When I started gardening I soon discovered how much I enjoyed raised bed gardening. I have very clay-like soil that is compact and lacking in nutrients, which is why I decided to go with raised beds. The quality of soil my plants grew in greatly improved. And I personally like the look of the raised beds and planting little flowers around them. When I started using raised beds I also started using another method called square foot gardening. Because the quality of the soil is so good, it allows for more intensive planting. The square foot garden method takes this into account.
What is a Square Foot Garden?
Square foot gardening (SFG) is a gardening method that is commonly paired with raised beds for growing vegetables and herbs. It’s a way to grow a small, orderly, and highly productive garden that focuses on square feet. Instead of using rows and leaving walking paths in between, square foot gardening is more of a grid of square feet. A square foot garden pairs nicely with a raised bed. It is an intensive grid gardening method and is great for small spaces like backyards where you don’t have a lot of space. Square foot gardens can easily be found in suburban neighborhoods and urban homesteads.
Raised Bed Gardening Method
Square foot gardening goes hand-in-hand with raised beds. Raised bed gardening is a method of gardening that raises your soil to a higher level. The height can vary quite a bit, but anything between 6 to 12 inches will have the depth needed for a raised bed garden. Some can be directly on the ground, while others can have a bottom that holds in the dirt, and is then placed on legs so that no bending is required. Sometimes referred to as garden boxes, raised beds can have a frame built out of wood, bricks, concrete blocks, or other material. You can build them from scratch or use a raised bed garden kit. Square foot gardening works so well with raised beds because of the soil quality in raised beds allows for intensive gardening.
A square foot garden can be thought of as a grid. For example – a raised bed that is 4 feet by 4 feet would have 16 square feet. With square foot gardening you could plant 16 different vegetables if you wanted, one in each square. Or you could have 16 squares of the same vegetable. Each square foot can handle a certain number of vegetables, depending on what the vegetable is. Depending on your vegetable, you can plant a quantity of 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 per square foot. Here are a few examples. Carrots can be planted in a quantity of 16 per square foot. Peppers can be planted in a quantity of 1 per square foot. Beets can be planted in a quantity of 9 per square foot. Heads of lettuce can be planted in a quantity of 4 per square foot.
Of course, the beauty of square foot gardening is that you can mix and match. Our 4 x 4 foot raised bed (of 16 square feet) could hold 4 square feet of each vegetable listed above. In that case, it would hold ALL of the following:
- 64 carrots (4 square feet)
- 4 peppers plants (4 square feet)
- 36 beets (4 square feet)
- 16 heads of lettuce (4 square feet)
That’s pretty good for just one 4×4 foot raised bed! Raised bed gardening allows you to plant your crops at much closer distances than regular, in-ground planting because it uses better quality soil, and uses the small-scale method of square foot gardening that does not require walking paths between rows.
If you have acres of land you probably wouldn’t want to fill it all with square foot gardens. But, if you have a small area where you’d like to have a vegetable garden, then a square foot garden can help you maximize your space. A square foot garden is for small backyards and urban homesteads. It’s great if you want to have a vegetable garden to feed your family or give your children the opportunity to discover where food comes from. Square foot gardens are not supposed to be stepped on so the soil stays loose for roots to grow. This is why square foot gardens are kept small enough to be able to reach the middle of the garden bed, while still standing, or sitting, outside the bed.
Benefits of a Square Foot Garden
There are many benefits to having a square foot garden. The best, in my opinion, is growing your own food. Anything local and organic is going to be fresh and nutrient-dense. Of course, you can achieve that through other gardening methods as well. But square foot gardening may be the best way for you to achieve that if you have a small space. Square foot gardening helps to increase your yield for small gardens, it can be minimalistic, and it’s easy to maintain and protect.
Square foot gardening is best when paired with raised beds to produce high yields. Because the quality of the soil is generally better when you start with raised beds, including proper drainage, aeration, and nutrients, you can have more prolific harvests. The quality of the soil that you can achieve in raised beds, paired with the quantity planted with square foot gardening, will ultimately produce a high yield for you come harvest time. You can grow a large amount of food in a small space, such as a 4×4′ bed or 4×8′ bed.
Minimalism has been all the rage lately in all areas of life. The whole less is more, don’t be a slave to your possessions bit. And I personally have been moving more towards that to clear my mind and time, and for aesthetics. When it comes to gardening, raised beds and square foot gardening can lean more towards being minimalistic. You can definitely get a bit creative with them, don’t get me wrong. But if you have a small space, square foot gardening may maximize your yield for a small backyard while minimizing anything unnecessary to grow. You can make your beds simplistic and not put too much energy into the setup and maintenance as you would, say, an English garden.
Easy to Maintain and Protect
There are some other benefits to square foot gardening besides high yields and minimalistic requirements. Because square foot gardening means all your plants are close together and in a small area, it makes it easier to take care of and protect. If there’s going to be a frost it’s easy to quickly cover your gardens with a frost blanket. If it’s too hot, you can easily drape a shade cloth over them. Barriers and protection from insects and rodents can also be easier than if everything was scattered around your yard. Weeding can also be easier because you don’t have as large an area to maintain.
Square Foot Garden Guide
Once you decide if square foot gardening is for you, the next thing you’ll want to do is start planning for your square foot garden. To do this you may want to use a reference guide to see how many vegetables you can plant per square foot, and then sketch out your garden layout. To get the most out of your garden you’ll want to take into consideration a few things like soil quality to help your garden grow.
Square Foot Garden Planning
When I plan for my square foot garden I draw my layout on a piece of paper or in a notebook. Lately, I’ve been using a dedicated garden planner to figure out when and where I’ll plant everything in my garden beds and when and track what’s going on in my garden. For square foot gardening, each vegetable will have its own recommended quantity that you should plant per square foot. Quantities per square foot are typically 1, 2, 4, 9, or 16. There are a couple of exceptions where you may want two square feet per plant (gourds and melons).
Square Foot Garden Guide
In order to plan properly, you’ll want to make sure you plant the correct quantities for each square foot. You can generally use the size of the vegetable/plant as a guide. For example, cabbages are pretty big so they should planter one per square foot. Carrots, on the other hand, are rather skinny and can be planted 16 per square foot. The guide below lists common vegetables, herbs, and fruit that you can use in square foot gardens.
There are some produce exceptions that don’t do well with square foot gardening. Those include artichokes, asparagus, and mint. Artichokes and asparagus need room to grow, and mint is rather invasive and really should be planted by itself. Fruit bushes, vines, and trees are also difficult to grow within the square foot gardening method, though I do grow raspberries and blueberries in one of my raised beds. If you don’t see what you want to plant listed above, or in a quick online search, then I would recommend comparing the size of the crop to the ones listed above and testing that out.
Square Foot Garden Tips
To get the most out of your square foot garden, you’ll want to take your soil quality into consideration. Square foot gardening works so well with raised beds because the soil quality is excellent. To make sure your soil quality is up to par you’ll want to be using the right soil mix and you’ll want to make sure you maintain that quality.
Mel Bartholemew, the author of All New Square Foot Gardening, recommends a certain soil mix for a square foot garden.
- 1/3 vermiculite
- 1/3 peat moss
- 1/3 compost
This is actually pretty close to the mix that I used, which was 1/3 compost and 2/3 potting mix (which included peat moss and vermiculite). I’ve also heard people who lean closer to 1/2 compost and 1/2 potting mix for their raised beds and square foot gardens. In addition to starting out with good quality soil, you’ll also want to maintain it by adding additional compost each year and implementing crop rotation and even companion planting.
Do you have a square foot garden? Comment below!