Square Foot Gardening: An Absolutely Fantastic Way to Grow Vegetables

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It can be scary.

Starting your own vegetable garden can be tough.

You need to learn about gardening. You need to prepare the right garden bed. And you need to worry about using the right fertilizer.

But what if you get it wrong and destroy all your plants?

This thought is something that keeps you from starting your garden. It stops you from enjoying the benefits of gardening and the wonderful harvest of your homegrown vegetables.

But there is an awesome method of gardening that makes it ridiculously easy. A way that is revolutionizing home gardening and may be the key to getting rid of world hunger.

So if you’re on the fence about gardening because you think it’s hard, use this method and you’ll be on your way to grow some awesome vegetables.

What is Square Foot Gardening?

It’s easy.

That’s how you define square foot gardening in one word.

You can thank Mel Bartholomew for inventing this method of gardening that makes it easy to start your own vegetable garden.

He started it with the idea to provide experts with a precise but easy way to garden. But found that beginners found it more valuable and used it extensively for growing their own garden.

The basic idea of square foot gardening is that you create a 4×4 square foot box and plant your vegetables in it. The number of seeds to plant per square foot depends on the distance you need to keep between each seed.

If the plants should be 12 inches apart, plant one per square foot. If the plants should be 6 inches apart, plant four per square foot. If the plants should be 4 inches apart, plant nine per square foot. And if the plants should be 3 inches apart, plant sixteen per square foot.

Square foot gardening is that simple. But in that simplicity lies its power.

square foot garden with plants 1

What are the benefits of Square Foot Gardening?

You can grow vegetables with ease

We want gardening to be easy.

We don’t want to spend hours in the garden toiling away with the vegetable plants.

But that’s what you may think about traditional gardening. You need to till the soil, add fertilizer to it, make your compost, water the plants, remove the weeds, and harvest the vegetables when ready.

And you need to do this over a big area of the garden where you planted the vegetables in a single row.

The good thing about square foot gardening is that it reduces the planting area to 20% compared to the traditional single-row gardening.

The only work you need to do once is to create the 4×4 square foot box and add the soil mix to it. Once that is ready you can plant the vegetables, water them when needed, and harvest the vegetables when they are ready.

That’s a lot less work than the traditional single-row gardening and it’s possible for everyone to do even if you have a busy life.

No need to worry about weeds

Weeds can be a pain in the butt.

You don’t want to spend a lot of time plucking weeds in the garden.

But that’s what can happen when you use the traditional single-row gardening method where you plant a single row of vegetables with a lot of space between the rows.

That’s an invitation for a lot of weeds to grow and choke your vegetable plants. The only way out of this is to keep checking the garden for such weeds and pluck them out.

Who wants to end up doing that much work?

The best thing about square foot gardening is it makes optimal use of space. This means the seeds are planted at just the right distance from each other so there is no space for weeds to grow in the 4×4 square foot garden.

You don’t need to spend years on your soil

You might be unlucky.

The soil in your garden could be the worst and not suitable to grow vegetables.

If you want to change the soil, you need to find the problems in it using a soil test. Once you know the results, you will have to amend the soil using fertilizer and compost to make the soil better.

And over a period of a few years, you could have good soil suitable for growing vegetables.

But who has the time for that?

You could move out of the house in a few years and all of your hard work would go to waste.

With square foot gardening, you create a 4×4 square foot box and fill it with the right soil mix. This makes it ready for growing vegetables from day one.

You don’t need to worry about the type of soil in your garden and don’t need to bother amending it for years to make it usable.

It’s easy to work with your vegetable garden

You need to spend time tilling the soil, add fertilizer to it, remove the weeds, water the plants, and harvest the vegetables.

If the garden space is large, you need to spend a lot of time working in the garden. And that is hard work.

That’s exactly what square foot gardening can help make easy.

The gardening space is reduced to 20% of the space you would use with traditional single-row gardening.

That means it’s very easy to work in a square foot garden.

The 4×4 square foot box makes it easy to reach any plant in the square foot without stressing yourself out.

You can plant the small 4×4 box closer to your front door or kitchen which means you will notice it often and take care of it much better than if it would be in a remote corner of your yard.

Your garden will be portable

People move all the time.

It would be a shame if you have a wonderful vegetable garden but need to move.

That’s where square foot gardening can help you because it makes your garden portable.

Since the garden is created with 4×4 foot square boxes that can have a bottom, you can take the garden with you when you move.

If you have a bad back, you can keep your 4×4 box at a height that makes it easy to reach as you tend to the plants.

You could move the 4×4 square foot box to an area that provides the right sunlight to the plants. Or move them inside the garage to protect the plants from freezing weather.

You won’t waste a lot of seeds

In the old-fashioned way of single-row gardening, you dump a lot of seeds in the garden.

Once the plants are growing you pluck some of them so there is sufficient space between the plants you need to grow. This means you end up wasting a lot of seeds.

You won’t have that problem with square foot gardening. That’s because you plant a few seeds in each square foot. Once plants start growing, you keep the best one and cut the ones you don’t need.

That is going to save you a lot of seeds. If you buy a packet of seeds you can grow a few of them and keep the rest in storage. They will last you for years to come as you can plant them every year as needed.

Save your money on fertilizer

Gardening can get expensive.

Especially if you need to amend your soil and get it ready for the plants.

The first thing you would do is to check the pH levels of the soil that checks the acid and alkaline levels of the soil. Then you need to balance the pH level with the help of a fertilizer.

