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Square Foot Gardening: How to Do It the Right Way

Just like the name says, square foot gardening refers to a technique that divides the growing area into equally small square sections. Usually, the size is 12 inches on each side, but people vary it according to their needs. The aim of this gardening practice is to help the plants grow in a simple and orderly fashion.

Where Does Square Foot Gardening Come From?

When talking about this practice, we must mention Mel Bartholomew. He is the one who coined the term and the entire concept of simple gardening back in 1981. What’s even more surprising is the fact that he is not a horticulturist. He didn’t even have any agricultural training at all! Of course, this gave many people hopes that they will be able to have their own garden with little effort. The entire concept relies on everybody being able to grow their own crops and consume plants as healthy as possible.

In fact, Mel Bartholomew is the founder of the Square Foot Gardening Foundation. The organization tries to spread the concept as much as possible in the entire world. Their aim is to sustain charitable events and actions and to help eradicate world hunger.

What to Know before Starting Gardening

One of the first things you should think about before starting your own garden is space. Think about how much space do you have and the conditions. For example, some space next to a window can ensure lots of sunlight, which is beneficial for certain plants. Other people choose to use a balcony, a deck or a porch for their garden space. In any case, pay attention to details such as how much sunlight you will have, what temperature is in that area etc.

Based on these factors, you can then move on and assess whether your effort of planting certain vegetables is going to be successful or not. Take into account the location as well. If you live in California, then you can garden all year long! In some places, summer can be too long and too hot for a garden, for instance. Moreover, the summer can be too short in other areas.

How to Do Square Foot Gardening

Square foot gardening relies on various strategies that involve intensive planting. The method initially presented by Mel Bartholomew relied on using a 12” by 12” square. The square is divided into smaller ones so that you have 9 squares. They have equal lengths, namely 4 feet on each of their sides. In their turn, the 4” by 4” squares were divided into 16 other squares, measuring 1 foot on each side. The idea is that each of the 16 squares will be planted with a different species.

If you have a large garden, you can even make paths of the lines of the square. As such, you can easily reach each of the squares. Meanwhile, if you have a small garden, you can use some thread or other material sheets in order to delimit them.

Raised Beds Gardening

In 2006, Bartholomew updated the rules for square foot gardening. As such, he started advocating for the use of raised beds, not necessarily ground soil for the garden. This shift happened because raised beds would allow for an even better administration of space since you can place the beds vertically.

For those of you who have little space available, but still want to get into square foot gardening, we are including some simple steps you should follow:

1. Build a box

The frame needs to be made of non-treated, 6-inches wide lumber or a similar material. Before placing the box on the ground, you should first place a weed mat or some landscape fabric in order to prevent any weeds from appearing in your garden. The best size would be 4×4, but you can always use your creativity. If you want to have a children’s garden, make sure that the frame is not larger than 3 feet, since they have shorter arms and can’t reach everywhere.

2. Make Potting Soil

When you are using the ground soil, this may not offer the quality you want or need. If you create your own soil from scratch, in a box, you can be sure of taking advantage of perfect conditions from the start. One recipe for 1/3 coarse grade vermiculite, 1/3 spagnum peat moss, and 1/3 blended compost. However, the ingredients need to have equal volumes, not weight.

There are also some other options when it comes to compost. For example, some people use poultry or manure, worm castings, and even green waste. However, many square foot gardens have failed because the owners started experimenting. As such, pay attention to the recipe!

One last tip is to moisten the SFG potting soil to 100% before you plant. In order to test this, you can squish a handful of soil. It should stay together, but no water should drip out of your fingers.

3. Planting

As we explained before, there are four spacing guidelines.

Extra Large – one per square, with a 12-inch spacing

Large – 4 per square, 6-inch spacing

Medium – 9 per square, 4-inch spacing

Small – 16 per square, 3-inch spacing

Depending on the plant you want to use, the spacing may vary. As such, inform yourself or read the seed packet before starting. Choosing different plants ensures a variety of crops in time, so you should also think about that.

For instance, a tomato plant usually takes up a full square, and so do mint, basil or oregano. Meanwhile, with strawberries, you can even plant 4 per square. Radishes can be used as much as 16 in a square of plants. Placing them is also important. If you intend to use tall or climbing plants (like maize or pole beans) use them on a northern row or a south one if you live in the southern hemisphere. In this way, they will not shade the other plants. Use netting or lattice for supporting them as they grow.

4. Irrigating Your Garden

Of course, there are various ways in which you can irrigate your square foot garden. Here you have a brief overview of the options you have:

  • The simplest way of watering the garden is to use a bucket. The water should be sun-warmed. One cup per plant should suffice.
  • Another easy idea is to use a hose for irrigating the garden. One major drawback is that the hose waters the leaves, so most likely you will develop problems with fungus and mold. Moreover, it is hard to water everything evenly or deeply.
  • Soaker hose. This hose is special since it is porous and lets water seep out slowly. It’s hard to water evenly with this one as well, but many gardeners choose to go for it since it’s more convenient.
  • PVC + Spray nozzles. You can create your own sprinklers system if you put together PVC and sprinkler heads, which you can attach to the hose. The best part is that you can choose various nozzles for different plants, so you can get the right amount of water for each. However, in time PVC will get dried out by sun and wind.
  • Add a timer. Both for the soaker hose and for the PVC system, it is an excellent idea to add a timer. This would make the hose automatic, so you don’t have to worry all the time about turning it on and off. However, you do have to check for the timer to be in a good state, since it usually breaks after a year or so.
  • Automatic sprinklers. If you choose this option, you can set the nozzles that are already there and extend their spray to cover it all. Alternatively, you can also install some new sprinkler heads designed specifically for the garden areas.
  • Drip irrigation system. By far the best option for square foot gardening is to use a drip irrigation system. Water gets dripped straight onto the soil, and you can adjust the quantity for each plant. One big disadvantage of this method is that it is the most expensive one. Moreover, you won’t visit the garden so often. This may even lead to you not noticing early signs of disease/distress for the plants.

Square Foot Gardening Advantages

Now that you got the gist of square foot gardening, you might ask why you should do it after all. Just like we said in the beginning, many people choose to do it because it saves up lots of space. And when you live in a small flat or you have a small backyard, space is important.

Another reason that makes people start this is because they want to eat healthily. Besides the health part, there is also a particular satisfaction in consuming the fruits and vegetables you grew yourself, not to mention that you know exactly what’s in them.

Sometimes, it may even get cheaper to grow your own vegetables than constantly buying them from the store. You can choose what to plant according to your own needs over the entire year so that you can have a nice rich stock to cook with. Not to mention that it’s an excellent suggestion when it comes to gardening for beginners.


All in all, square foot gardening is quite a recent practice that more and more people adopt. If you adapt it correctly, it works all over the world. What’s important is to remember to take care of the plants and to offer them enough sunlight and water. Other than that, you can be the proud owner of a beautiful garden in a small size.

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Bonnie Enos

I spend my time in my garden trying to create the greatest outdoor space possible. My garden is my happy place and where you will always find me on a nice day. I take my experience and share it here for you to read!

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