The square foot garden

Table of Contents

Building a square foot garden is a quick and easy way to begin or expand your garden. The method is also simple to understand, organized, and makes it easy to plan your growing beds.

We built our first square foot gardens in 2009 after reading All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.

The concept of Square Foot Gardening is to use a raised bed filled with a soil blend called Mel’s Mix (1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost from as many sources as you can). The Square Foot Gardening theory involves using a raised bed filled with a soil blend called Mel’s Mix.

The bed is divided into one-foot sections and each square is planted according to the plant spacing described in the book.

We began with three 4×4 square foot beds to the south end of our garden area. Then added three more 4×4 square foot beds the following year. Each year we built, filled, and planted three beds in just one weekend. Here is how we did it:

How to Build a Square Foot Garden:

Step 1: Build the Square Foot Garden Boxes

Our 4×4 square foot garden beds were built using 2×6 boards. We carefully measured and cut the boards to 4-foot lengths, then screwed them together using 6-inch wood screws.

Step 2: Position the Raised Beds

We weed whacked the grass as low to the ground as we could, positioned the boxes, and placed a layer of cardboard underneath the boxes. Cardboard kills the grass and decomposes underneath the soil during the summer helping to eliminate weeds from growing in the new garden beds.

Step 3: Mix Up a Batch of Mel’s Mix

We mixed 8 cubic foot batches of Mel’s Mix (1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 peat) at a time right in our tractor cart. You could also use a tarp. 8 cubic feet is enough mix to fill one 4×4-foot box at 6-inches high. If you are like me and math gives you a headache, here is a nifty soil calculator at Garden Supply.

Step 4: Fill the Beds with Soil Mix

We added the soil mix to the square foot gardens in layers and hosed it down several times as we filled the box. When the boxes were full, we gave them a final soaking so the mix was good and hydrated.

Step 5: Add Your Grids

I used string to divide the beds into one-foot sections. You can also use mini blinds, wooden dowels, or thin strips of wood to make your grid.

Step 6: Plant Your Square Foot Gardens

Each square is planted according to the plant spacing described in the book. Add a trellis to the north side of the bed to grow vining crops such as pole beans, indeterminate tomatoes, or cucumbers. Mulch soil to conserve moisture.

It was easy to build the beds, fill them with soil, and plant according to the charts in the book.

Extend your growing season by growing under protection. Crisscross two PVC pipes and drape the beds with garden fabric or even a painting drop cloth. Just remember to vent on warm days. Here are 13 Quick Growing Vegetables for Your Fall Garden.

The Square Foot Gardening method is worth considering if you are just starting a garden or want to expand quickly with no digging or tilling required. Or you can purchase ready to assemble raised beds on Amazon.

You May Also Like These Gardening Tips:

  • How to Grow a Salsa Garden in your Raised Bed
  • Homemade Seed Mats or Seed Tapes
  • Square Foot Gardening: A Quick and Easy Way to Begin a Garden
  • Garden Planning: Mapping the Garden Beds
  • 5 Ways Organic Mulch Helps Your Garden

Maybe you’ve seen them — those highly organized raised beds divided into perfect squares, each featuring their own variety of plant. They sure are look beautiful, but is this method — known as square foot gardening — effective? Find out what exactly it entails so you can decide if square foot gardening is right for you.

What is square foot gardening?

All New Square Foot Gardening II: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space Hachette/Quarto Publishing $24.99 $12.08 (52% off)

Square foot gardening is a simple method of creating small, orderly, and highly productive kitchen gardens. It was invented by backyard gardener, retired engineer, and efficiency expert Mel Bartholomew as a better way to grow a vegetable garden, and it became a huge hit when he introduced the idea to the gardening public in 1981 in his book Square Foot Gardening.

The basic concept: Create a small garden bed (4 feet by 4 feet or 4 feet by 8 feet are common sizes) and divide it into a grid of 1-foot squares, which you manage individually. Seeds or seedlings of each kind of vegetable are planted in one or more squares, at a density based on plant size (e.g., you’d plant about 16 radish seeds per square, but only one tomato plant). Since there are no paths, there is no wasted space, and the soil in the bed stays loose because you never step on it.

Twenty-five years later Bartholomew updated his methods with a new book, All New Square Foot Gardening, which advocates creating a 6-inch-deep frame or raised bed and filling it with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost to plant in instead of garden soil enriched with compost.

So, now that you have a basic understanding of square foot gardening, let’s move on to some of the benefits and the drawbacks.

The Pros of Square Foot Gardening

duckycards/ Getty

High yields: Intensive planting means you’ll harvest a lot from a small space, so it’s ideal for gardeners with limited room.

Fast set-up: Square foot gardening is a quick way to start a new garden (especially with the updated method using a raised bed filled with soilless mix), so it’s great for first-timers. You can place your raised bed anywhere — even over grass or pavement — allowing you to build, fill, and start planting in a just few hours! Even if you work in your existing soil, you only need to prepare the planting areas, not the paths, so it takes a lot less time and effort.

Minimal regular maintenance: Since the garden is small and you have only a few specific tasks to do on any given day, you only need to invest a few minutes planting, maintaining, and harvesting at any one a time.

Less weeding: If you build a square foot garden filled with soilless mix, there will be few if any seeds in it (depending on the compost you use) and thus no weeds to pull for the first season. Weeds will, however, become more common over time as seeds blow or fall into the bed.

The Cons of Square Foot Gardening

duckycardsGetty Images

High initial cost: The expense of building even a small raised bed and filling it with soilless mix adds up quickly. If you do have good soil to work with, stick with the original method and form in-ground garden beds for much less money.

Cramped beds: Small square foot garden beds aren’t ideal for crops that take up a lot of room, such as vining winter squash, asparagus, or a big planting of sweet corn. A smart approach: Grow herbs and more compact veggies such as carrots and radishes in your square foot garden and relegate large plants or plantings to a traditional rowed vegetable garden.

Insufficient depth: The 6-inch-deep beds recommended in Bartholomew’s updated book are too shallow for most plants, especially if their roots can’t extend into the soil below. The solution: If you’re gardening on top of pavement, make your frame at least 12 inches deep and fill it to the top with growing mix. If you’re gardening on top of soil, use a layer of cardboard instead of weed-block fabric under the bed; the cardboard will slowly break down and allow veggie roots to extend into the soil below.

Lots of watering: The soil in raised beds tends to dry out faster and is harder to re-wet if it dries out, so you may find yourself watering every day in the heat of the summer to keep your plants growing well. To combat this, consider installing soaker hoses or some other type of drip irrigation system. Covering the surface of the soil with an organic mulch such as grass clippings or torn newspaper also conserves moisture.

More frequent maintenance : Because a square foot garden is planted so densely, weeds are a huge pain to remove once their roots get established. Your best bet: Remove when they’re still tiny seedlings. This may require weeding a few times a week, but it beats wrestling with a full-grown monster. If you prefer hoeing a few times a season over hand weeding, stick with a more conventional vegetable garden design with long, wide-spaced rows.

The Bottom Line

Square foot gardening is a solid gardening method for any home gardener, especially beginners and people who are short on space. The drawbacks (while real) all have fairly simple solutions. Of course, it’s all about your individual needs and preferences, but if it interests you, we say give it a whirl!