That means you need to spend a lot of money on fertilizer and risk burning your plants in the process.

Square foot gardening can help you save your money on fertilizer. That’s because you don’t need any.

But if you don’t use fertilizer, how do you make your soil ready for the vegetable plants?

The good thing about square foot gardening is you don’t depend on the soil in the ground. You just use the best soil mix for growing vegetables.

But isn’t good soil mix going to be expensive as well?

You need to use the soil mix in the 4×4 square foot that is 20% of the area you would use in traditional single-row gardening. Which means you don’t need to spend a lot of money on such good soil.

If you can make your own compost, you don’t even need to buy the soil mix as the compost will contain sufficient nutrients and minerals to grow your vegetables.

You won’t waste your vegetables

The single-row method of gardening was based on farming. This means that you grow a lot of vegetables and have to harvest them at the same time.

But do you need so many vegetables?

You will have to give away the ones you don’t need or worse throw them away.

That’s not going to happen with square foot gardening.

That’s because you can grow different vegetables in each square foot of the 4×4 box. You can also stagger the vegetables which means they are ready for harvest when you need them and not all at the same time.

What are the principles of Square Foot Gardening?

Principles of square foot gardening

Plant close to the house

Your square foot garden will be small.

So small that it will occupy just 20% space that a regular single-row garden would take.

This means you no longer need to plant the garden far away from the house. You can plant it closer to your front door or kitchen. You will be happy to watch the progress of your plants. And your plants will love you for the care and affection you show for them.

You also don’t need to plant all the boxes in one location. Plant a few of the boxes near your kitchen. And some of them in your front yard. It’s up to you to plant the boxes as you prefer.

Build a layer of soil on top instead of digging

You may dread trying to make your garden soil perfect.

It’s hard work trying to take the bad soil in your garden and change it to something that is good for growing vegetables.

You’ll need to till the garden, test the soil to check for imbalances, put products that reduce the clay or sand in the soil, and wait a few years to get that perfect soil created.

But with square foot gardening, you can start with the perfect soil instead. You don’t need to dig but just add a good soil mix on top of your soil to create the perfect garden bed.

Since the square foot garden is just 20% the size of a single-row garden, it’s easy to create this layer of soil and won’t even cost you a lot.

Use the right soil mix

Your square foot gardening should start with the right soil mix.

But what does that even mean?

A good soil mix should be light so you can work with ease and the plants enjoy growing in it. This soil mix should have the right amount of nutrients and trace elements that plants need. And it should have the right texture so it can hold enough moisture for the plants but drain out the excess.

The best way to get such a soil mix is to use 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 blended compost.

These should be available at your local garden center or hardware store. It’s good to make your own blended compost because that’s organic and environmentally friendly. Blended means it should be a mix of different types of compost.

Using the right soil mix from the start means you can grow vegetables from day one of creating your square foot garden.

If you had a traditional single-row garden, this would be quite expensive because of the size of your garden. But with square foot gardening, you need just 20% of the space which lowers the cost and effort needed for using such a soil mix.

Use a box that is 6 inches deep

In a single-row garden, the soil is poor so plants have to reach deeper to get the nutrients and water. That’s why it is recommended to dig up 12 inches or more of the soil when it comes to single-row gardening.

But with square foot gardening, you start with the best soil mix for your plants. This means they get good nutrients and moisture from the start. So just 6 inches of the soil mix is sufficient for growing vegetables.

You’re reducing the soil mix to half of what you would use with traditional gardening. This helps reduce the cost and effort needed to create your square foot garden.

Don’t use fertilizer

The single-row garden needs a lot of work to make the right bed with the right soil mixed into it.

You need to check the pH level of the soil. This means checking whether the soil is acidic or alkaline. You then need to balance things out using the right kind of fertilizer to bring the pH levels to something you can use for your vegetables.

This means tilling, digging, and putting the fertilizer into the soil. This could be organic or chemical fertilizer based on your choice. But that’s a lot of work and a lot of expense.

With square foot gardening, you don’t need to worry about fertilizer ever. You already did the good work of creating the best soil mix for your garden.

The blended compost is the part of the soil mix that gives your garden the essential nutrients and trace elements the plants need to grow beautiful and strong.

You don’t need to till or dig in the square foot garden. Just need to add a little bit of compost every time the levels go down a little in the soil.

Get easy access to the plants

The square foot garden makes use of a 4×4 foot square box to plant the vegetables.

Restricting your garden to such a box means you are more focused in taking care of the plants.

You don’t need to worry about improving the soil in your garden because you use the best soil mix in the box. You don’t need to worry about digging or tilling the soil as it’s the best soil mix you use.

The 4×4 foot box means it’s easy to access the plants from any side of the box. If you need a larger size garden you can use a 4×8 or 4×12 foot box which still gives you access to all the plants in them.

If you place the box near a wall, you can use a 2 feet wide box so you can still reach the plants easily.

You can make the box from regular wood that you get at a construction site. If you want something that lasts longer you could consider pine, cedar, or fir. You could even build the box from stone or blocks.

If you want to paint the box make sure to paint it just from the outside as the paint should not leach into the soil.

Create comfortable aisles between the boxes

The good thing about square foot gardening is you can easily access your vegetables in the box from all sides.

But you do need to keep good space in the aisles between the boxes. This will help you move a harvest basket or garden cart to the plants when you need it. That’s helpful when you need to check your plants, harvest vegetables, and water the plants.

