Do you want to start a garden but are overwhelmed about how to start? Let me tell you about a system I have been using for the past few seasons called square foot gardening. I think this is a great way to garden for someone that is just getting started (or someone that has been doing it forever!). If you are a beginning gardener, click here to check out my 7 beginner gardening mistakes to avoid. Square Foot Gardening is high yield in a small, easy to care for plot.
Let me start off by saying right off the bat that this method is amazing, but way more involved than one blog post could cover. I will cover the basics here but I HIGHLY recommend getting the book “All New Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew & the Square Foot Gardening Foundation. They have released a few different editions over the years, each with new info or ways to make your square foot garden better! Mel invented the system in the 70s and the foundation has been carrying on his good work since his passing in 2016. They really are the experts on all things Square Foot Gardening!
What is square foot gardening?
It is basically just how it sounds. If you have a 4×8 garden bed, that is 32 square feet, and you’ll have 32 “boxes” to plant in. Most people actually put down a grid using either twine, sticks or pvc piping, or you can just imagine it’s there and plant accordingly. Square foot gardening plants rows much closer together than in traditional gardening. The upside to close planting is it tends to squeeze out weeds and of course you get more vegetables in a smaller space. So why doesn’t everyone do this? It does require some maintenance. You have to water a little more frequently, you need to manage the soil as all those plants can use up nutrients quicker than row gardens, and you need to pay attention to what kind of plants you are planting because not all plants play well together. Click here to read about companion planting Square foot gardening is an efficient way for virtually everyone to be able to grow their own food.
Raised beds or “in the ground” planting?
The answer to this is how good is your soil? My garden is set up for raised beds. Cape Cod is a lovely place to live but we are basically a big sand bar that sticks out into the ocean. Unfortunately that doesn’t make for the best farming soil. I tried for many years with conventional gardening with so-so results. Amending & tilling soil, digging out endless rocks and never ending weeds. Finally, I gave up, switched over to raised beds and never looked back. The best part about having raised beds is having total control over soil quality. Twice a year I add compost from my compost bin to replenish the nutrients spent on growing and to replace any soil that washed away or compacted down. Raised beds cut down on the amount of weeds growing, but also makes it easier to pull the weeds that do grow. You don’t have to contend with rocks or stray tree roots. It’s easy to add cover in winter so the soil is warmer and ready to go sooner in spring, or even add a cold frame on top for winter gardening. Most people do square foot gardening in raised beds, but you certainly can use this method with conventional “in the ground” gardening.
How much garden do I need?
This depends on a lot of things. How many people are you feeding? Do you want enough just for seasonal fresh eating? Do you want enough for canning, preserving, etc? Do you want enough to share with friends, family, or to sell at farmer’s market? Will you be conventional row gardening or square foot gardening? But most of all, how much space do you have?
Most people seem to agree that for a conventional row garden (a row of corn, a row of lettuce, a row of tomatoes…) 100 square feet per person is needed for a fresh eating garden, and about 200 square feet per person if you want to can food for year round use. For square foot gardening you need as little as 16 square feet per person for fresh eating and about 32 square feet per person to have enough for preserving!
Finding the best location
Go out into your yard at several times during the day and note where the sun is and how it moves across your yard. What areas have the most sun? Ideally you will have an area that receives at least 6-8 hours of strong sunlight. Where is your water source located? Of course it’s great if that works out to also be a sunny spot, but you can work around it. I have one outdoor spigot, and unfortunately it is on the other side of the yard from my garden. The spigot is on the north west side of my house, the sun blocked almost all day by huge trees. So we have run a looooong hose from the spigot to the garden. Is it perfect? No. Someday I’m hoping to have a plumber come out and add another spigot, but for years this is has worked for me.
Take it Slow
Every year for the last several years I have added a new raised bed or two as finances allow. The nice part about growing your garden slowly is that it allows your garden to grow with your gardening knowledge. In 2009 I finally gave up on growing plants in the ground and built my first raised bed. That first year with raised beds I had about 32 square feet of raised garden bed space with a little bit of in the ground space. After this year’s expansions I will have 225 square feet of raised bed space plus an additional 400 square feet of so of conventional garden space for fruit trees & berry bushes. If I started out with a garden this size I would have given up the first year! Starting slowly with just a bed or two is the best way to see how much garden you need and how much you have the time and desire to maintain. That said, before you start construction have an eye on future expansion. Choose an area of your yard that hopefully would allow for future expansion if you so choose. When placing those first garden beds, have a plan for where future beds would go. This is something I learned from experience! You can tell the first few raised beds I added, they are odd sizes and not in the grid the new beds are in. When placing those beds make sure you leave space around all the sides for you to tend the garden. I like to leave about 2 feet between beds.
Making a raised bed
I have several different size beds in my garden, the smallest 3 x 3 and the largest 4 x 8. All the recent ones I have built are 4 x 8 and I like this size best. I can move along the long side weeding, harvesting or planting and only have to reach in 2 feet. It’s manageable. It also allows for an efficient use of materials when building the bed. I hate waste! I use 8 foot long 2x4s or 2x3s. It takes 12 of them to make a bed which puts construction around $25. Pine is an inexpensive wood and like everything, you get what you pay for. The best thing to use is cedar if you can afford it. It resists rot the longest and repels insects. It is also very pricey. The pine will rot eventually, but my oldest bed is going on 7 years and still going. There is some rot around the edges but it’s still holding dirt and that’s all they need to do. Other material choices would be metal, concrete blocks or bricks, plastic or even rubber tires. The one thing you don’t want to use is old pressure treated wood. Pressure treated wood dated from before 2004 was treated with chromated copper arsenate, which was found to leach small amounts of arsenic into the surrounding soil and into the plants. Newer pressure treated wood is considered “safer” to grow plants in. It is treated with a cooper based treatment. The cooper can still leach into the soil, but many experts agree the health effects are “minimal”. Excess cooper can stunt plant growth. There are plenty of other materials available so my personal preference is better safe than sorry and avoid pressure treated wood in the garden . Click here to see how I built my beds!