Why You Should Make Your Own Organic Soil?

Many people think that you can fill a raised bed with straight up dirt, or compost. Sure you could do this, but you don’t have the necessary ingredients in the soil to nourish your plants, retain moisture and to allow for proper drainage.

The recipe I am sharing today is the ONLY recipe that I have ever used and I have been very successful with my gardens!

All the essential nutrients are in the soil recipe and you most likely will never need to feed your plants or fertilize them because all the nutrients are right in the soil. Pretty cool right? In addition to this, I rarely have any problems with pest or any diseases harming the plants.

So yes, I will say up front that there are a few extra steps in creating the perfect soil, but it is worth the effort! Once you create this soil, your plants will do amazing and there will be very little maintenance to keeping this soil for years to come.

The Art of Gardening and Square Foot Gardening

So as I stated above, I have always used this recipe for garden soil in my gardens. It has never failed me so why change it right. I adapted this recipe slightly from the Mel Bartholomew book:

All New Square Foot Gardening

If you do not have this book, I highly recommend it! It is hands down one of the best gardening book that I have ever bought!

The Ultimate Bundle ~ A Great Garden Resource

In addition to this book, I also learned so much from The Art of Gardening: Building Your Soil. This book taught me a whole lot about soil and how it is the KEY to a successful garden!

I strongly believe that a quality soil recipe makes all the difference in a garden. Lets figure out how much soil you will need for your garden beds.

How Much Organic Garden Soil Do I Need To Make?

The first step is to figure out how much garden soil you need for your raised bed. You can easily calculate your soil needs with a soil calculator here:

Calculate Your Soil Needs With a Soil Calculator

Remember, compost, peat moss and vermiculite (the 3 components of this recipe) are measured in cubic feet or cubic yards, so you will be given both of those numbers with the calculations.

In my example (shown below), I am calculating a 4’x4′ (or 48″x48″) raised bed that is 6″ deep.

As you can see in the picture above, for my 4’x4′ bed that is 6″ deep, I will need 8 cubic feet of soil. The number below that (cubic yards) is usually beneficial for filling larger beds and for buying soil for bulk delivery.

So now we know how much soil we need to fill this raised bed. We will need this information for the recipe.

How To Make Organic Garden Soil For Raised Beds

There are 3 components that make up good soil. In the picture below you can see the differences of the 3 ingredients.

For this recipe you will need the following:

  • 1/3 peat moss (measured by cubic ft or cubic yd) ~ Peat moss helps lighten the soil up a bit and makes the soil more water retentive. Compost can be very dense and by adding peat moss, you lighten up the density which helps the root systems of the plants to grow more evenly throughout the soil. This is instrumental in creating a healthy plant.
  • 1/3 coarse vermiculite (measured by cubic ft or cubic yd) ~ Vermiculite is mica rocks that have been minded out of the ground and then have been heated to explode into very little pieces. These little rocks have a lot of nooks and crannies where the water can be absorbed. It also allows the soil to drain properly and is very important to include in this soil. If you can not find vermiculite, you can use perlite, but I prefer vermiculite…it is a much better product to work with. *(See additional note below)
  • 1/3 compost (measured by cubic ft or cubic yd)~ Compost provides the essential nutrients for your plants to grow and flourish. Compost is food for your plants. We buy ours from a local source in bulk, it is so much cheaper. We got a whole pick up truck full for right around $40! Compost is expensive by the bag, so if you are filling a large bed, or even a smaller bed, it is wise to buy it from a local source.

*Note ~ Because I know it will be brought up, I am going to mention that many years ago there was a plant in Montana that was shut down because their vermiculite had traces of asbestos. Now this is very serious, yes and every now and then the story pops up again, like it is new and just happened. This was a very serious situation indeed, but as a result vermiculite is screened for asbestos and is monitored on every level and also has a asbestos free stamp on the bags. It is safe to use.

Back To Our Example Project

So lets use my example above to show you how this works. I needed 8 cubic feet of soil as shown in the soil calculator above. 8 cubic feet divided by 3 (we need 1/3 of each for the recipe) will give us 2.66 cubic feet of each.

So we will need for my example:

  • 2.66 cubic ft peat moss
  • 2.66 cubic ft vermiculite
  • 2.66 cubic ft compost

Now follow the 3 easy steps below and you now know how to make garden soil for raised beds! Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be exact measurements, just eyeball it.

Now follow these easy 3 steps

Now that you have all the ingredients, follow these 3 easy steps and you will know how to make garden soil for raised beds!

  1. Put your 3 components into a tarp and mix them together really well with a rake or shovel. You might want to wear a mask because the vermiculite and peat moss can be dusty, and it is best to wear a mask. Once everything is well mixed, shovel the mixture into your raised bed.
  2. Next step is to water your new garden soil. Do not skip this step. This can be dusty and this will help eliminate the dust and weigh the soil down a bit.
  3. The final step is to allow the soil to settle for 2 weeks. The soil will settle about 1-2 inches below where you originally piled the soil in so be sure to add a little extra to compensate for settling.

What If You Bought In Bulk & Can’t Measure Your Soil?

So as I mentioned above, I buy my compost in bulk and use it throughout the season. If you bought your compost in bulk and are unable to measure it by cubic feet or cubic yards, you can measure your formula this way.

  • 3 parts compost
  • 1 part peat moss
  • 1 part vermiculite

Remember, compost is very heavy and weighs differently in volume, so this is why the formula is different. If you are able, it is best to follow the recipe by cubic feet or cubic yards, but if you can not, then follow this method.

I just used a large green bucket and filled it up 3 times with compost, poured it into my raised bed, and then added 1 large green bucket of peat moss and 1 large green bucket of vermiculite. Then I just mixed it up right in my raised bed. Worked beautifully!

Here Is The Finished Product

Here is what my 4’x4′ square foot gardening bed looks like when it is done and ready to go! I had a few plants already growing when I shot this photo, but you can get an idea what it looks like with the soil in the bed.

Square Foot Gardening

Written by: Doug
Published: 20th December 2018

Last Updated on 30th December 2019

Square Foot Gardening

Occasionally we get asked the question: “What can you do with a square foot of land?”

That question is the inspiration behind this article on Square Foot Gardening.

Here you will discover exactly what square foot gardening entails. We will explore this method of gardening, look into the pros and cons of such a system, and delve into the details of planning and creating such a garden step by step.

Intrigued? Read on to learn more.

What is Square Foot Gardening?

The phrase ‘square foot gardening’ was coined by Mel Bartholomew in his book of the same name, published in 1981. A retired engineer, Bartholomew brought his orderly mind to bear on the oft chaotic world of kitchen gardens.

He designed a ‘square foot gardening’ system in which more food could be grown in less space.

In this system, raised beds that are 4ft square are created. These beds are then separated into sixteen one foot squares, forming a grid. Each of the squares is then planted with a different crop. The number of plants in each square depending on the size and requirements of the crop planted in each.

Once each square foot is harvested, another, different crop can be planted within it, allowing for a continual harvest.