It’s best to have aisles that are at least 3 or 4 feet wide so you get the best possible mobility in your garden.

You can leave the area in the aisles covered with grass but you do need to be careful of weeds. Or you can cover them up with compost, crushed stone, or wood chips.

Create permanent grids in the box

Square foot gardening is about creating a 4×4 square box that you can plant your vegetables in.

It’s important to create a physical grid of 4×4 in the box because it will help you become clear about what you are planting in them.

The benefits of creating a visual grid include a beautiful garden, planting different vegetables, simplified crop rotation, staggered harvest, different nutrients in each grid, companion planting, and reducing planting time in half.

You could use material like string or twine with nails to create the grid but they would get dirty soon and make the garden look ugly.

It’s better to go with firm and rigid material like wood or plastic that will give a good looking grid with the right separation between the plants.

Don’t waste seeds

The single-row method of gardening can be really wasteful when it comes to seeds.

You take a full packet of seeds and dump it along the single-row. And what do you do when the plants start to sprout? You start thinning them.

This means you pluck out 95% of the plants and only leave one at the right distance from the other plants. What a wasteful thing to do.

You won’t have this problem with square foot gardening because you just need to plant a pinch of seeds at the right distance from each other.

Once the plants start to sprout you can keep the strongest one and snip away the weaker ones. This means your packet of seeds will last you for many years before you need a new one.

Just store the remaining seeds in a safe storage and they will be good for another five years or even more.

Make your garden portable

We know that square foot gardening just needs 20% of the space that single-row gardening would need. And it provides 100% of the harvest from this small space.

If you add a bottom to the square foot garden with drainage holes in them, you can make the garden very portable. You could move the garden around based on your needs.

If you find the 4×4 square foot boxes a bit heavy, you could also consider planting a 3×3, 2×2, or 2×4 box with your plants.

You could move the boxes around for several reasons. This could include bad weather like heavy rain, extreme sun, heavy wind, or thunderstorms. You could move the box around if you are hosting a party or a barbeque where you want to show off your garden.

You could keep the square foot garden on top of a table so that you can work with your plants easily when you have issues with your back.

You could even take your garden with you for showing it at a gardening seminar or at the school maybe for a science fair.

The square foot garden with its flowers and vegetables also makes for a wonderful gift to your friends and family.

Planning a square foot garden

 

The most important part of any garden is to plan the layout. And that’s true with square foot gardening as well.

It’s important to know the number of boxes you’ll need in the garden to meet the vegetable needs of your family. And to place those boxes in the garden you show know a good location where they fit well.

There are three main aspects to consider when doing such planning:

Size

You want your square foot garden to be the right size. They can deceptively grow a ton of vegetables and you don’t want to grow such an excess.

Number of boxes

That is why the first thing you need to consider is the number of boxes you’ll have in your square foot garden.

This number is quite easy to know based on the number of people the vegetable garden is going to feed.

If you think about feeding an adult during the growing season, one 4×4 square foot box will grow enough vegetables for their daily salad. And another 4×4 square foot box will grow enough vegetables for their daily meals.

And if you have a kid then one 3×3 square foot box will grow enough vegetables for their daily salad. And another 4×4 square foot box will grow enough vegetables for their daily meals.

You know kids can grow up fast and soon you’re dealing with teenagers. So it could be good to start with the 4×4 boxes for your kids as well.

One 4×4 square foot box means it has 16 square feet. And one 3×3 square foot box means it has 9 square feet.

So two adults would need 2 x (2 x 16) = 64 square feet. While two kids would need 2 x (2 x 9) = 36 square feet.

So you would need a total growing area of 64 + 36 = 100 square feet

You don’t need to start will the boxes all at once. If it’s your first time gardening, it’s always good to learn a bit and then implement.

So start with a couple of boxes in the spring, learn the basics of square foot gardening and apply them. Once you’re successful with those boxes, you can add more boxes in the summer and autumn as you get more confident of your gardening skills.

Size of the boxes

The main reason for having a 4×4 square foot box is you can tend to your plants from any side.

But that does not mean you cannot have other sizes. You can consider boxes like 4×8 or 4×12 as well. The advantage is your garden will be more efficient as it will use even less space.

But it really depends on whether you like the look of the 4×4 square foot box or don’t mind these other sizes. Don’t go overboard and increase the length to something beyond 4×16 because it will make it harder to move around the box.

And you may end up jumping over the box to reach the other end and accidentally destroy the crops or soil. That’s the very thing square foot gardening wants to avoid.

If your square foot boxes are going to be placed against a wall then you need to use a 4×2 or 4×8 box so you can easily reach the plants. Don’t try to use the 4×4 or 3×3 square box because you will find it difficult to reach the plants and end up damaging the soil by stepping on it.

Size of the aisles

The main idea of square foot gardening is to make it easy to move around the boxes and tend to the plants.

That is why you need to have a good space for the aisles between the boxes.

An aisle less than 3 feet means you need to be really careful of not stepping on your garden. This becomes even narrower once plants grow and cover part of the aisle with their leaves. And if there are several people working in the garden, it can become really inconvenient.

So make your aisles at least 3 feet wide. It’s even better if you can make them 4 feet wide for the walking space you get.

This will help you move around easily in the garden. If you have to carry a garden cart or wheelbarrow in the garden, such a wide aisle will be quite helpful.

