Easy square foot gardens offer abundance, variety in small spaces

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'Strawberries and onions newly planted' CC BY-SA 2.0 Korye Logan

‘Strawberries and onions newly planted’ CC BY-SA 2.0 Korye Logan

If you’re new to gardening, you’d likely prefer to start small. Which is why many people begin their gardening experience in containers that they can easily inspect and maintain.

Once you’re confident that you won’t kill off every single plant immediately — especially if you’ve had the pleasure of eating your own fresh-picked produce — you’ll probably want more.

It just happens that way. You’ve been bitten by the gardening bug.

So how to take the next step?

An easy way to increase the impact and satisfaction of tending your own vegetable garden is in a small raised bed, which could be anything from a whisky barrel to an 4×8-foot bed.

One method for planning maximum harvest with minimal work is by creating what’s called a square foot garden. By dividing your raised garden bed into small square sections of 12 inches per side, the garden can be planted intensively. This is appealing to many beginning gardeners because a good square-foot garden plan encourages experimentation with various plants, and clearly lays out a plan for succession planting that provides vegetables throughout the season.

Mel Bartholomew’s 1981 book “Square Foot Gardening” coined the term, which is becoming generic for intensively planted beds. The all-new second edition is available from our affiliate store.

Square foot gardens eventually cover the growing space completely, which has the benefit of crowding out weeds and creating a natural mulch to retain moisture in the soil. They’re also beautiful interspersed with flowering plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

And because a wide variety of crops are planted in close proximity, crop rotation happens naturally, discouraging disease.

'Raised Square Foot Container Gardens' CC BY 2.0 Eat and Live Green

‘Raised Square Foot Container Gardens’ CC BY 2.0 Eat and Live Green

Build your bed

You may be using an existing raised bed, or building one for the occasion. All you really need to get started is a 4×4-foot square, which can be easily built from two 8-foot boards cut in half and screwed together at the corners.

Line your bed with landscaping cloth to keep weeds from coming up underneath, and place your new bed right on top of grass if you like.

Fill the frame with gardening soil made of one-third coarse-grade vermiculite, one-third spagnum peat moss, and one-third blended compost, as Mel Bartholomew suggests. You may also find premixed soils in the garden center of your local home improvement store.

'Companion Planting in Raised Square Foot Container Gardens' CC BY 2.0 Eat and Live Green

‘Companion Planting in Raised Square Foot Container Gardens’ CC BY 2.0 Eat and Live Green

Measure off your one-foot squares using garden twine, or wood or vinyl strips. A woven vinyl duct strap (the type that holds up air ducts) works well and is very durable. You could use a roll of stretch tie (the sort you’d stake a tree sapling with), but over time it will stretch out of shape and need to be replaced.

Plan what to plant

One of the advantages to square foot gardening is the ability to grow a variety of plants in a small space. In just one 4×4-foot bed you can grow up to 16 different plants, although you may want to double up on some vegetables.

The square foot system provides room for 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per square foot. Refer to your seed packet to see how far apart the plants need to be. For a plant requiring 12 inches between plants, you’ll keep just one per square foot grid. If the plants can be 6 inches apart, plant four — one on each quadrant of the square foot. Four-inch spacing allows nine plants per grid, and 3-inch spacing allows 16 plants per grid.

Square foot garden plan software is available from Old Farmers Almanac. Photo: Old Farmers Almanac

Square foot garden plan software is available from GrowVeg.com.

While you may be able to sketch out your square foot garden plan with paper and pencil, I found an online software program that makes it really easy. Draw a rectangle or square the size of your bed, drag and drop images for the types of plants you’d like to grow. The software guides you through spacing and mixing up species to discourage pests, and gives you detailed growing information on each so you don’t end up planning an incompatible garden. This garden planning software from GrowVeg.com is meant for any type of garden, but has a special setting just for square foot gardens. I’m proud to offer it to you as one of our trusted affiliate programs.

Plan your garden so there is space to add new seeds or seedlings throughout the season, so you can harvest for months. You can also usually dig up harvested plants, add a bit of new compost, and reseed the square. Since you’ll switch up your garden plan next year, there’s no worries about replanting the same variety in the same place this season.

Watering your square foot garden

Plan to water your garden regularly, either by hand or by drip irrigation. In arid climate zones you might even take a tip from Mark Sisson at Marks Daily Apple and bury old water bottles at the corners of your interior squares.

Poke a small hole in the bottom of each water bottle with a pin or needle, then bury the bottles with the opening up. Fill the bottles with water, and they’ll keep your garden nice and moist all day.

Water bottle watering is the modern equivalent of the garden oya, which are traditional clay orb carafes that are buried in a garden to water it. Moisture seeps through the ceramic into the soil.

Small oyas suitable for square foot gardens are available from GrowOya.com.

Small oyas suitable for square foot gardens are available from GrowOya. Photo courtesy: Growoya.com

Oyas hold more water and look pretty cool, but they’re usually too big for square foot gardens. GrowOya  (not an affiliate) makes some nice ones, and they even have a small oya suitable for a small bed.

Try square foot gardening and see how you like it. Start small and transfer what you learn to larger beds when you’re ready.

What’s there to lose, but that patch of ugly ground?


Kristi Garrett

Kristi Garrett is the Publisher, Editor and Chief Veggie Enthusiast of Little Green Wheelbarrow. After 16 years in journalism and corporate communications, she figures it's time to get some dirt under her nails.

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