In 2006, Bartholomew updated the concept of square foot gardening in his book, ‘All New Square Foot Gardening’. In this book, he advocated the creating of raised beds just 6 inches in depth, filled with a mix of equal parts compost, peat moss and vermiculite.

After extensive research, he concluded that tweaking the original system in this way gave the best results. This method also eliminated the need for artificial fertilisers, since each square is replenished with compost each time a square is replanted.

The Pros & Cons of Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening Grid

Like almost any gardening system that has been developed over the years, square foot gardening has both pros and cons. In order to determine whether square foot gardening (or some elements thereof) are right for you, it is important to examine these pros and cons in relation to your own garden, gardening style, preferences and requirements.

The pros of square foot gardening:

  • Square foot gardening can give high yields in small spaces – far more food can be grown in this way than can be grown in a comparable space given over to traditional rows.
  • Growing a variety of different crops close together is a form of companion planting, which increases biodiversity and helps to reduce the threat posed by pests and disease.
  • Intensive planting minimises bare soil and acts like a cover crop to protect the important soil ecosystem that lies below.
  • Closely planted crops also help to minimise the number of weeds that germinate and establish in the beds.
  • The neat, raised beds of square foot gardening make it easier to garden if you are getting on in years or have mobility problems.
  • The orderly nature of the system also makes it easier to stay on top of things and create a good plan for the whole of the gardening year.
  • The soil-free growing mix proposed by Bartholomew further reduces weed problems and ensures high fertility in the raised beds.
  • The raised beds and the garden system are easy to set up, even for complete beginners.
  • The small beds are easier to cover with cloches, cages or cold frames to protect your plants than more sprawling and less intensively managed beds.

The cons of square foot gardening:

  • The small beds are not ideal for crops that take up a lot of space such as pumpkins and squash, sweet corn or perennials like asparagus. (Though these can be grown elsewhere in your garden, leaving the square foot garden beds for annual vegetables with a more compact growing habit.)
  • If placed above hardstanding rather than lawn or soil, 6 inch beds as suggested in Bartholomew’s 2006 book will be too shallow for the roots of many crops. (If raised beds are on a solid surface, they should be at least 12 inches deep.)
  • The growing mix described in this book is, unfortunately, undesirable from a sustainability and eco-friendly point of view. Peat moss is not usually sourced sustainably, and vermiculite also comes at a high carbon cost. (Fortunately, greener alternative options for filling your square foot beds are available. These will be discussed in more depth below.)
  • Square foot beds (like all raised beds) require more water, as they will dry out more quickly than in in-ground growing growing areas.
  • While fewer weeds develop in square foot gardens, those that do establish are harder and more time consuming to remove, as you will have to weed little and often, by hand, rather than going between traditional rows with a hoe.

It is important to remember, when setting up a new growing area in your garden, that you do not need to follow one system religiously. While there are many things to recommend a square foot garden, it may not be right for you.

Some elements of the system may work for you while others need to be changed or adjusted to suit your individual needs. Be open to altering the ideas as you learn and garden, and you will end up with a garden that is best suited to you.

Planning a Square Foot Garden

The simple and methodical approach of square foot gardening makes it appealing to beginners, and easy for anyone to get started with. The first thing to decide is where to locate your new garden bed or beds.

Think about when and where sunlight enters your garden, which areas are in shade for which parts of the day throughout the year, the prevailing wind direction and how sheltered or exposed a potential location will be.

In a temperate climate, you will usually want to choose a spot that is as sunny and sheltered as possible, while shade may be desirable in hotter, drier climes.

Consider the location of other features in your garden – a compost heap, rainwater harvesting system or outside tap and perhaps the shed where tools are kept. Will it be quick and easy for you to move between these points?

Think also about how close your new raised bed should be to your home, and how visible it will be as you go about your daily life. A square foot garden requires regular visits and maintenance – the more easily you can reach it, and the more visible it is, the more likely you are to keep on top of things.

Another resource that is worth checking out is the Square Foot Gardening Foundation website

Creating Your Raised Square Foot Garden Bed

Once you have decided where to position your new square foot garden bed or beds, it is necessary to determine how large or small each one will be. As long as the beds are a whole number of square feet in length and width, and as long as you can easily reach each square on the grid without standing on the beds, you can make them as large or as small as you wish.

In a tiny space, you may only be able to accommodate a raised bed of 2ft by 4ft, for example, while in larger gardens you can create one or more larger beds with 16 or more square feet within them.

In larger gardens, it is usually better to have a number of smaller raised beds rather than one big one, as these will be easier to reach and tend, and will also maximise edge – the most productive part of any ecosystem.

What You Need

While there are a number of square foot garden kits that you can buy to make the edges of your raised beds, you can also consider keeping costs down by making your own.

There are a number of different materials that you could use – reclaimed wood from old pallets is a popular choice, though you could also use bricks, reclaimed concrete blocks, stones or even logs from your garden or from local woodland.

The grids to demarcate the squares on the surface of your raised beds can also be made from natural or reclaimed materials – bamboo canes, for example, straight branches pruned from garden trees, natural twine, or perhaps reclaimed plumbing pipes.

You may also, at this stage, wish to consider creating supports for climbing plants on one side of each bed, and may also like to consider frames over the beds to support netting to protect plants or covers to extend the growing season.

In order to stop grass and weeds from growing up through your raised beds, some people advocate the placement of a plastic weed membrane below each bed. A more sustainable and eco-friendly option is to suppress weeds below your new growing areas with a thick layer of cardboard.

Another benefit of this option is that the cardboard will break down over time and allow the roots of your crops to pass through into the soil below.

Filling Your Square Foot Garden Bed

Once you have created your raised square foot garden bed structures, it is time to fill them with your growing medium. You may choose to follow Bartholomew’s book to the letter and use a soil-free mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost as he suggests.

If you would like a more eco-friendly and sustainable soil-free mix, you could consider using coconut coir as an alternative to peat moss and ‘pine fines’, finely ground pine bark, as an alternative for the water-retentive vermiculite.

You can buy your compost, but it is far more cost effective and sustainable to make your own. If you do not already make your own compost from vegetable scraps and other garden and kitchen waste, now is the time to get started. Make sure you have started your own composting system before you begin to plant, even if you have to buy in compost to get started.

The Lasagna Method

Another thing to consider is building up your raised beds for square foot gardening using the ‘lasagna’ method. This method involves, basically, composting materials not in a separate heap but in the raised beds themselves.

Create thin layers of ‘brown’ carbon rich material (such as straw, cardboard, brown leaves, chipped wood/ bark), and ‘green’ nitrogen rich materials (such as grass clippings and fruit and vegetable scraps). Build these up to the required height and then top the beds up with a top layer of good quality compost.

Planting Your Square Foot Garden

Square Foot Gardening: Planting

As soon as the requisite season arrives, you can start sowing or planting seedlings into your square foot beds. The key when planting is to make sure that you are placing the right number of each type of crop into each square foot of the garden. Here is a brief guide to the spacing requirements for many of the most common crops:

One Plant Per Square Foot

The largest plants that can easily be included in a square foot gardening system will require one whole square foot each. These include brassica such as cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts & cauliflower, geraniums, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs such as coriander, rosemary, oregano, sage and mint.