Make a sketch

Once you know the number of boxes you need and the size of the boxes you need, you can draw a rough sketch of your garden on paper.

You don’t need to be precise but remember to make the 3-foot aisles a bit smaller than the 4×4 foot boxes.

Location

There are five things to consider when picking a good location for your square foot gardening.

It should be close to the house

The most important part of the location is your square foot garden should be close to the house. This helps because the more you frequent the garden the better you will take care of it. You don’t need to worry about changing into your gardening clothes and carry your tools before you check your garden.

It’s beneficial to be able to see the garden from the house if possible. This makes square foot gardening similar to taking care of your children. You can keep an eye on them as they grow up and do the things they need to do such as blooming, growing leaves, and fruit.

And you’ll be able to notice problems as soon as they start to arise. This will help you take care of the problems immediately and when they are small rather than waiting for days when the damage has already been done.

The spot should get 6 to 8 hours of sunlight

All plants need a good amount of sunlight for them to grow.

You need to check the type of area you have around the house and the amount of sunlight it receives. The amount of sunlight may vary during the day based on the spot. It would also change depending on the season. So spring and fall will have less sunlight compared to summer.

Some plants like fruit and flower ones need a lot of sunlight, about 8 hours every day. They are therefore known as summer plants or warm-weather plants. This includes plants like tomatoes, squash, cucumber, and peppers.

If you don’t have a spot in the garden with good sunlight you will be limited to the plants that grow in shade. This includes leafy and root vegetables such as carrots, beets, spinach, cabbage, and lettuce.

You can grow these shade plants even if your garden gets a good deal of sunlight. But you need to provide some sort of cover on top of the plants to protect them from the direct light. This is easy in square foot gardening because of the small area that it needs for the plants.

There should not be any trees or shrubs nearby

It’s not a good idea to plant the 4×4 foot boxes near trees and shrubs. One reason is that trees and shrubs provide shade that may not be good for your summer plants.

The other reason is that trees and shrubs can sense the good soil in your square foot garden and try to reach it with their roots.

If you don’t have an option and need to plant near trees and shrubs you can consider putting a bottom to your square foot boxes and raising them up. You could place bricks or cement blocks underneath the box and raise it above the ground.

The area should not puddle after rain

If there is water collecting after rain, the roots of plants will drown and die.

The soil mix you use in square foot gardening has good drainage and retains enough moisture but when there is too much water it will absorb all of it.

So try to find an area of the garden where there is no puddle after rain. If you have no choice you need to fill the area with sand to increase the height. Or you need to raise the square foot garden with the help of bricks, stones, or blocks.

There is no need to worry about existing soil

One of the best things about square foot gardening is you don’t need to worry about the condition of your existing garden soil.

With traditional gardening, you need to check the area of your garden with the right soil. You may need to perform soil tests to know what needs improvement and work on those.

But with square foot gardening, you use the best soil mix and don’t care whether the soil of your garden is bad. You could even place the square foot boxes on your patio or pavement without any problems.

Design

Now that you know the size and location of your square foot boxes, it’s time to design your square foot garden.

The most important part is the location of the garden and the design is free for your choice. You could just lay out the garden as you please but make sure that there is plenty of space for the aisles between the boxes which should be 3 or 4 feet at the least.

You might be more disciplined and want your square foot garden in the shape of a square or a rectangle. Or you may prefer an L-shaped or U-shaped garden.

This is one good way to get your family involved where they can create the design plants based on their ideas. Then you can collect all of them and discuss which would be the best one for your garden.

You don’t need to limit yourself just to the square foot boxes. You can even add some chairs, benches, and fountains to the design because you’ll be spending more time enjoying your garden than working on it.

Making your square foot box

Why use a square foot box?

A square foot box will help your garden look neat and tidy. It will also help you organize and simplify your gardening.

You don’t need to worry about your garden soil as the square foot box will hold the best soil mix you have.

When you want to protect your garden from the weather or pests, it’s easy to do when you have a small square foot box.

How to construct the square foot box?

To construct the box, you need some sort of sturdy material that can form a square. This could be wood, stone, cement blocks, or even recycled plastic.

Let’s take a look at how to make your square foot box using wood.

To make your square foot box, it’s best to start working on a hard surface like a driveway or pavement so that the box remains flat and does not become crooked.

The materials you will need are four 4-foot 1×6 inch boards, six 4-foot wood laths, weed cloth, Mel’s mix as the soil mix, decking screws, and a power drill.

Drill three holes in one end of each board so you can join the boards with the help of the decking screws.

Screw the decking screws through the holes overlapping board ends until you have a complete frame.

Before placing the frame in the desired location of your garden, remove the grass and weeds. Then cover the area with weed cloth to the outside dimensions of the frame.

Add the soil mix until it covers the bottom of the frame and water. Do this three times so that the box is full of the soil mix. Then it’s time to add the grid and plants.

If you want you can add a bottom to your square foot box. Have a 3/4 inch plywood sheet that covers the bottom of the box. Flip the box and place the plywood sheet on the bottom of the box.

Drill holes in the plywood sheet per square foot as well as at each corner to allow drainage.

Add the decking screws and attach the plywood to the square foot box. Then flip the box over and your square foot box with the bottom is ready.

How to attach grids to the square foot box?

A square foot garden cannot be called one without the grid that makes it stand out from a typical garden.

To make a grid you can use an inexpensive material such as wood lath that is available at a hardware store. They are 4 feet long so work quite well when making the grid.

