twine to block out your raised beds. You’ll get a lot of gardening room from a small space and make a new square-foot garden without breaking the bank. You also can fill your Birdies beds with soil without spending too much.
Adapting A Container Garden
The vegetable garden is not only relegated to homeowners with backyards. People can grow their own food on patios and balconies as well. You can also adapt containers and grow bags (like our Epic Grow Bags) to square-foot gardening. It’s the same principle you would apply to your raised beds.
Ensure every single square foot of your grow bags is blocked out, and plant accordingly. You’ll get so much more out of your container garden in the process. Note that larger plants will sometimes need their own container.
Remember to trellis if you’re growing green beans or some other vertically-grown crop. Rotate crops as needed, and provide your container vegetable garden with Mel’s Mix to give it a good foundation (1:1:1 ratio of peat moss, vermiculite, and blended compost).
A Basic Square-Foot Garden Plan
Now that we’ve outlined everything you can do with a square-foot garden (and some of the things you can’t), let’s discuss a very basic plan you can employ in 3 different spacings. Because some folks will garden in a raised bed, let’s take a look at simply one square of a 4×4 square-foot garden.
Here is your new gardening plan!
At a spacing of 4 inches apart, you can fit nine medium plants. These could include any combination of greens, beans, turnips, and alliums (but remember, beans and alliums don’t play nice).
At a spacing of 6 inches apart, you can plant four medium-sized plants. This could include greens, garlic, onions, and herbs, like parsley or thyme.
At one plant per square foot, you can include one broccoli or cauliflower plant, an eggplant, peppers, potatoes, or sunflowers. Many of these can be accompanied by a slow-growing ground cover that will attract your favorite beneficial insects to the garden.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into this concept, check out the Square-Foot Gardening Foundation website.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Does square-foot gardening really work?
A: Indeed, it does! Try it out in a couple of square feet in your garden or raised bed before you go full force, just to see for yourself.
Q: What is one of the biggest disadvantages to square-foot gardening?
A: The cost of starting a square-foot garden can be pricey. That’s the biggest pitfall.
Q: What grows best in this type of garden?
A: Any of your traditional annual vegetables can grow in a square-foot garden as long as they have the space and conditions needed to grow.
Q: Do you need to rotate crops?
A: You should! Because you’re working in a smaller space, it’s helpful to rotate so you don’t sap the soil of nutrients. If you’re fertilizing regularly this may be less of a concern.
Q: What are the 3 materials most commonly used in this garden method?
A: If you’re talking about Mel’s Mix, that includes peat moss, vermiculite, and blended compost.
Q: Do you mulch for this type of gardening?
A: You don’t have to, but it will help! Mulch is one of those essential parts of gardening in general. In this mode, you’re simply adapting to a different space with all the same rules and maybe less interventive pest and disease control.
Q: How do I plan a square-foot gardening layout?
A: Start by looking at your space and then figuring out how to lay it out. This could include adapting existing beds or building new ones.