The Basics of Square Foot Gardening

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Even though square foot gardening took only two years to develop, it has tremendous advantages over the old-fashioned single row method which is hundreds of years old. That's because this new system is designed for a new society, a new way of life.

Today, our leisure time is spent away from home, at some place you must drive to. With this dramaticshift in the use of leisure time and the trend toward more working couples, the average American doesn't have the time to tend a large garden, yet we're still being taught to garden by the same old-fashioned, single row method, with an occasional new idea, such as "Plant two rows together to save space."

Most of us don't live out in the country with acres and acres, we don't have tractors in our gardens, nor do we care to devote our time and energy to a large garden. In addition, we don't can and preserve food as we used to. We don't even shop as we did thirty years ago. Today's method of growing the square foot way is as different from single row gardening as today's shopping malls and supermarkets are from old-time corner butcher shops and the local grocery.

When I thought about all this, and realized that we're on the threshold of the electronic age, yet still gardening with an antiquated, inefficient system, I knew I had to find a better way. After a few years of trial and experimentation, the square foot gardening system was born. I think you're going to like it.

A square foot divided in half each way makes four spaces for leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, and kale.

Needs of Plants

I started by analyzing what a plant needs to produce a perfect crop. First, a good, loose, rich soil that drains well yet holds moisture and nutrients for the roots when they need them. Second, adequate growing space. Third, no competition from seedlings, weeds, pests, or tree roots. Fourth, lots of sun and moisture.

The shallow depression around this plant makes watering more effective.

Needs of Gardener

Next I looked at the needs of the home gardener. Again, not many. First, a small but continuous harvest. Second, a garden that is easy to care for, yet attractive. Those two things would satisfy almost everyone. Square foot gardening meets all four of the plants' requirements and provides the home gardener with the two things that he's looking for. Let's see how.

If you're like most gardeners, you start out every spring full of enthusiasm and good intentions. But we all plant too large a garden, too many seeds, too many plants, and too many rows. Then, as the season progresses, the weeds and bugs take over, resulting in an unsightly mess.

This in turn robs our plants of most of the water and nutrients available, causing a further reduction in productivity. We then tramp all over the garden soil, packing it down. We are left with nothing but a messy, weedy patch and a small harvest. What harvest there is comes in spurts — all the lettuce at one time, for example. It's feast or famine.

A startling fact is that most gardeners end up harvestingvery little of what they planted. As the summer wears on, they become dissat— isfied and disinterested in their gardens, despite all their hard work. This happens every year to well over half of the people who start a garden.

Plant Requirements Single Row

Square Foot

Rich, loose, friable soil

Sufficient growing space

No weeds, pests, or tree roots

Adequate sun and moisture

Home Gardener Desires

Manageable but continuous harvest

Carefree and attractive garden

Only after working six years Usually too much

Too much of every—

thing Hard to adjust

Feast or famine Mostly weeds

Perfect the first year Just right No competition Easily provided

Easily controlled

Needs only one hour per week

Needs only one hour per week

A Better Way

That's when I decided there had to be a better way, one more suited to our way of life, a method that produced an attractive garden without a lot of work, one that was so simple and easy to understand that anyone could garden regardless of experience.

First, we would lay the garden out in a pattern of several planting squares, each four feet by four feet. They could be flat or raised. Aisles twelve to twenty-four inches wide would separate them. By reaching in to the planting soil and always walking in the aisles, the gardener would keep the soil loose and friable, so no heavy digging would be necessary after the first time. Since all the growing soil is contained within the growing squares, that soil could be improved while the soil in the aisles would be left unimproved.

By planting in individual square feet within the garden squares, all of the wasted space of single row gardening is eliminated so that a square foot garden takes up only 20 percent of the space of a conventional garden. This major accomplishment eliminated 80 percent of the work and expense of a conventional garden.

Each garden square is divided in half each way, then again in half each way, thus forming sixteen square feet. This can be done by laying down sticks or string, or just marking the soil with a stick. Then each individual square foot is planted, often each with a different crop.

Since each square foot is such a small space, we can afford to improve the original soil all at once by adding peat moss, compost, vermiculite, and well-rotted manure to make it the perfect soil, even if our natural soil is clay, or hard and rocky. If we want to eliminate all the work, we can afford to use a packaged premixed soil. Either of these steps will satisfy the plant's first requirement, to have a perfect soil.