Attach the ends of the lath to the square foot box by drilling holes through the lath and the side of the box. Then use screws to fix the grid in place.

The grids intersect with each other in the square foot box. And you can hold them together by inserting a pin or screw at the intersection.

How to protect your square foot box?

You can make a frame and cover it with covering material to protect the plants in your square foot garden.

You can make a U-frame of different sizes to cover the 1, 2, or 4 square feet and another one to cover the entire 16 square feet. You can then place a cover on top to protect the squares from the weather or pests.

Making the frame

The material you use to make the frame could be something as simple as wire fencing or chicken wire. They can be easily bent with a pair of pliers into the shape you want and won’t cost you a lot of money.

You can get the chicken wire that has 1-inch or 2-inch openings. The 1-inch one will take more time to work into a frame and costs a bit more. But it also keeps out more pests and is much stronger.

It’s good to have a chicken wire frame that covers the entire 4×4 square foot box. You can lift the frame, tend to the plants, and then place it back again because it fits exactly on the box.

This will protect your plants from rabbits, birds, extreme sunlight, and strong winds as the season changes.

To make the chicken wire frame, you will need to create a base first. You can do this by taking four pieces of 1×2 inch wood that is 4 feet long and attach them in a box shape.

Then bend the chicken wire into the frame that covers the 4×4 box. You can attach the chicken wire frame to the square foot box with 3/8-inch staples.

Using a cover

You can choose from a variety of material for your covers. This could include plastic covers that protect your plants from the wind, rain, and snow. Or you could use a cloth that can protect your plants from insects that lay eggs in them.

You can cover your plants with the cover but you should keep a part open for air to circulate. You should also be careful to not cover the plants when there is a lot of sunlight that can produce a lot of heat inside the cover.

Using support for plants and vines

There are plants that grow heavy fruits like peppers and eggplants that you need to provide support.

You can do this by building a permanent cage that can provide the required support for such plants. The height of the cage should be based on how tall the plants grow when mature.

You can make the cage that is self-supporting with the sides dug into the soil. Or you can place stakes in the four corners of the square foot box and suspend the wires between them.

Plants that grow on vines such as tomatoes take up a lot of space and can become untidy if not taken care of. This also increases the risk of pests and diseases infesting the tomato plants.

The solution in square foot gardening is to grow such vine plants vertically so that space is saved and there are no problems of pests and diseases from touching the ground.

The easiest way to grow vertically is to attach steel pipes or rods either to the 4×4 square foot box or in the soil outside the box. You can tie the vines to the support with the help of nylon netting that holds the plants well but has enough openings to allow them to breathe. And you can easily reach the fruits through them.

Using the right soil mix for your square foot garden

Right soil mix for square foot garden

The soil mix you use makes or breaks your square foot garden.

This is also known as Mel’s mix because he came up with the perfect soil for your square foot garden.

Use this soil mix and you’ll have the best garden in the neighborhood. But skimp on this and you’ll get frustrated because all the other components of square foot gardening will fall apart.

The Mel’s mix has the right pH level for most plants you grow so you don’t need to worry about using a soil testing kit or sending your soil sample to the extension service for analysis.

You don’t need to worry about changing the composition of your soil to make it more acidic or alkaline based on the pH tests.

You don’t even need to worry about using fertilizer because the compost part of Mel’s mix has the necessary nutrients and trace elements that your plants need to grow well.

Mel’s mix can be expensive but cost-efficient as well because of how wonderful it works for your square foot garden. It saves you effort, time, and money that you would spend trying to amend the soil with the traditional single-row gardening.

What is Mel’s mix?

Mel’s mix is just a mix of one-third compost, one-third peat moss, and one-third vermiculite measured by volume.

The idea behind creating such a mix was to have something inexpensive, easy to prepare, and able to hold enough moisture but drain out the excess.

The compost you can create yourself or buy at a garden center. The peat moss and vermiculite is available at garden centers and even some grocery stores.

Compost

Compost is one-third of the ingredients you need to use in your square foot garden. It is the best component to grow plants because it provides them with the nutrients and trace elements they need to grow.

The best way to get compost is to make your own or you can buy some from the store but with some care.

To make your own compost, you need to decompose plant matter but there are two ways of doing this. If you make a compost pile, dump the required material and keep turning it every few days to allow air in, you use the aerobic method. This is the best way to make compost because it’s clean, fast, and does not smell.

The other way is to just dump the required material in a pit or garbage bag and let it stay there for several days. This is the anaerobic method because you don’t bother to keep the compost pile well-aerated. The problem with this method is it is slow, messy, and produces a very bad smell.

The best type of compost is blended where you mix a variety of plant material to create the compost. You could add things like vegetable and fruit waste, fruit peels, dried leaves, dried grass clippings, coffee grounds, eggshells, poultry manure, and wood chips.

It would be great to have compost ready in a few weeks time. And that is possible if you chop up the ingredients into small pieces and keep turning the compost pile every day.

If you don’t mind a little work you can turn the pile with a rake. But if you don’t want to spend much effort you can invest in a compost tumbler that can be rotated with a handle. Every day rotate the pile so it gets the proper aeration and your compost will be ready in a few weeks.

If you want to save some money you could make the compost in a drum with holes in it for the air to circulate. Just move the drum around by kicking it to mix the ingredients and allow the air to mix in as well.

You can buy compost from a garden center if you’re too lazy to make your own. But the compost is usually from a single source material. This could be wood, cattle, mushroom, cotton, or soybean.