What should I plant?
What do you eat? Start with your family’s favorite vegetables. Gardening is so much more rewarding when you can enjoy the benefits of all your hard work. For years and years I grew green beans in my garden because they were easy to grow and because it seemed like a vegetable I “should” grow. The thing is out of 6 people in my family only me and my husband like them, and even we don’t like them that much. I stopped wasting my time with green beans and focused my energies on veggies we loved. I try to add a few new kinds every year trying to expand everyone’s palate but focus mostly on ones we love and would buy at a store.
So what can I plant in a square foot?
Look at the back of your seed packet. You want to look at the SEED SPACING. Let’s say the recommended seed spacing is 3 inches. Each side of your square is 12 inches. 12 inch side divided by 3 inch spacing is 4 plants. So you can have 4 rows of 4 plants – or 16 plants per square. Make sure that tall plants are planted towards the back so they do not shade smaller plants in front. Following are some recommendations for popular plants:
Pole beans: 5
Leaf Lettuce: 4
Some of the larger vine plants I personally think need a bit more than the “recommended” spacing. For instance, when I try to grow tomatoes too close I find there is just not enough air circulation and you end up with diseased plants. For tomatoes I always leave an empty square next to it to give them room to breath. Same goes for squash & potatoes. I know plenty of people that grow them right on top of each other, but my garden has enough room to let them breath a bit so I’m going to give it to them.
Companion Plants & Rotating Plants
With so many plants growing in such close conditions you want to make sure they are friendly. Did you know plants have friends too? Sometimes friends are plants that don’t compete for resources, sometimes one will deter bugs that might eat another, some will enhance the flavor of another (think cucumbers planted with dill or tomatoes with basil!). There are so many combinations. Click here to learn more about companion planting, including my planting guide
Mel from Square Foot Gardening is a big proponent of mixing your growing boxes up. Instead of planting 4 boxes in a row of peppers, spread the 4 pepper boxes into different sections of your Square Foot Garden. It helps build the diversity of your garden and cuts down on disease.
Every year you will want to rotate what you plant in each box for healthy plants. This keeps plant specific diseases from building up in the soil and keeps your soil balanced nutrient wise. Most gardeners work on a three to four year schedule. Keep a garden journal to help you remember what you planted where. Most common vegetables can be sorted into four “families”.
Enrichers (Legumes)- enriches soil with nitrogen (legumes, beans, peas, peanuts)
Nightshades – heavy feeders (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers)
Leaf Crops – anything grown for it’s leaves, need lots of nitrogen (cabbage, broccoli, kale)
Squash Feeders – heavy feeders (squash, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers)
So year 1 plant green beans, year 2 plant tomatoes, year 3 plant cabbage, year 4 plant pumpkins or go back to soil enriching beans.
For more in depth info on crop rotation, click here
So what does a square foot garden look like?
Ideally, you will have at least three beds to allow you to practice crop rotation each season. But do what you have space for. If all you can fit is one bed, start with one bed. Just do the best you can with what you have. If you are really worried about plant disease, you can empty the soil from the bed and start fresh each season. If you have an issue with plant disease one year, you should definitely empty the soil and start fresh as many diseases can overwinter in your soil. You can use the “spent” soil amending flower garden beds or to mulch bushes. Adding a good amount of new compost each season will allow fresh nutrients to be added and can help keep most diseases at bay.
Below is an outline for a sample 3 raised bed system, featuring three beds that are 4 ft x 8 ft. Within each bed, notice the square foot gardening grid giving you 32 “mini plots”. All three beds will give you 96 square feet of growing space, enough for a family of 6 to have a fresh, seasonal eating garden or a family of 3-4 to have veggies for fresh seasonal eating and some left for preserving. I have placed these beds altogether just to fit them on the same page, but in real life you are going to want to position them so you have at least 2 feet clear all around the bed for you to access and tend the bed. The tall plants are kept to one side of the bed. Be sure to position the beds so the tall plants are on the northern side of the bed so they do not shade shorter plants. Check out my plan for an inexpensive trellis system that works well with square foot gardening.
Below is also an example of how you could keep a garden journal. Once you have made your template, photocopy a bunch of them. Write the year at the top, fill in the boxes, pop it in a binder. Super easy! Now you’ll have a record to refer back to each year for crop rotation. If you want to get really fancy, many gardeners like to write the exact type of vegetable grown. Instead of “tomato”, record it was a Brandywine variety, where you bought it and if you grew it from seed. Make notes about how well or poor it grew, and how it tasted. Then when you are thinking “what was the fabulous tomato we grew last year” you will have a handy record.
So in under 100 square feet you are growing:
8 tomatoes (I like a mix – some slicing, some cherry, some for sauce)
8 cucumbers (mix of slicing & pickling)
32 pea vines
4 peppers (any varieties)
16 lettuce plants
48 corn stalks
8 bean stalks
8 potato plants
A mix of herbs
Have you tried square foot gardening? I’d love to hear your experiences!