Do you want to implement square foot gardening in your backyard garden? This blog post will outline the history of square foot gardening, the benefits and drawbacks, and the important information you need to know to get started.
History of Square Foot Gardening
Square foot gardening is a raised bed gardening method that has been around since the late 1970s. It was invented by a retired engineer named Mel Bartholomew. His book “Square Foot Gardening” has sold over a million copies and is America’s bestselling gardening book of all time.
Bartholomew, also an efficiency expert, saw the traditional row-based gardening as being very wasteful for small spaces. Open walkways are needed for machinery and labourers to move through the rows in a large-scale farm but in a home garden, the open walkways between each row are not only a waste of gardening space, it allows opportunistic weeds to gain a foot hold in the garden. Bartholomew theorized he could maximize the amount of food that could be grown in a square foot by focusing on soil, spacing, plant rotation and weed control.
The Square Foot Gardening Concept
The modern method of square foot gardening involves building a six inch (15 cm) deep, raised bed that is divided into a grid of one-foot squares. The most common sizes are 4 feet by 4 feet or 4 feet by 8 feet, but any size will work as long as the gardener can reach across the bed without stepping into it. The bed is filled with weed-free, compost rich soil. A grid is placed on the soil surface to create individual squares. Each square has either 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants in it, depending on the size of the plant. To prevent disturbing the soil around other plants nearby, surplus plants are snipped off at the soil level using scissors instead of being pulled out by hand.
How to Construct and Plant a Square Foot Garden
Location is the most important factor when it comes to constructing any type of vegetable bed. Choose an area that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight. If the goal is to grow vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes, aim for 8-10 hours of sunlight a day. Avoid locations near trees and shrubs that may create shade a few years down the road. Raised beds can be built on any surface, but if deep rooted veggies like carrots or tomatoes are planted, either increase the depth of the bed to 12-18 inches (30-45 cm), or build upon existing soil. Be sure to build the bed close to a water supply to decrease the amount of work involved in watering the garden.
Raised beds can be built from wood (untreated lumber only), milk crates, bricks, stones, or straw bales – the possibilities are endless.
According to an article by North Dakota State University from 2014, each square foot can hold:
- 9 onions, beets, bush beans, bush peas, garlic or spinach
- 16 carrots or radishes
- 4 lettuce, chard, marigolds or kohlrabi
- 1 tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage or corn
- 1 squash, cucumber or melon per 2 square feet
- 6 vining plants, such as beans or peas, on trellises
Benefits of a Square Foot Garden
There are many reasons to switch to square foot gardening over traditional row planting. The following are some of the benefits of square foot gardening:
- the soil is highly friable (loose and crumbly) because no one is standing in the bed, compacting the soil. The soil is often of excellent quality because the gardener has added it to the bed, instead of using ground soil, which may be high in clay, nutrient poor or contaminated. Good soil often equates to healthy crops.
- more plants can be grown in blocks than in rows, leading to higher yields.
- watering is easier and more efficient; no water is lost between rows.
- weeding should be minimal in a raised bed with closely planted crops.
- planting certain plants together can reduce pests in the garden.
- in the spring, the soil in raised beds warms up faster than ground level gardens. Gardeners can start planting earlier in the season with warmer soils.
- the overall look of raised beds with a grid can be much more pleasing to the eye than traditional in ground beds.
- raised beds provide better accessibility to children and gardeners who have difficulty kneeling or bending over for extended periods of time.
- a square foot garden takes up much less room than a traditional garden. This is a plus for those with small backyards, but still want a vegetable garden.
Drawbacks to Square Foot Gardening
So why isn’t everyone using the square foot gardening method? Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages to the method:
- there is a cost to build the beds versus in–ground row gardening. This can be mitigated by using recycled materials such as milk crates, or starting with one bed and adding on as time and money allow.
- a smaller bed (4 ft x 4ft) isn’t ideal for growing spreading plants like pumpkins or larger crops like corn.
- the idealized 6-inch-deep bed in not conducive to growing deep rooted vegetables like carrots, parsnips or potatoes. Raised bed enthusiasts should consider a 12 inch or deeper bed to accommodate those types of vegetables.
- raised beds tend to dry out quicker than in ground beds, meaning the water saved from row gardening may be lost because of increased watering.
- increased plant density may lead to foliar diseases.
- the traditional method, as taught by Mel Bartholomew, uses peat moss in the soil make-up. Using peat moss is not sustainable; harvesting peat moss is notoriously environmentally unfriendly.
Many of these disadvantages are easily remedied, making square foot gardening an excellent choice when it comes to gardening methods. I would highly recommend square foot gardening to novice gardeners, due to the reasonable yields that can be achieved with low overall maintenance needs, a winning combination!
Have you tried square foot gardening in your garden? Email us with your story at
–Contributed by Helen Stephenson, Oakville Community Garden Coordinator
Bartholomew, Mel. 2011. The Creator, Author and Founder of Square Foot Gardening. Square Foot Gardening. [Online]. Available: http://www.melbartholomew.com/the-creator-author-and-founder-of-square-foot-gardening/ [1, Sept. 2020].
Dore, Jeremy. 2010. Planning a Square Foot Vegetable Garden. GrowVeg. [Online]. Available: https://www.growveg.com/guides/planning-a-square-foot-vegetable-garden/ [2, Sept. 2020].
Nick, Jean. 2018. The Pros and Cons of Square Foot Gardening. Good House Keeping. [Online]. Available: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/gardening/a20706747/square-foot-gardening/ [1, Sept. 2020].
Square foot gardening foundation. 2020. History. [Online]. Available: https://squarefootgardening.org/about-us/history/ [1, Sept. 2020].
The Facts of Square Foot Gardening. 2014. North Dakota State University. [Online] Available: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/lawns-gardens-trees/the-facts-of-square-foot-gardening [2, Sept. 2020].