Four Plants Per Square Foot

Some plants in this category could grow to full size if planted one per square foot, but can be more intensively planted if you harvest them as they grow, which will keep them in check.

These plants include leaf lettuce, chard, Swiss chard, parsley, basil and a number of other leafy greens. Dwarf marigolds, an incredibly useful companion plant, can also be spaced at four per square foot.

Nine Plants Per Square Foot

Crops in this category include bush beans, peas, beetroots, large turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi, bok choi and spinach. Each of your seeds or seedlings will be placed at four inches apart.

Sixteen Plants Per Square Foot

Carrots, radishes, onions, garlic and spring onions are all examples of plants that can be grown intensively at a spacing of 3 inches, in blocks of four by four.

When planning your planting scheme, take into account how much of each crop you wish to grow and the requirements of your own household. You will also need to consider the requirements of the plants in question, and whether each crop you choose will do well when planted next to its neighbours.

Companion Planting

Companion planting is an inexact science and we know surprisingly little about how different plants interact with one another. That said, it is clear that plants with similar requirements will do well when grouped together.

For example, it is best not to place Mediterranean herbs, with their lower water requirements, next to especially thirsty plants that you will have to water often.

Similarly, it is easy to see how certain plants can help others by improving their environment. For example – taller plants used to provide mid-summer shade for neighbouring spinach or lettuce, helping reduce the risk that it will bolt in hot weather.

Some plants can help those in neighbouring squares by gathering nutrients. Dynamic accumulators such as peas and beans fix nitrogen from the air, while deep rooted plants like borage or yarrow can reach right down deep into the soil below your raised bed and bring nutrients back up. When leaves from these plants are used as a mulch around your crops, those nutrients are returned to the soil surface where they can then be taken up by neighbouring plants.

Other plants can help reduce the incidence of pests or disease in their neighbours. Marigolds are a useful ‘nurse’ plant to place throughout your square foot garden. Aromatic herbs and flowers can often help neighbours by repelling certain pests, or attracting their predators. Some also act as sacrificial trap crops, keeping pests away from neighbouring plants.

Thinking about companion planting can help you to design square foot garden beds with beneficial mixtures of plants which can aid one another and create healthy, diverse eco-systems. These collections of plants are sometimes called polycultures.

Crop Rotation

Another thing to think about when planning and planting your new growing areas is that certain plants should not be grown in the same location year after year. Certain plant families, such as brassicas, and the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers etc…) should be rotated between different square feet/ beds on a three or four year cycle.

Legumes such as peas and beans are also rotated, to allow them to provide nitrogen to different areas of the garden, and are usually followed by a nitrogen-hungry, leafy crop. To keep things simple, square foot gardeners often choose to have three or four beds in their gardens, so they can practice crop rotation for those crops for which it is important.

Maintaining Your Square Foot Garden

In a square foot garden, there is an emphasis on making the most of time as well as space. Bare soil is kept to a minimum and as soon as one crop is harvested, another one will take its place. This intensive use of the growing area means that it is vitally important to make sure that you replenish the nutrients that have been used and maintain the fertility of your garden.

Adding compost each time you harvest a square, and adding mulches of compost or other organic materials between plants can help to make sure soil health is maintained over time. You can also make organic liquid feeds from compost, weeds etc. to give hungry plants a boost without harming wildlife or the planet.

As well as maintaining fertility, square foot gardeners will have to keep on top of weeds, weeding little yet often, and water the raised beds well during any dry spells. They will have to keep an eye out for pests and disease, and harvest on an ongoing basis throughout the growing season.

Take care of your square foot garden and it will continue to take care of you, feeding you and your family now and in the years to come.


About the author

Written by: Doug

*This post may contain affiliate links, which means as an Amazon Associate I may receive a small percentage from qualifying purchases if you make a purchase using the links, at no additional cost to you*

Do you want to start a garden but are overwhelmed about how to start? Let me tell you about a system I have been using for the past few seasons called square foot gardening. I think this is a great way to garden for someone that is just getting started (or someone that has been doing it forever!). If you are a beginning gardener, click here to check out my 7 beginner gardening mistakes to avoid. Square Foot Gardening is high yield in a small, easy to care for plot.

Let me start off by saying right off the bat that this method is amazing, but way more involved than one blog post could cover. I will cover the basics here but I HIGHLY recommend getting the book “All New Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew & the Square Foot Gardening Foundation. They have released a few different editions over the years, each with new info or ways to make your square foot garden better! Mel invented the system in the 70s and the foundation has been carrying on his good work since his passing in 2016. They really are the experts on all things Square Foot Gardening!

It is basically just how it sounds. If you have a 4×8 garden bed, that is 32 square feet, and you’ll have 32 “boxes” to plant in. Most people actually put down a grid using either twine, sticks or pvc piping, or you can just imagine it’s there and plant accordingly. Square foot gardening plants rows much closer together than in traditional gardening. The upside to close planting is it tends to squeeze out weeds and of course you get more vegetables in a smaller space. So why doesn’t everyone do this? It does require some maintenance. You have to water a little more frequently, you need to manage the soil as all those plants can use up nutrients quicker than row gardens, and you need to pay attention to what kind of plants you are planting because not all plants play well together. Square foot gardening is an efficient way for virtually everyone to be able to grow their own food.

Raised beds or “in the ground” planting?

The answer to this is how good is your soil? My garden is set up for raised beds. Cape Cod is a lovely place to live but we are basically a big sand bar that sticks out into the ocean. Unfortunately that doesn’t make for the best farming soil. I tried for many years with conventional gardening with so-so results. Amending & tilling soil, digging out endless rocks and never ending weeds. Finally, I gave up, switched over to raised beds and never looked back. The best part about having raised beds is having total control over soil quality. Twice a year I add compost from my compost bin to replenish the nutrients spent on growing and to replace any soil that washed away or compacted down. Raised beds cut down on the amount of weeds growing, but also makes it easier to pull the weeds that do grow. You don’t have to contend with rocks or stray tree roots. It’s easy to add cover in winter so the soil is warmer and ready to go sooner in spring, or even add a cold frame on top for winter gardening. Most people do square foot gardening in raised beds, but you certainly can use this method with conventional “in the ground” gardening.

How much garden do I need?

This depends on a lot of things. How many people are you feeding? Do you want enough just for seasonal fresh eating? Do you want enough for canning, preserving, etc? Do you want enough to share with friends, family, or to sell at farmer’s market? Will you be conventional row gardening or square foot gardening? But most of all, how much space do you have?

Most people seem to agree that for a conventional row garden (a row of corn, a row of lettuce, a row of tomatoes…) 100 square feet per person is needed for a fresh eating garden, and about 200 square feet per person if you want to can food for year round use. For square foot gardening you need as little as 16 square feet per person for fresh eating and about 32 square feet per person to have enough for preserving!

Finding the best location

Go out into your yard at several times during the day and note where the sun is and how it moves across your yard. What areas have the most sun? Ideally you will have an area that receives at least 6-8 hours of strong sunlight. Where is your water source located? Of course it’s great if that works out to also be a sunny spot, but you can work around it. I have one outdoor spigot, and unfortunately it is on the other side of the yard from my garden. The spigot is on the north west side of my house, the sun blocked almost all day by huge trees. So we have run a looooong hose from the spigot to the garden. Is it perfect? No. Someday I’m hoping to have a plumber come out and add another spigot, but for years this is has worked for me.

