Square foot gardening

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An example of an indoor square foot style garden

Square foot gardening is the practice of dividing the growing area into small square sections (typically 12" on a side, hence the name). The aim is to assist the planning and creating of small but intensively planted gardens. This method is particularly well-suited for beginner gardeners since it encourages experimentation with different plants within a single bed. Square foot gardening is typically done using raised beds and as a result shares many of that approach's methods and benefits, including a strong focus on compost. That in turn makes square foot gardening, and raised beds in general, particularly attractive to gardeners with poor native soil and for those with disabilities. The phrase "square foot gardening" was coined by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 book.


Conventional gardening can require heavy tools to loosen the soil, whereas in square foot gardening methods the soil is typically not walked on and thus not compacted, and it remains loose and more easily workable due to the composition of the recommended soil mixture. Weeds may be easier to remove due to the light soil, and accessing them can be easier as raised beds bring the soil level closer to the gardener.

Using specific soil mixtures within the beds can help to increase water-holding capacities, so that the garden needs less additional water than in systems reliant on the native soil. Water is also spared by hand-watering directly at the plant roots, so that there is very little waste[1] and tender young plants and seedlings are preserved.

Densely planted crops can form a living mulch, and also prevent weeds from establishing or even germinating.

Natural insect repellent methods such as companion planting (i.e. planting marigolds or other naturally pest-repelling plants) become more efficient in a close space, which may reduce the need to use pesticides. The large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily[2]

Since the beds are typically small, making covers or cages to protect plants from pests, cold, or sun is more practical than with larger gardens. To extend the growing season of a square foot garden, a cold/hot frame may be built around the SFG, and by facing the cold/hot frame south, the SFG captures more light and heat during the colder months of spring and winter.

Mel Bartholomew's synopsis[edit]

A basic, 4x4, 16-unit "square-foot garden."
A book about square foot gardening, published by Mel Bartholomew in February 2006

The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in a 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series.[citation needed] A full-length companion DVD, "Square Foot Gardening" (2010), was released in collaboration with Patti Moreno, the "garden girl".

Mel Bartholomew

After retiring and moving to Long Island Mel Bartholomew was eager to start investing time on his new hobby, gardening. He led a community garden project following the typical gardening style by planting in rows. However, as the growing season progressed, Bartholomew was not entirely pleased by the results. He then began to question the way in which gardens are designed because for him, this typical row gardening only seemed to invite weeds, waste space, and cause a lot of frustration.[3][unreliable source] Through many travels Bartholomew concluded that gardening by rows was inspired by our farming system in which room is needed between the rows for machinery. But this wasted space does little in a garden. Through a little bit of garden experimentation Bartholomew discovered that an efficient garden would be one that was easily accessible and used space resourcefully. He wrote of the evolution of his thought process in his book All New Square Foot Gardening.[4]

Mel used a 12’ by 12’ square and used a grid that divided it into 9 squares with equal lengths of 4 feet on each side. Each of these 4’ by 4’ squares were invisibly divided into sixteen one foot squares that were each planted with a different species. However, the size you use in your garden depends on the space that is available and how much you want to grow. From Bartholomew’s experience, it’s shown that the same number of crops can be grown using square foot gardening method as in the conventional rows method but in 20% of the space. He suggests carefully spacing seeds rather than planting the entire seed packet. In this way fewer but stronger plants will grow. In smaller square gardens the grids may simply serve as a way to divide the garden but in larger gardens the grids could be made wide enough to be used as narrow walkways. This would prevent you from having to walk on the soil to reach the plants and compacting the earth.[5]

The original square-foot-gardening method (per Bartholomew) uses a four-sided box with no top or bottom 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 northern row (south in the southern hemisphere) so as not to shade other plants, and supported with lattice or netting.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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. Bartholomew also recommends buying at least five varieties of compost as this will give the soil mix more nutrients as one variety of compost may only be made with one type of material such as sawdust. New compost should be added and mixed in each year. To save money on compost and to recycle, gardeners can make their own compost using vegetable scraps, eggs shells, coffee and tea bags, leaves and grass clippings. Beginning on page 92 of the "All New Square Foot Gardening" book, Bartholomew gives instructions for compost making. For accessibility, raised boxes may have bottoms to sit like tables at a convenient height, with approximately 6" (15 cm) of manufactured soil per square foot. For some plants, such as carrots or asparagus, it is recommended to build areas deeper than 6" in order to facilitate a deeper root requirement.[citation needed]

In Bartholomew's method, the garden space is divided into beds that are easily accessed from every side.[citation needed] A 4 ft × 4 ft (1.2 m × 1.2 m) 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 more narrow one should be used so that no discomfort results from tending the garden. Each of the beds is divided into approximately one foot square units and marked out with sticks, twine, or sturdy slats to ensure that the square foot units remain visible as the garden matures. Bartholomew suggests putting the SFG closer to the house as this will be more convenient for the gardener to attend the SFG during the growing season.[citation needed]

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 overplanting, crowding and thinning plants.[citation needed] Common spacing is one plant per square for larger plants (broccoli, basil, tomato, 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.[citation needed]

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 4 to 6 inches (15 cm) of soil.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Square foot gardening is especially compatible[citation needed] with:


  1. ^ "Irrigation: Drip/Microirrigation". U.S. Geological Survey. 2011-12-22. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  2. ^ Pongsiri, Montira J.; Roman, Joe; Ezenwa, Vanessa O.; Goldberg, Tony L.; Koren, Hillel S.; Newbold, Stephen C.; Ostfeld, Richard S.; Pattanayak, Subhrendu K.; Salkeld, Daniel J. (2009). "Biodiversity Loss Affects Global Disease Ecology" (reprint). BioScience 59 (11): 945–954. doi:10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.6. 
  3. ^ Hatch, Duane (May 2002). "Raised Bed Gardening". Oregon State University: 1–2. 
  4. ^ Bartholomew, Mel (1981). All New Square Foot Gardening Grow More in Less SPace. Tennessee. pp. 11–14. 
  5. ^ Faris, Charlene (April 1986). "Gardening By The Square Foot". Saturday Evening Post. 
Another example of a square foot garden style at West Marina Gardens, East Sussex, England

Additional sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Black&Decker, The Complete Guide to Greenhouses & Garden Projects. Minneapolis, MN: Creative Publishing international, Inc. 2011. pp. 112–115. ISBN 9781589235991. 

External links[edit]