This won’t work well for a square foot garden and you need to mix up different compost to create a blend.

Peat moss

Peat moss is a naturally occurring material that is formed by decomposed plants for millions of years.

The benefit of using peat moss is it makes the soil friable, light, and water retentive. But peat moss is a non-renewable resource and has to be used responsibly.

The square foot gardening method does this well because it just needs 20% of the peat moss that a single-row garden would need. And while a single-row garden would need this every year to amend the soil, you need to use peat moss only once for square foot gardening.

Then your Mel’s mix will take care of the soil for years without needing any more peat moss. What you will need to add is compost which is a renewable resource and easy to make.

Vermiculite

Vermiculite is another material that is naturally available. It is made from mica rock that is ground up and then heated to explode into several pieces.

The idea of using vermiculite is because it makes the soil friable and able to retain good moisture while draining out the excess.

You can get the vermiculite either fine, medium, or coarse but the coarse one is the best for gardening as it retains the most water.

You may find it difficult to get vermiculite and may have to look into several garden centers, stores, and maybe even online.

Both vermiculite and peat moss are in powdered form so when you want to mix them in the soil make sure to use gloves and a painting mask for protection.

Make the right volume of the mix

To make Mel’s mix for your square foot garden, you need to find the volume of the garden first.

Volume = Area x Depth

So if you have one 4×4 square foot box, the area is 16 feet. And if the depth of the box is 6 inches, it is 1/2 a foot. So the volume of your square foot garden is 16 / 2 = 8 cubic feet.

If you have multiple square foot boxes, you’ll need to find the total cubic feet for all the boxes.

Then you need to buy the peat moss and vermiculite based on this volume required for your square foot garden.

Peat moss usually comes in a bale that is 8 cubic feet loose. And vermiculite comes in a bag that is 4 cubic feet. For the compost, you can just make as much volume as you want for use in your square foot garden.

How to mix the soil

Now that you’ve got the necessary ingredients of Mel’s mix it’s time to mix all of them together and add it to your square foot boxes.

You will need at least a 16 x 16 foot tarp on which you can mix the materials.

Make sure to keep the tarp in the garden near the square foot boxes have been placed. It’s good to do this when there’s not much wind so the materials don’t fly out. Use gloves and a painting mask to protect yourself from the dust.

Cut the bags and start dumping the compost, peat moss, and vermiculite in the tarp trying to mix them a little as you add them. Add a light spray of water to keep the dust down. Don’t add too much water to make the mix puddle.

Hold the two ends of the tarp and lift them till the mix is almost at the end of the tarp. Then hold the two other ends and lift them so the mix moves again. Keep doing this on all four sides of the tarp till the ingredients are mixed well.

You can then put Mel’s mix in the square foot box till it reaches the top. Don’t try to compact the mix as it will automatically settle down after some time.

You can then drag the tarp with the remaining mix to the other locations of your square foot boxes and keep adding the mix.

How to plant vegetables in the square foot garden

Now that you’ve done the hard work of planning your square foot garden, creating the square foot box, and adding Mel’s mix in it, it’s time to plant your vegetables.

Planning the harvest

You can imagine the harvest that you want from your square foot garden and plan accordingly.

The vegetables you will harvest fall into the categories of small, medium, large, and extra large.

In one square of the 4×4 square foot box, you can plant one extra large vegetable, four large ones, nine medium ones, and sixteen small ones.

Vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, peppers are considered as extra large because of the space they need to grow. Vegetables like leaf lettuce, swiss chard, and marigold are the large variety. Spinach and beets can be considered as medium variety. And carrots, radishes, and onions are the small variety.

You could also plant the seeds or transplants based on the instructions that come with their packets. For example, if the packet says to plant 3 inches apart, it means you can plant 16 seeds in a square.

square foot garden planting vegetables

Marking the squares to plant the seeds

You don’t need to use precise measurements and be accurate where you put the seeds in the square foot.

The grid that you constructed in the 4×4 square foot box will help you plant the seeds easily.

If you have an extra large plant, you just need to put one seed in the square. You can use your finger to make a hole in the center of the square.

If you have a large plant, you need to put four seeds per square. You can draw lines in the soil with your finger to divide the square into four parts. And then make a hole in the center of each part.

For medium-sized plants, you need to draw two lines horizontally and vertically with your two fingers spread apart to create nine parts. And then make a hole in the center of each part.

For small plants, divide the square into four parts. And then make four holes in each of the parts.

How many vegetables should you plant?

It’s good to plant as many vegetables as you need and not more. You need to be clear on how many vegetables your family will consume.

With square foot gardening, plant different vegetables in each of the squares. This will help you have a good-looking garden. You also get the benefits of companion planting and crop rotation which helps protect your garden from pests and diseases.

This also makes it easy to improve your garden soil as you need to work with each square rather than the entire garden.

You should not plant the entire square foot garden with the same vegetables because you won’t consume so much of the same vegetables.

How to plant the vegetables?

Now you have your 4×4 square foot box ready to plant the vegetables you decided. You can either use seeds or transplants for the planting.

You already know the size of the vegetable you’ll be growing and have made the necessary calculations whether you need to plant one, four, nine, or sixteen plants in each square. And you’ve marked the position in the grid on where each seed or plant will be planted.

Poke a hole in the location where you want to plant the seed as deep as mentioned on the seed packet. If it’s a seedling, make sure the hole is deep and wide enough for the plant.