Take it Slow

Every year for the last several years I have added a new raised bed or two as finances allow. The nice part about growing your garden slowly is that it allows your garden to grow with your gardening knowledge. In 2009 I finally gave up on growing plants in the ground and built my first raised bed. That first year with raised beds I had about 32 square feet of raised garden bed space with a little bit of in the ground space. After this year’s expansions I will have 225 square feet of raised bed space plus an additional 400 square feet of so of conventional garden space for fruit trees & berry bushes. If I started out with a garden this size I would have given up the first year! Starting slowly with just a bed or two is the best way to see how much garden you need and how much you have the time and desire to maintain. That said, before you start construction have an eye on future expansion. Choose an area of your yard that hopefully would allow for future expansion if you so choose. When placing those first garden beds, have a plan for where future beds would go. This is something I learned from experience! You can tell the first few raised beds I added, they are odd sizes and not in the grid the new beds are in. When placing those beds make sure you leave space around all the sides for you to tend the garden. I like to leave about 2 feet between beds.

first raised bed – 2009 garden

2015 garden – 8 raised beds

Making a raised bed

I have several different size beds in my garden, the smallest 3 x 3 and the largest 4 x 8. All the recent ones I have built are 4 x 8 and I like this size best. I can move along the long side weeding, harvesting or planting and only have to reach in 2 feet. It’s manageable. It also allows for an efficient use of materials when building the bed. I hate waste! I use 8 foot long 2x4s or 2x3s. It takes 12 of them to make a bed which puts construction around $25. Pine is an inexpensive wood and like everything, you get what you pay for. The best thing to use is cedar if you can afford it. It resists rot the longest and repels insects. It is also very pricey. The pine will rot eventually, but my oldest bed is going on 7 years and still going. There is some rot around the edges but it’s still holding dirt and that’s all they need to do. Other material choices would be metal, concrete blocks or bricks, plastic or even rubber tires. The one thing you don’t want to use is old pressure treated wood. Pressure treated wood dated from before 2004 was treated with chromated copper arsenate, which was found to leach small amounts of arsenic into the surrounding soil and into the plants. Newer pressure treated wood is considered “safer” to grow plants in. It is treated with a cooper based treatment. The cooper can still leach into the soil, but many experts agree the health effects are “minimal”. Excess cooper can stunt plant growth. There are plenty of other materials available so my personal preference is better safe than sorry and avoid pressure treated wood in the garden .

What should I plant?

What do you eat? Start with your family’s favorite vegetables. Gardening is so much more rewarding when you can enjoy the benefits of all your hard work. For years and years I grew green beans in my garden because they were easy to grow and because it seemed like a vegetable I “should” grow. The thing is out of 6 people in my family only me and my husband like them, and even we don’t like them that much. I stopped wasting my time with green beans and focused my energies on veggies we loved. I try to add a few new kinds every year trying to expand everyone’s palate but focus mostly on ones we love and would buy at a store.

So what can I plant in a square foot?

Look at the back of your seed packet. You want to look at the SEED SPACING. Let’s say the recommended seed spacing is 3 inches. Each side of your square is 12 inches. 12 inch side divided by 3 inch spacing is 4 plants. So you can have 4 rows of 4 plants – or 16 plants per square. Make sure that tall plants are planted towards the back so they do not shade smaller plants in front. Following are some recommendations for popular plants:

Some of the larger vine plants I personally think need a bit more than the “recommended” spacing. For instance, when I try to grow tomatoes too close I find there is just not enough air circulation and you end up with diseased plants. For tomatoes I always leave an empty square next to it to give them room to breath. Same goes for squash & potatoes. I know plenty of people that grow them right on top of each other, but my garden has enough room to let them breath a bit so I’m going to give it to them.

Companion Plants & Rotating Plants

With so many plants growing in such close conditions you want to make sure they are friendly. Did you know plants have friends too? Sometimes friends are plants that don’t compete for resources, sometimes one will deter bugs that might eat another, some will enhance the flavor of another (think cucumbers planted with dill or tomatoes with basil!). There are so many combinations.

Mel from Square Foot Gardening is a big proponent of mixing your growing boxes up. Instead of planting 4 boxes in a row of peppers, spread the 4 pepper boxes into different sections of your Square Foot Garden. It helps build the diversity of your garden and cuts down on disease.

Every year you will want to rotate what you plant in each box for healthy plants. This keeps plant specific diseases from building up in the soil and keeps your soil balanced nutrient wise. Most gardeners work on a three to four year schedule. Keep a garden journal to help you remember what you planted where. Most common vegetables can be sorted into four “families”.

Enrichers (Legumes)- enriches soil with nitrogen (legumes, beans, peas, peanuts)
Nightshades – heavy feeders (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers)
Leaf Crops – anything grown for it’s leaves, need lots of nitrogen (cabbage, broccoli, kale)
Squash Feeders – heavy feeders (squash, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers)

So year 1 plant green beans, year 2 plant tomatoes, year 3 plant cabbage, year 4 plant pumpkins or go back to soil enriching beans.

For more in depth info on crop rotation,

So what does a square foot garden look like?

Ideally, you will have at least three beds to allow you to practice crop rotation each season. But do what you have space for. If all you can fit is one bed, start with one bed. Just do the best you can with what you have. If you are really worried about plant disease, you can empty the soil from the bed and start fresh each season. If you have an issue with plant disease one year, you should definitely empty the soil and start fresh as many diseases can overwinter in your soil. You can use the “spent” soil amending flower garden beds or to mulch bushes. Adding a good amount of new compost each season will allow fresh nutrients to be added and can help keep most diseases at bay.

Below is an outline for a sample 3 raised bed system, featuring three beds that are 4 ft x 8 ft. Within each bed, notice the square foot gardening grid giving you 32 “mini plots”. All three beds will give you 96 square feet of growing space, enough for a family of 6 to have a fresh, seasonal eating garden or a family of 3-4 to have veggies for fresh seasonal eating and some left for preserving. I have placed these beds altogether just to fit them on the same page, but in real life you are going to want to position them so you have at least 2 feet clear all around the bed for you to access and tend the bed. The tall plants are kept to one side of the bed. Be sure to position the beds so the tall plants are on the northern side of the bed so they do not shade shorter plants. Check out my plan for an inexpensive trellis system that works well with square foot gardening.

Below is also an example of how you could keep a garden journal. Once you have made your template, photocopy a bunch of them. Write the year at the top, fill in the boxes, pop it in a binder. Super easy! Now you’ll have a record to refer back to each year for crop rotation. If you want to get really fancy, many gardeners like to write the exact type of vegetable grown. Instead of “tomato”, record it was a Brandywine variety, where you bought it and if you grew it from seed. Make notes about how well or poor it grew, and how it tasted. Then when you are thinking “what was the fabulous tomato we grew last year” you will have a handy record.

