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Updated : 21/9/2014

Square Foot Gardening

A basic, 4x4, 16-unit "square-foot garden." Build a Square Foot Garden

The original square-foot-gardening method used an open-bottomed box to contain a finite amount of soil, which was divided with a grid into sections. To encourage variety of different crops over time, each square would be planted with a different kind of plant, the number of plants per square depending on an individual plant's size. A single tomato plant might take a full square, as might herbs such as oregano, basil or mint, while most strawberry plants could be planted four per square, with up to sixteen radishes per square. Tall or climbing plants such as maize or pole beans might be planted in a southern row (north in the northern hemisphere) so as not to shade other plants, and supported with lattice or netting.

The logic behind using smaller beds is that they are easily adapted, and the gardener can easily reach the entire area, without stepping on and compacting the soil. In the second edition, Bartholomew suggests using a "weed barrier" beneath the box, and filling it completely with "Mel's mix," a combination by volume of one third of decayed Sphagnum "peat moss", one-third expanded vermiculite and one-third blended compost. For accessibility, raised boxes may have bottoms to sit like tables at a convenient height, with approximately 15cm of manufactured soil per square foot.


In this method, the garden space is divided into beds that are easily accessed from every side. A 1.2m x 1.2m, (1.45 m2)  garden is recommended for the first garden, and a path wide enough to comfortably work from should be made on each side of the bed, if possible, or if the bed must be accessed by reaching across it, a narrower one should be used so that no discomfort results from tending the garden. Each of the beds is divided into approximately one square foot units and marked out with sticks, twine, or sturdy slats to ensure that the square foot units remain visible as the garden matures.

Different seeds are planted in each square, to ensure a rational amount of each type of crop is grown, and to conserve seeds instead of over planting, crowding and thinning plants. Common spacing is one plant per square for larger plants (broccoli, basil, etc.), four plants per square for medium large plants like lettuce, nine plants per square for medium-small plants like spinach, and sixteen per square for small plants such as onions and carrots. Plants that normally take up yards of space as runners, such as squash or cucumbers, are grown vertically on sturdy frames that are hung with netting or string to support the developing crops. Ones that grow deep underground, such as potatoes or carrots, are grown in a square foot section that has foot tall sides and a planting surface above the ground, so that a foot or more of framed soil depth is provided above the garden surface rather than below it.

The beds are weeded and watered from the pathways, so the garden soil is never stepped on or compacted. Because a new soil mixture is used to create the garden, and a few handfuls of compost are added with each harvest to maintain soil fertility over time, the state of the site's underlying soil is irrelevant. This gardening method has been employed successfully in every region, including in deserts, on high arid mountain plateaus, in cramped urban locations, and in areas with polluted or high salinity soils. It is equally useful for growing flowers, vegetables, herbs and some fruits in containers, raised beds, on tabletops or at ground level, in only 150 mm of soil. A few seeds per square foot, the ability to make compost, to water by hand, and to set up the initial garden in a sunny position or where a container, table or platform garden may be moved on wheels to receive light is all that is needed to set up a square foot garden.

Benefits of Square Foot Gardening

  • Much less work. Conventional gardening requires heavy tools to loosen the soil, whereas in this method, the soil is never compacted and it remains loose and loamy. Weeding takes only seconds to minutes, due to the light soil, raised beds, and easily accessed plants. Harvests per foot of garden are increased due to the rich soil mixture, well-spaced plants, and lack of weeds produced when following Mel Bartholomew's method.
  • Water Savings. The soil mixture that is advised has water-holding capacities, so that the garden needs water less frequently, and in much smaller quantities than when using other gardening methods. Water is also spared by hand-watering directly at the plant roots, so that there is very little waste (U.S. Geological Survey. Advantages of microirrigation. Dec.2010. and tender young plants and seedlings are preserved.
  • Very little weeding. One benefit of this close planting is that the vegetables form a living mulch, and shade out many weed seeds before they have a chance to germinate.
  • Pesticide / Herbicide Free. Natural insect repellent methods like companion planting (i.e. planting marigolds or other naturally pest-repelling plants) become very efficient in a close space and thus, pesticides are not necessary. The large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily
  • Accessibility. A plywood bottom can be attached to the bottom of a box, which can then be placed on a tabletop or raised platform for those who wish to garden without bending or squatting, or to make gardening easy for wheelchair, cane or walker users.
  • Covers and Cages. Because all beds are small (4'x4' or smaller), making covers or cages to protect plants from pests, cold, or sun is more practical than with larger gardens.


Further reading

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