This same square foot, when divided in half each way, forms four six-inch squares, each perfect for a head of leaf lettuce. Thus requirement number two — adequate growing space — is met.

Because our garden takes up so little space, we now have time to pick any weeds as soon as they're seen, or we can easily cover the square bed with a chicken wire cage, if rabbits are a problem. That fulfills requirement number three.

The same applies to requirement number four. It's far easier to find a sunny spot for a small garden, and chances are that spot can be closer to the house, where you'll notice the garden more often and take better care of it. Watering is done by ladling from a bucket, and, because of the saucer-shaped depression around each plant and the large amount of humus in thesoil, your plants will get plenty of moisture.

Continuous Harvest

And what does the home gardener get? Well, you can get your continuous harvest in two ways, by planting every square foot with a different crop or by planting the same crop in succession.

I week

2 weeks

3 weeks

4 weeks

3 weeks

4 weeks

By planting a new square foot of radishes each week, the home gardener can have a weekly supply of 16 radishes.

For example, a square foot of sixteen radishes can be planted every week, resulting in a small but continuous weekly harvest. And, because of the tremendous size reduction in your garden, your labor is greatly reduced. Size is down 80 percent, but labor is down even more, as much as 90 percent. Weeding is quick and easy, and watering becomes fun. You're so close to your plants that you can see any problems when they first develop. And by planting your home garden with lots of square feet of flowers and herbs — yes, mix them in together — you'll have the most attractive garden imaginable. Since it's so easy to care for, it will stay weed-free and be continually productive.

Other Advantages

You'll see other advantages as you work with the square foot system. You won't need yardsticks or fancy measuring devices. When you lay out your garden in four-foot squares, protecting your plants becomes simple. Wire-covered wood frames, four feet square, can be used as cages for protection from pests and the weather. They can be moved about the garden quickly and easily.

It's easy to move even the larger frame for the commercial square foot garden.

Square foot gardening is very practical and easy to adapt to any situation or location, whether it be patio, rooftop, or a garden for the handicapped. For the latter, you can build planter boxes of any size by adding a plywood bottom, then raise them for a gardener confined to a wheelchair or for those who can't bend over. Even children, who usually lose interest in gardening, love the square foot system because long, tedious hours of work aren't necessary.

For sit-down or stand-up gardening, drill drainage holes in a 4X 4-foot plywood sheet, add 1 X 6-inch lumber sides, fill with a rich planting mix.

Well, that's it in a nutshell. The system is so simple that people keep asking me why no one else ever thought of it. All I can say is that the experts and horticulturally trained people must be too close to their subject. Colleges are still teaching single row gardening because they're geared more to farming and commercial agriculture, and everyone assumes that home gardening is just a small-scale version of farming. Besides, most people don't stop to question why we do something if it's always been done that way. They just go along with it because they think it must be correct.

Let's look at square foot gardening in more detail. First we'll review the basic system, then we will see how easily it can be adapted to a productive and profitable cash garden.

When to Work

The first question many ask is when is the best time to prepare the beds. If you are the very organized type of person that plans well ahead, fall is the best time and spring is the worst. That's because you shouldn't work the soil when it's wet and cold. But how many of us are that well organized? When you decide you want a cash garden, you want it right then. So go ahead at any time of the year as long as the soil isn't frozen or so muddy that when you squeeze a handful, water drips out and it's perfect for making mud pies. If it's that bad, cover the squares with clear plastic to let the sun in and keep the rain out, and soon the soil can be worked.

The Garden Layout

A square foot garden is composed of any number of four-foot square planting areas. Each area can be bordered with string, wood, railroad ties, bricks, or anything you can think of. Putting a border around each garden block helps to define it and keeps visitors from walking in the garden soil.

I recommend building wood sides out of one-by-fours or two-by-sixes, almost any size you can get your hands on. It's usually free for the asking, particularly if you're near a construction site. Builders throw out tons of wood. They will be glad to let you take it if you ask. Look for any house construction in your neighborhood. You can also use old lumber, or you can, as a last resort, buy it.

Should it be treated? My answer to this is, "Only if you can afford it." If you can't get pressure-treated lumber, I wouldn't bother to paint it with a preservative.