So in under 100 square feet you are growing:

8 tomatoes (I like a mix – some slicing, some cherry, some for sauce)
4 broccoli
4 celery
8 sunflowers
8 cucumbers (mix of slicing & pickling)
32 pea vines
4 peppers (any varieties)
16 onions
64 carrots
16 lettuce plants
48 corn stalks
8 bean stalks
8 potato plants
A mix of herbs

Have you tried square foot gardening? I’d love to hear your experiences!

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Square Foot Gardening Mistakes – our favorite method of managing a garden in a small suburban landscape. But we did make a few mistakes along the way. Learn from our mistakes before you tackle your garden!

The premise is to build a gardening box (in square or rectangle), put down a barrier, build a box, fill it with ‘dirt’, and plant. It’s based on a grid formula that gives you a square foot of planting space in each grid. Whether you build a rectangle or square, you’re using the most of the gardening space for your planting (as opposed to creating a large row-driven garden which isn’t really feasible in small spaces).

Note: While we love this method of planting, we don’t love Mel’s soil mixture as we don’t support the use of peat moss. Firstly, because of how it’s mined and secondly because it’s actually antimicrobial and can kill off the beneficial microbes that you’ve worked so hard to maintain. We use coconut coir, instead. Our #1 rule is to feed the soil. Healthy soil brings healthy gardens and plants. Here are some other alternatives for you.

Here’s Mel Bartholomew, the creator of the Square Foot Gardening Method, with an introduction:

You can read more about his method here.

Our First Square Foot Gardening Bed

When we first began gardening, we were already going in the direction of square foot gardening in our thinking, we just didn’t know it. We knew we couldn’t plant rows and rows of space without taking up our entire yard. We weren’t interested, back then, in planting corn and wheat and other row crops, and we certainly weren’t going to be harvesting with large equipment, nor were we going to have teams of planters and pickers to help. We wanted a small garden space to grow what was basically going to be a lasagna garden for us: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, green beans, and a few more things.

But because we hadn’t discovered that there might be a better way of doing what we really were looking for, we made a few mistakes along the way and wanted you to learn them before you tackled this project yourself.

Mistake #1: We dug up a spot in our yard.

We didn’t build up our square foot gardening area. We went down. (Imagine this space without the wood on the edge. I never took a photo of the original area, but this is the same space, 2 years later as we were celebrating a version of National Naked Gardening Day and rebuilding our bed. What we did do was take our garden soil, mix it with new amendments and had more great soil to add in. There’s just a problem doing this. It’s hard. And unnecessary. And if you have grass that creeps as we do, you spend so much time just keeping the grass out of the bed because there’s no barrier. Go up.

Mistake #2-4: We positioned it badly

#2. We put our square foot gardening area too close to the fence. We couldn’t use the Weedeater in this space, hand pulling was fine when a child did it, but it was hard for me to get in there and do it. Once the crops got tall enough, it was next to impossible to maintain the growing weeds, the invasive vine that’s all over our property, and just keep it all from growing into the bed.

#3 We also ran the bed parallel to the fence. In hindsight, we should’ve done a vertical bed, and had room for a 2nd bed in not much more space than it takes up now. There would also be twice the space in this area to plant. While this size bed is great for square foot gardening, sometimes harvesting from the back was not the easiest, though not impossible. It just could have been positioned much better.

#4. We didn’t put down a weed barrier outside of the bed. It would have been better had we done some kind of formal weed/grass barrier behind it, with weed cloth and mulch or other covering. It would have saved us a ton of time and exertion in trying to keep that stuff cut.

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Mistake #5: Use better materials

Granted, we did this with the least amount of money we could possibly do it with. We also had some old 2×4’s in the garage, we used those to create the frame for the bed. They just don’t last. This is the biggest reason why we dug the bed up from the first photo – the frame had rotted away in a couple of places after just two years and was useless. Use cedar. It’s not that expensive if you follow this advice on how to get it for cheap. There are other materials you can get, but cedar and helps repel some bugs!

*(and because people will ask – the white stuff is sugar. We didn’t have any dry molasses, and sugar is a good substitute if you don’t. The idea is that the sugar helps feed the good microbes in the soil. They multiply and create all sorts of organic matter, and are good to keep the area healthy, and when they die, they become good organic matter. This all creates awesome soil and feeds the plants. But as you’ll see further down, we made another mistake that made this virtually useless for the first two years or so.)

Mistake #6: Don’t overdo your barrier

Again, because we were trying to do this cheaply, we didn’t want to go the weed cloth route. One because we’d read that it may not help that much, especially with the invasive vine we deal with. And because we were trying to keep this as low cost as we could, we opted to go with the cardboard box route. We still use it when building new beds. We like it.

The only problem comes when you use cardboard that is layered too thick or you use cardboard that has been printed on one side fully, like many of the product boxes you can buy in the store. You want plain cardboard with a very little coating on it. Why? Because you’re preventing water from draining properly, so you end up with a wet and soggy mess that doesn’t drain. This invites disease and bugs and leaves you with a garden that may not produce well. Maybe in a drought-ridden area that might be a good thing to help keep moisture in longer, but for the most part, it just causes your roots to rot, your plants to turn yellow and sickly and not produce, and the bugs to invade.

In our case, we used too much cardboard hoping to keep out the vine. And it worked. But it almost ruined our garden in the process. Sometimes less really is more.

• Read more – Release the Ladybugs for Aphid Control

Mistake #7: We didn’t build in drip irrigation

We live in an area that has been on drought alert for years. So watering our garden always felt like we were doing something horribly wrong, even though we hadn’t quite reached the level of “do not water your garden.” Hand-watering is fine, but at dawn or at dusk, I wasn’t a fan of standing out in the yard as a tasty meal for the mosquitoes while I watered. And while we used those cute little circle watering devices, it didn’t always reach the whole area of the garden and NOT water the grass/weeds/vine behind it that we didn’t want to water. The good thing about it is that it was easy to move and took up very little space, and we could turn it on low and it worked almost like a drip sprinkler, though only in a smaller area.

Built-in drip irrigation with a soaker hose (like this one we use now) OR one of those cool PVC frames would’ve been a great addition to the garden the first year. Even all these years later, we still haven’t done it. This tutorial by Rick from Stoney Acres is a great walkthrough on how to build your own PVC watering system, which works really well for those of you with larger garden spaces, and you can configure it any way you need to.

And remember, a timer is really helpful in not over watering your yard. A lot of times people forget to turn the water off because they couldn’t hear it in the house because it’s not running full blast as with traditional watering.

Credit: Hoggar @ Square Foot Gardening Forum.

Or even better Rick has made a 1 1/2 hour video course giving you step by step instructions on how to build a PVC drip system. for more information about the class!

What We’ve Learned from our Square Foot Gardening Mistakes

1. Create smaller beds that are easier to maintain in tight spaces. The next beds going up will be perpendicular to the fence line so we can get more plants in.

2. Build UP! We have fixed that problem, and are even coming up with a new version this year that we want to test out (more on that later).

3. Use the cardboard method we tried, but just use less of it! You want it to be gone after a while to help use that good soil you’ve created underneath, too.

4. If you’re not going to dig up the whole area, use some sort of mulch to line the spaces between your beds. You’ll thank me for it later, I promise! We use cardboard and mulch.

