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Square Foot Gardening

Do you want to grow vegetables in your garden but you don’t have a lot of space or you only have one sunny spot or your soil isn’t conducive to growing or you just want a few vegetables for your family? Square foot gardening may be your answer. This approach will save time, work, space, and water. And, you will produce some delicious vegetables for your family. Read this article for more information about why square foot gardening may be for you and how to get started.

Mickey Scullard, Dakota County Master Gardener

Square Foot Gardening

With a short growing season, gardeners want high yields of fresh produce from their vegetable gardens, yet many people have limited space suitable for growing. “Square Foot Gardening” is a method of gardening with the underlying premise of producing a greater variety of vegetables in a small space. It is also intended to make gardening more accessible to a greater number of people. According to the Square Foot Gardening Foundation website, this method is, “estimated to cost 50% less, use 20% less space, 10% of the water, and 2% of the work”. They state there will be almost no weeds and you save time and effort because you don’t have to dig, rototill, or use heavy equipment, and fertilizers aren’t needed. It almost sounds too good to be true! However, many people have used this method successfully for 25 years. 

In the U.S., our standard gardening approach is to plant in rows. This is how many of us have done it for generations, passed down through our families. We have developed tools that support this approach for watering and weeding between the rows, using mulch papers or rototillers small enough for a row. We have row markers, seed tapes, and many other gardening supplies that support the row gardening approach. According to Bartholomew, this approach makes gardening harder than it needs to be with much of the growing space given over to aisles between the plants, resulting in a need to constantly weed those non-growing areas. He also argues that planting in rows results in overplanting. He uses the example of planting cabbages, suggesting few people find it useful to have 30 cabbage heads ripening at the same time. 

Square foot gardening suggests a different approach that carefully spaces plants to efficiently use space, manage the size of the harvest, and allow for successive planting, e.g., growing multiple crops in one growing season. Instead of sowing seeds and then having to thin the plants, this approach suggests placing the seeds at the distance you’d thin the plants. For example, if the seed packet says thin to 6 inches between plants, you can just space your seeds out that distance in all directions within the square. You can put a ‘pinch’ of seeds in each planting site to increase the chances of germination and instead of thinning, snip out the unneeded plants. This lessens the chance of disturbing or weaking the roots of the plant you are keeping. 

Most square foot gardens are 4 feet x 4 feet raised beds. They can be other sizes; however, you will want to make sure you can reach all areas of the bed without stepping on the soil. Stepping on soil compacts it, which makes it more difficult for plants to grow. The soil in the raised bed should be a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. The location of the square foot garden is important, with sufficient sunlight important and access to a water source. Bartholomew suggests placing it near the house so you always have a visual on your growing plants. 

Within the 4 x 4 space (or whatever size bed being used), a grid of 1 foot x 1 foot squares are laid to mark out each plot. In a 4 x 4 bed, you will have 16 squares in which to plant. The number of plants or seeds you grow in each square is dependent on the full size of the vegetable or flower. For example, in the 1 ft x 1 ft square, you could grow one tomato, or four heads of lettuce, or eight bunches of swiss chard, or sixteen carrots, or thirty-two radishes. Once you have harvested the vegetable, a new crop can be planted. Since one of the other premises of Square Foot Gardening is reducing the need for fertilizer, Bartholomew says you only need to add a shovel of compost prior to each new planting. 

Square foot gardening will meet the needs of many gardeners. However, those wanting to produce large harvests for canning, freezing, and other methods of preserving, may not find they get the quantities they want using this method. For those wanting a manageable amount of produce, this may be a great way to help limit the amount grown, although if you grow a zucchini plant, you will probably still need to sneak around after dark ‘bestowing’ your bounty on your neighbors’ doorsteps. 


Square Foot Gardening Foundation: 

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

Square Foot Gardening. Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia

Square foot gardening: a formula for successful intensive gardening. Michigan State University Extension

Photo credits: Master Gardener Program of North Virginia (1), Michigan State Extension (2)

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