Pinch two or three seeds from the packet and put it in the hole. Then cover it with Mel’s mix. If it’s a seedling, remove it from its container and place it in the hole. Gently firm the soil around the base of the plant.

Once you’ve planted all the seeds or seedlings, water the square with a watering can till Mel’s mix turns moist.

When should you plant the vegetables?

With square foot gardening, you can plant the vegetables any time of the year including spring, summer, fall, and winter.

The type of vegetables you can plant depends on the season and the needs of your family.

If it’s spring or fall you can grow cool-weather crops but if it’s summer you can only grow the warm-weather ones.

It does not matter when you start because the gardening will give you the experience to start a well-planned square foot garden from the next spring.

You should be able to get at least three vegetable crops every year with square foot gardening.

To begin planting the vegetables you need to know the last frost date of your area. This can be found online or using your local extension services. They have an average last frost date based on the past few years data.

You need to plant the vegetables weeks after the last frost date based on whether you’re planting spring, summer, or fall crops.

It’s OK if your plants don’t do well the first time you plant them because this is a trial and error process of getting it right. Some plants can withstand a lot of cold, heat, or moisture while others can’t. This might even differ every year based on factors out of your control. But keep planting and learning about these things and you’ll get better every year.

Why should you start your own seeds?

The benefit of starting your own seeds is so the plants are ready for planting once the growing season arrives.

This is quite useful for plants that need a long growing season but the area you live in has a very short one.

The variety of seeds available is a lot more than the seedlings you can find at a gardening center. This means you get a great choice of the type and variety of vegetables you want to plant.

It’s also a lot cheaper to buy a packet of seeds and grow the plants instead of buying seedlings from a garden center.

With square foot gardening, you plant a pinch of seeds at a time which means your packet of seeds will last you for many years. You just need to store them well in a cool, dry place such as in a glass container in your refrigerator.

How to maintain the vegetables in your square foot garden

Two little boys and father planting seedlings in vegetable garde

The greatest benefit of square foot gardening is you don’t need to spend a lot of time in maintenance.

Since you’re not walking on top of the soil, there is no problem of compacting the soil. So you don’t need to worry about needing to till the soil so that air and moisture can reach the roots and keep them healthy and growing.

Using Mel’s mix, you provide the most friable soil that retains a good amount of moisture while draining out the excess. This is the best possible soil for your vegetable garden.

The only maintenance you’ll need with square foot gardening is providing structural support to the plants, removing the occasional weeds and pests, and watering the plants.

You don’t need expensive gardening tools such as shovels, rakes, or rototillers because you won’t be messing around with the soil.

What are the tools you’ll need for square foot gardening?

The only three tools you’ll need for square foot gardening are a trowel, a pencil, and a pair of scissors.

You use the trowel when you want to add compost to your squares, or you want to turn Mel’s mix in the square.

The pencil is useful when you want to make holes to put in the seeds or transplant seedlings.

And the scissors are used to harvest the vegetables like beets, lettuce, and swiss chard. You can also use them for pruning dried out blossoms and the extra seedlings that have grown and are not required.

An optional tool you may find useful is a kneeling pad because you’ll be spending a lot of time in the garden on your knees. If your square foot garden is on a table you don’t need one but otherwise, it’s good to have a cheap pair and keep your knees comfortable.

How to take care of weeds in the garden?

Every garden faces the problem of having weeds but with square foot gardening, this will be quite a rare situation.

That’s because you used Mel’s mix that includes compost that was heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and killed the weeds. And contains peat moss and vermiculite that don’t contain any weeds.

You’ll have placed landscape fabric as the base of your square foot box so there’s no chance of weeds growing from the bottom.

The only way of getting weeds in a square foot garden is when they blow in with the wind or birds and pests carry them along.

But it’s really easy to notice a weed in the square foot garden because it will be visible out of place. You’ve planted the seeds either one, four, nine, or sixteen in the box, so anything out of these planted locations will be a weed.

And because Mel’s mix is friable and loose, it’s easy to pluck these weeds with your hands without disturbing the soil or plants.

Protecting your garden from pests and diseases

The good thing about square foot gardening is that it encourages using Mel’s mix rather than the soil from your yard. This itself will protect it from a lot of pests and diseases that the yard soil would be contaminated with.

Square foot gardening also encourages planting different plants in each square. This companion planting discourages pests and disease from infecting your entire garden and limits it to one particular square.

There are different types of pests and diseases that could affect your plants based on the region where you live.

Common problems that affect plants includes animals like rabbits, deer, squirrels, raccoons, and other wildlife. They could also be infested with aphids, Japanese beetles, cabbage worms, slugs, snails, cutworms, tomato hornworms, and mite.

The best thing you can do is contact the local extension service that can help you identify the problem and ways to get rid of them.

Setting up physical barriers

The simplest way to protect your square foot garden from wildlife and small insects is to set up a physical barrier.

You could use a floating cover over your square foot box to prevent insects from laying eggs on your plants. You could place garden netting to protect your plants from wildlife, pets, and even kids.

Pruning the infected plants

If you’ve tried setting up physical barriers but still pests or diseases have infested your plants, the next best thing is to prune that part of the plant.

Some of the insects are slow-moving which means you can pluck them out or spray water and dislodge them into the soil that makes it hard for them to crawl back.

If that does not help you may need to prune parts of the plant or remove the entire plant from the square to protect the others.