5. Read everything you can about Square Foot Gardening so that you can do a better job next time.

Resources you might find handy

    • Mel Bartholomew’s
    • Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening Book – WELL worth the investment – or check it out from your library!
    • Weed cloth
    • Flat soaker hose
    • Learn to get lumber for less!
    • Learn to build a PVC watering frame from Stoney Acres Farm

YOUR THOUGHTS: What have been some of your greatest gardening blunders or lessons learned?

Get even more gardening ideas here:

I love helping people feel more at ease about their preparedness. Preparedness doesn’t have to overwhelming, scary, or about an upcoming doomsday. Simple everyday preparations can put your mind at ease and help you out in a sticky situation.


Square-foot gardening (SFG) is an easy-to-follow method of planting vegetables which makes efficient use of small spaces. It’s especially ideal for beginner gardeners. Here are six complementary SFG garden layouts created by our Almanac readers!

If you don’t have a lot of time available to weed, water, and maintain your vegetable garden, then square-foot gardening could be the answer. It’s especially great for beginner gardeners .

Square Foot Gardening (commonly referred to as SFG) is a planting method that was developed by American author and TV presenter Mel Bartholomew in the 1970’s. It’s a simple way to create easy-to-manage gardens with raised beds that need a minimum of time spent maintaining them.

With the square-foot gardening method, you plant in 4×4-foot blocks instead of traditional rows. Different crops are planted in different blocks according to their size; for example, 16 radishes in one square foot, or just one cabbage per square foot. A lattice is laid across the top to clearly separate each square foot.

While the benefits of SFG are ease and simplicity, note that the specific soil mix and raised beds can be more expensive to set up than alternative methods.

A water-retentive, nutrient-rich soil mix is used to fill the beds, consisting of one third each of compost, peat moss and vermiculite. This provides a weed-free start as well as being water retentive and full of nutrients. The rich soil enables plants to be grown much more closely than normal, which in turn crowds out weeds.

Video: See How to Set Up Your Square-Foot Garden

With simple and well-defined instructions, SFG is a great way to start growing your own food quickly, and with excellent results.

In this video, we introduce the thinking behind Square-Foot Gardening and explain everything you need to know to setup your own SFG garden beds including the best soil mix, plant spacing, positioning, companion planting and supporting structures to use.

Watch our video demonstrating the square-foot gardening technique.

See garden photos and free SFG garden layouts below!

All of the below SFG garden plans were created by Almanac readers with the Almanac Garden Planner!

1. Square-Foot Garden for an Apartment

“I live in a small apartment in the city but have a nice sized patio and wanted to take advantage of my space. This application helped me do it! My patio is outlined because it’s a little bit funny-shaped but everything with in the brown lines fits! The small red area is my back door and the larger red area is a shrub that I cant do much with.”

Garden Size: 18’ 7” x 15’ 11”
Garden Location: La Crosse, Wisconsin
Sun or Shade: Partial Shade
Garden Soil Type: Poor Soil

See full plant list!

2. Square-Foot Garden for a Home Garden

“This is a my “chef’s garden” with lots of different veggies and fruit that we like to eat.”

Garden Size: 19’ 11” x 19’ 11”
Garden Location: Denver, Colorado
Sun or Shade: Partial Shade
Garden Soil Type: Good Soil

See full plant list!

3. Large-Scale SFG Garden

“Raised bed gardens with an emphasis on companion planting with the new tool. Soil is so-so but manure and compost and lime helped and will add more this year. Wondering about the problem of rotating crops next year but I hope the benefit of attracting beneficials will override that. I’ve got a three sisters garden (corn, beans and squash) and onions planted everywhere to help ward off pests. There are all the flowers that attract beneficials that I could fit in. I think it will take a lot of time to plant – but I am looking forward to it! Using the plant list now to organize my seed starts – Onions and leeks and shallots are up and waving! I have notes on seed starting on my plant list page. NOTE: Since I wrote this I have made changes due to the groundhog, primarily putting all the onion family and many herbs/flowers where he came in last year.”

Garden Size: 27’ 11” x 33’ 11”
Garden Location: Georgetown, MA 30×30 Town Garden Plot
Sun or Shade: Sunny
Garden Soil Type: So-So Soil

See full plant list!

4. Square-Foot Garden Plan for Home Garden

“Organic garden planted in raised beds made using 4’ fence wire (bent w/1’ sides and 2’ bottom), lined with landscape cloth, then filled with soil made up of Black Gold (a special mix from a Nashville Nursery), worm compost, peat moss, coir, several different composts, mushroom compost and rock dust.”

Garden Size: 29’ 11” x 39’ 11”
Garden Location: Jamestown, TN
Sun or Shade: Partial Shade
Garden Soil Type: Good soil

See plant list!

5. Square-Foot Garden for a Front Yard

“Our front focal point garden will have a ring of strawberries and is planned to grow in a “cone” shape to tall sunflowers at the center.”

Garden Size: 19’ 11” x 19’ 11”
Garden Location: Indianapolis, IN
Sun or Shade: Partial Shade
Garden Soil Type: Good soil

See plant list!

6. Square-Foot Garden for a Front Yard

“Organic Vegetable Garden – Some traditional left but moving toward all square foot garden. Heavy clay soil amended for 3 years with horse manure, leaf humus, household compost, sand, wood chips, fish and organic fertilizer (includes chicken manure and minerals). Soil in square foot gardens according to Mel’s mix.”

Garden Size: 30’ 11” x 34’ 9”
Garden Location: Cleveland, Ohio near Lake Erie
Sun or Shade: Sunny
Garden Soil Type: Good soil, organic

See full plant list and more details about this garden here.

Looking for more garden plans? See layouts for other types of gardens.

Discover the Almanac Garden Planner

Ready to start planning your own garden? Learn more about the online Garden Planner today!

The all-in-one Plant Spacing Chart and Planting Guide

It’s a win, win … win!

So what do we mean ‘plant by area’?

Planting by area means taking a square section of garden, and dividing the length and width of that section by the plant spacing needs.
If you look on the back of a seed packet you’ll see two types of measurement:

  • 1. Seed/Plant Spacing
  • 2. Row Spacing

Now, we normally do not condone being wasteful, but we want you to take that row spacing number, and throw it away! You won’t need it. What you will need is the seed spacing/plant spacing number. You will use the seed spacing/plant spacing number to divide up planting sections to know how many seeds to sow.

Let’s get started: First you need to make planting sections

Typically about 1 square foot sections are preferred. We say “about 1 square foot” because the thickness of a garden bed board will make the growing area of your garden just under an increment of 1 foot; but not to worry, your plants will never know the difference.

To make plant spacing easier, many gardeners will make a plant spacing grid.

  • 1st they’ll measure their garden bed.
  • Then go out and buy materials such as wood or string and screws.
  • Then cut everything to length.
  • Then attach the pieces to the frame of their garden bed to make a grid.

If you don’t want to go through all of that hassle, we were nice enough to create a pre-assembled, tool-free plant spacing guide for you, and it just so happens to also be a garden irrigation system. It’s called The Garden Grid.

Next, let’s figure out how many seeds to plant:

We have our simple plant spacing chart below if you want to jump ahead and begin planting now, but if you want to know how we got the plant spacing measurements, stick right here!

