Gardening should be for everyone, but as it’s traditionally practiced, it is not. It requires land, a certain level of mobility and sometimes a lot of water, all of which are factors that exclude many people from enjoying it. Those of us who can’t garden in traditional ways, however, can take heart that humans are very good at finding alternative methods for things. Like square foot gardening.
We have civil engineer Mel Bartholomew to thank for the concept of square foot gardening, which he introduced with his 1981 book Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work.
This book, which became a bestseller, led to a T.V. series on PBS, the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, and to a foundation that uses Bartholomew’s methods to tackle food insecurity and poverty around the globe.
These methods are all about making the most out of a small garden space. Bartholomew thought that creating raised beds filled with a soilless potting mix rather than garden soil could radically cut down on the space, the labour and the water required for traditional gardens.
His idea is to intensively plant in 1 x 1-foot squares, rather than to space plants out in long, single rows, like we usually do. His recommended set-up is a 4 x 4-foot raised garden divided into 16 squares, where each square is planted with a different vegetable.
Why Change from Traditional Methods?
The big reason is efficiency. Single row planting is wildly inefficient for the average gardener who’s doing everything by hand. The Square Foot Gardening Foundation estimates that Bartholomew’s method costs “50% less, uses 20% less space, 10% of the water, and only 2% of the work” when compared with conventional row gardening.
Accessibility is another big reason to consider making the switch. With a small raised bed, folks who don’t have a yard they can dig into can still grow their own food. Bartholomew’s garden plan calls for a 4 x 4-foot space, but that can easily be halved, or scaled down further if the area you have to grow food on is a fire escape.
The decreased labour is extra worth our attention. Pain, physical health issues and physical disabilities can leave many people out of gardening. With this gardening method, it’s not just that the smaller space is more manageable, but that it can be put anywhere and even elevated onto a platform for greater physical accessibility.
How to Get Started
The Square Foot Gardening Foundation plan consists of 3 simple steps. First, build a 4 x 4-foot box out of materials of your choice (they recommend untreated wood, but note that you can also use repurposed or recycled materials). They strongly suggest using landscape fabric on the bottom as a weed barrier.
The second step is to fill the box with a soilless mix made of: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss or coconut coir and 1/3 organic compost. The third step is to lay a grid made from wood lath, repurposed blinds or other materials on top, such that each square covers one square foot in area.
Planning Your Square Foot Garden
What you grow in your new garden bed is, of course, up to you. The key to success with this method lies in the spacing and the arrangement of your plants. You can create a short list of herbs or veggies you’d like to grow, learn what their ideal spacing requirements are, and then start to think about how many of each plant you can put in each square.
To give you a ballpark, each 1 x 1 square could hold 1 eggplant, pepper, tomato or kale plant, or 2 cucumber plants, or 4 leeks or onions, Swiss chard or basil plants, or 9 spinach, bean or pea plants. You can probably already see how these little squares can add up to a significant amount of food in a small space.
Once you know what you might like to grow, think about how these plants will interact. Their height, for example, should be a central factor in where you plant them. Tall plants like peppers or corn will overshadow smaller ones. If your shorter plants all love sun, put your taller plants in the northernmost squares to avoid blocking their sunlight. Plant shade-lovers where the shadows of the taller plants will fall in the afternoon.
Consider trailing and climbing habits, too. Planting taller plants next to climbing plants can give your climbers a natural trellis (as long as the climber isn’t likely to choke out its taller friend).
If insects will be a problem in your garden, reserve some squares (or spaces within squares) for companion flowers or herbs that will repel pests. Marigolds will repel nematodes from your tomatoes, for example, and rosemary will keep beetles off your beans. The Farmer’s Almanac has this resource on companion planting to help you decide what should go where.
Planting the Square Foot Garden
With your planning done, it’s time to get your food in the ground. Spacing the plants will require a bit of planning here, too. In the end, you’ll want the plants spaced such that they’re as far apart as the guidelines on their seed packages (or in Bartholomew’s book) recommend, both from each other, and from the plants in the other squares. In Bartholomew’s method, the geometry should maximize yield while encouraging the healthy distances plants need to stay free of disease.
For seeds, create depressions as deep as the seed packet recommends and space the holes equidistant from each other within the grid. Plant more seeds than you want in the grid, because you’ll eventually be thinning them down to the most robust looking seedlings.
If you’re planting seedlings instead of seeds, place them in equidistant holes dug to the recommended depth for each plant. Your plants don’t need to be planted at the same time—follow the planting directions for each type of vegetable to determine when to put them in the ground.
Square Foot Gardening Tips
Bartholomew’s book should definitely be your source for in-depth tips and tricks for this method. We can offer a few simple ones, though, to get you started. The first is to mulch. Even though the density of the plants is supposed to serve as a kind of living mulch, mulching will help to conserve moisture (which can be an issue in raised beds) and keep up the quality of the soil over the years.
The second is to thin your seedlings by cutting them down rather than by pulling them up. Since you’re working with a looser mix in a small space, it’s important not to disturb root systems while they’re just getting a hold.
And the final tip we’ll offer is to lay down cardboard instead of landscape fabric if your raised bed is going on the ground. This will give you some flexibility in terms of planting veggies that grow deeper than the height of your raised bed. The cardboard decomposes over time, allowing carrots and parsnips to dig deep.