The Perfect Soil

One of the key elements in the success of your square foot garden is providing the perfect soil mix. If you provide this attractive medium, your plants will grow twice as fast as in the usual garden soil.

The perfect soil is filled with humus, organic material that acts like tiny sponges. Peat moss, vermiculite, and compost and wellrotted manure all do the same job. They allow the soil to drain because they're separated by many open spaces, and yet, because they act like sponges, they hold the moisture, not the water. The moisture is held in each little particle, and the roots of the plants grow around each particle in the soil. When they need moisture, they suck it up. Nutrients as well as moisture are held in these particles of humus, and the plant roots can take them up as they are needed.

This is very different from conventional soil which, if it's sandy, has many open spaces and drains too quickly, with no moisture being retained, or, if it's very clayey, becomes waterlogged. Many soils around the country are clay, and they either become as hard as concrete when dry, and no water can sink into them, or when they finally get saturated, no air spaces are left, so the plant roots suffer again.

The perfect soil is very humusy, loose, and not compacted, well-drained, friable, easily dug, and full of earthworms, a sure sign that the humus content is high. If you have this perfect soil, you'll get ideal growth from your plants. They won't experience water stress, a result of the plants getting too much or too little water, which affects their growth and production, and the taste of the harvest, which is most important for a cash garden.

Creating the Soil

How do you create this perfect soil? The easiest and quickest method is to buy bags of planting mix. Make sure the bag says MIX on it. Don't buy the inexpensive, on-sale potting soil, or black dirt, or something like that.

Blended planting mixes are expensive, but they will last you a lifetime. You can take a cue from the commercial growers. They don't mix their own soil anymore; they buy bags of prepared mix, which is almost a perfect blend. It is composed mostly of peat moss and vermiculite. Some mixes have trace elements and basic fertilizer. They've been adjusted for the correct pH for growing plants. Some have ground-up bark, a little perlite, and occasionally a little bit of sand.

You can improve these soil mixes by adding homemade compost, thus increasing the amount of organic matter. Before you loosen your existing soil, test it for pH, and add lime or sulfur, depending on the results, to bring the pH within the desired 6 to7 range, which is slightly acid. Most vegetables do quite well in that range. Then add a little bit of fertilizer, about one pound of 5-10-5 to each four-by-four-foot area.

Now dig and loosen your existingsoil. How deep? Only as deep as you are comfortable working. Don't go extra deep and hurt your back for the sake of saying you went down twelve inches. The plants will hardly know the difference. They're going to be so happy with the perfect soil mix you're going to add on top that they'll do just fine.

Remove any sticks, stones, or roots, and break up the large clods. Then add a layer of your packaged or homemade soil mix, some three or four inches of it. Turn it under and mix it well with the original soil. Remember to avoid stepping on this soil, even when working it into shape. Always work from the outside of the garden squares. Wood borders help to remind you to stay off the soil.

If your new planting mix is packed in a bag or bale, it's best to moisten it ahead of time. There is nothing worse than very dry, powdery peat moss and vermiculite. It blows all over. So, a day or two before you're going to use it, pokea hole in the bag, insert a hose and let it run slowly for five or ten minutes. The soil will become uniformly moist and easy to handle.


The height of a wooden border around the blocks depends a lot on the quality of your soil. If your soil is terrible — and it seems everyone complains about that — don't even worry about it. Build your garden up, starting from the surface of the ground. Make your wooden border at least six inches high and fill it with the perfect soil mix.

The planting blocks can be laid out in any configuration that fits your yard and landscaping. Keep in mind that you will add vertical frames on the north side for all those tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons you want to grow.

Adding dividers to your four—foot squares to show individual square feet looks nice and helps remind you of the spacing. It's also easier this way to keep the plants in exactly the right place in relation to each other. To divide them, lay down four—foot sticks or staple string to the wooden sides. A better material that won't rot is inexpensive plastic clothesline.


Paths between your squares can be any width, from one foot to three or four feet, depending on the space you have available. The surface of these paths can be anything that fits in with your garden style, the looks of your yard, and your budget. It can be plain soil (run an action hoe over it once a week to eliminate the weeds), a hay mulch, wood chips, or chopped leaves. You can lay down boards and walk on them. Some just leave grass, as long as the aisles are wide enough to be mowed. You can even put in stone to make it very decorative. Keep in mind ease of maintenance and looks before you decide what you want.

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