Using organic treatments

If your plants are facing pests and diseases even when you’ve tried pruning them, it’s time for some higher level of treatment.

You can try using an organic spray such as a garlic or neem oil spray that a lot of pests don’t like.

Using chemicals

If all else fails and your square foot garden just does not seem to get rid of pests and diseases, you can try to use pesticides.

But we don’t recommend using chemicals in the garden because they are not worth the effects. It would be worth it to prune your square and destroy the plants than to try and use chemicals.

But you have the choice to use them if you feel they are worth it for saving your plants.

Supporting the plants in your square foot garden

Plants that are root vegetables or low-growing vegetables don’t need support and will do fine in the garden.

However, plants that grow tall such as okra, pepper, tomato, and eggplant will need support to grow. The friable soil of a square foot garden does not provide as much stability and so external support is required.

You can use nylon netting over the entire 4×4 square box that is attached to support poles on all four sides of the box.

How to water your square foot garden

With square foot gardening, you don’t have the problem of over watering your plants. Because even if you do so, the excess water will drain out of the friable Mel’s mix. This does mean you may need to water a bit more often than if you would have used soil that retained more water but would damage your plant roots.

But with square foot gardening, you just need to worry about 20 percent of the area than you would with single-row gardening. That makes your work of watering a lot easier and simple.

You don’t end up splashing water all over your plants and getting them infected with some fungal diseases in the process.

Using a cup

It’s good to keep a bucket of water and a cup near your garden so that the sun can warm the water before you use it. The benefit of using warm water is it encourages the plants to grow and it provides them with the nutrients they need.

When you see that the plants in your garden are getting dehydrated, it’s time to add water to the soil. You will need to gain some experience of noticing when your plants need the water.

Ladle a cup of the sun-warmed water, gently lift the lower leaves of the plant, and pour the water into the saucer-shaped depression you’ve created in the soil around the base of the plant.

Watering in such a manner means you don’t need to waste water and it reaches the roots where it is needed. You don’t water the soil of the entire 4×4 square foot box because you don’t have any need to do so. This has the added benefit that it saves water.

Using a hose

You can use a hose to water the plants in your square foot garden. Though you need to be careful to control the force of the water.

You can use one that comes with a spray nozzle so you can place the nozzle at the base of the plant and water it instead of splashing the water all over the plant.

It’s good to keep a part of the hose coiled up in the sun so that the water can get a bit warmed up before you use it in the garden. But make sure to test it on your hand before using to make sure it is warm and not hot.

Using a drip irrigation system

A drip irrigation system can be quite efficient when it comes to watering plants in your square foot garden.

You can place the soaker tubes every 6 inches the length of the box to water all the plants in the square foot.

The only problem with the drip irrigation whether manual or mechanically timed is that you don’t spend as much time in your square foot garden and might tend to ignore it.

Harvesting the vegetables from your square foot garden

harvesting vegetables from the square foot garden

The reason you have the square foot garden is so you can grow vegetables and harvest them for yourself.

That’s the best part of having any garden that produces vegetables as you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

The traditional single-row gardening has the problem that you plant a lot of the same vegetables in the row. As a home gardener, you don’t need to harvest a months supply of the same vegetables.

It’s a lot of work and a waste of the vegetables you harvested.

Square foot garden does not have this problem because you visualize the garden before planting. And you plant only as much you need for 1 or 2 weeks.

If you’ve planted sixteen radishes in one square they will be ready for harvest in about four weeks time. And those will last you for a couple of weeks.

That means you should think about planting another square of radishes only a couple of weeks later than the first square you planted.

This will help save you effort and provide you enough vegetables for yourself without waste.

There are many vegetables that are ready to eat before harvest and you can go around in the garden with your scissors and a salad bowl.

Cut fresh leaves of lettuce, Swiss chard, and beet leaves in your bowl for a fresh salad.

You can even take out some small carrots or radishes a few days before they are ready for harvest and enjoy them.

The good thing about square foot garden is you take only what you need and leave the rest in the garden.

Replanting new vegetables

Once you’ve harvested the vegetables in a square, it’s time to replant new vegetables based on your choice.

You can plant about three times in your square foot garden in a year so there are a lot of choices you have for which vegetables you want. You do need to consider the vegetables based on the season and your needs.

Once you’ve harvested the vegetables from a square, clear any debris, dead leaves, and roots. You can toss them in the compost bin.

Then take a trowel full of home-made compost and add it to the square. Gently turn it over and your square is ready for replanting new vegetables.

Conclusion

It’s time to take the first step.

The wonderful step of starting your own square foot garden.

No more do you have to worry about amending your garden soil. No more do you need to worry about using the right fertilizer. And no more do you need to spend thousands of dollars on expensive gardening equipment.

Square foot gardening makes it easy to grow an awesome vegetable garden with the least bit of effort.

Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. And don’t wait any longer.

Your wonderful gardening life is waiting for you.

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2 thoughts on “Square Foot Gardening: An Absolutely Fantastic Way to Grow Vegetables”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about square foot gardening. Your article includes everything a gardener needs to know about square foot gardening. I especially like the tip about creating a physical grid to give a visual separation of plants. Expertly written! Lots of very helpful information here.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marlene.
      A physical grid is one of the reasons square foot gardening works so well for making things easy. You can take care of each grid separately without getting overwhelmed. Whether it’s planting seeds, looking for pests and disease, or watering, a grid system breaks the garden down into manageable pieces.

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