We’re going to do a little math. Don’t panic! We promise it’s really, really easy.

  • Step 1: Locate the seed spacing number from the back of your seed packet. (We’ll use 3 inch seed spacing for this example)
  • Step 2: Divide the width of your planting section (about 12 inches) by the 3 inch seed spacing.
  • Answer: 12 inches across / 3 inch seed spacing = 4 plants across
  • Step 3: Repeat step two but for the length of your planting section. (Also about 12 inches).
  • Answer: 12 inches across / 3 inch seed spacing = 4 plants across
  • Step 4: Multiply your two answers together
  • Answer: 4 plants across X 4 plants across = 16 plants!
  • Step 5: Start planting! With 3 inch seed/plant spacing needs, you can grow 16 plants in a 1 square foot area.
  • Step 6: Keep planting! You now have the plant spacing formula for the rest of your garden!

For a little planting inspiration, try out this sample plant spacing layout we made for our 4×4 Garden Grid watering system. We also have salsa garden and salad garden planting layouts!

Now… what you have all been waiting for!

The Garden In Minutes Plant Spacing Chart

Find what you can grow the most of or find your favorite plants, but most importantly – get out and start growing!

Plant Spacing Chart

Vegetable Type Plant Spacing Per Square Vegetable Type Plant Spacing Per Square
Arugula 4 Oregano 1
Asian Greens 4 Parsley 4
Basil 2-4 Parsnips 9
Beans (bush) 9 Peanuts 1
Beets 9 Peas 9
Bok Choy (baby) 9 Peppers (Bell) 1
Broccoli 1 Peppers (Hot) 1
Brussel Sprout 1 Potatoes 4
Cabbage 1 Pumpkins 1
Cantaloupe 2 squares per plant Radicchio 2
Carrots 16 Radishes 16
Cauliflower 1 Rhubarb 1
Celery 4 Rosemary 1
Chives 4 Rutabagas 4
Cilantro 1-9 Sage 1
Collards 1 Scallions 36
Corn 4 Shallots 4
Cucumbers 2 Sorrel 2
Eggplant 1 Spinach 9
Endive 4 Squash 1
Fennel 4 Swiss Chard 4
Garlic 9 Tarragon 1
Green Onions 16 Tomatoes 1
Kale 1 Turnips 9
Kohlrabi 4 Thyme 4
Leeks 9 Wasabi 1
Lettuce (leaf) 6 Watercress 1
Lettuce (head) 2 Watermelon 2 squares per plant
Melons 2 squares per plant Yams 4
Mint 1-4 Yellow Parma Onion (large) 1
Onions (bunching) 9 Zucchini 1

So there you have it! Our all-in-one, everything your need to know, plant spacing chart and planting guide. Planting by area was inspired and made popular by the concept of square foot gardening, if you want to learn more about square foot gardening, check out our other article on just that! Also, if you’re still curious about setting up a planting guide with an integrated irrigation system, where you won’t need any tools, check out The Garden Grid on our How it Works page!

Our plant spacing chart is always growing. Have something you want added? Let us know in the comments below!

It’s been a buzzword in the gardening world for decades: the square foot garden, a revolution in small space gardening everywhere.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this basic concept entails.

It involves carefully measuring gardening plots. Careful planning can have a huge impact on how much food you grow, and how much waste you can avoid.

But for traditional gardeners and acolytes of other styles (like myself), we may need a bit more of a formal intro!

What is square foot gardening, and where did it come from? What’s so great about it? Why do people still use the method in gardens today, and why is it so popular?

Sure, it involves the clever use of square foot measurements to get the most out of your growing space. But nowadays, with a burgeoning local food movement and a passion for home growing, knowing all the ins and outs of this ideology means a whole lot more.

Without further ado, let’s dig in and take a look!

Square Foot’s Roots

So, what is square foot gardening anyway, and where did it come from?

In essence, it is an approach to growing food that incorporates companion planting, intensive spacing, and getting the most food possible out of a small space.

It all started in 1981 as a concept developed and coined by civil engineer Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening.

Square Foot Gardening, available on Amazon

In his experiences as an urban planner, Bartholomew brought attention to less efficient and productive methods of traditional single-row gardening. A hobby gardener himself, he combined his city design and planning skills with his green thumb to come up with the ever-practical square foot garden – and thus, his book was born.

The book quickly caught fire as an exciting new way to grow more food in small spaces, not only for the average gardener but to also improve health, ergonomics, space use, and even food security among populations in need around the world.

Its first edition is known as one of America’s bestselling gardening books of all time, with over a million copies sold.

Decades later, the book continued to be top-tier among gardening guides – so continuously purchased, used, and enjoyed, that a long-awaited update of the book was released in 2006 as The All New Square Foot Gardening, followed by a second edition in 2013. You’ll find it on Amazon.

All New Square Foot Gardening II: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space

Even now, Bartholomew sporadically updates his concept with new techniques and information to be more informed with modern gardening methods and fads that befit today’s gardeners.

A book that is so persistent as a horticultural classic must contain some kernel of truth, right? That’s exactly the point: this method of gardening is timeless, a classic that’s still relevant at a time when food issues are at the forefront of household concerns.

This led him to release yet another wave of square foot gardening books. Bartholomew’s second edition of All New Square Foot Gardening was published in 2013. It explores many of today’s hot gardening trends including vertical gardening, pest control, and gardening with your kids.

A book that is so persistent as a horticultural classic must contain some kernel of truth, right? That’s exactly the point: this method of gardening is timeless, a classic that’s still relevant at a time when food issues are at the forefront of household concerns.

Even though it was conceived decades ago, the essence of its greatness still shows in space-saving, DIY food production techniques for the home that aren’t at all difficult to adopt.

Can you learn them yourself? Of course! Let’s take a look at how you can make these methods yours.

What is Square Foot Gardening?

First of all – what exactly are the benefits of square foot gardening? Why is it a worthwhile approach to gardening in the first place?

For the backyard gardener, or even the newbie to urban homesteading, this perennial method is your perfect food-growing option for more than just a few reasons:

  • Grow as much food within a small space as you would with some traditional row-planted gardens
  • Compact 4-by-4 foot raised bed garden makes for easy access
  • No need for a big yard – grow food on patio, balcony, or smaller plot
  • No weeding at all (with the right setup using weed-free soil mix)
  • Less work and strain on the body
  • No negative effects or damage to the yard
  • Incredibly easy – ideal for new gardeners
  • Save money with minimal management by sourcing your own food

That’s right: with this clever gardening approach, you are essentially sourcing your own food from tiny spaces, saving yourself money and hardly having to put any work into it!

And no – you don’t need that huge backyard or tiller you once assumed you might to get started.

Due to the tight, compact, yet healthy spacing implemented using this method, you can competitively produce as much food as you might in a larger space that was planted using less-space efficient row crop methods.
Due to the tight, compact, yet healthy spacing implemented using this method, you can competitively produce as much food as you might in a larger space that was planted using less-space efficient row crop methods.

Sure, traditional row-cropping guarantees healthy plants with ample spacing between rows, but square foot gardening begs the question: couldn’t more plants be used in those spaces as well?

Plus, in a 4×4 foot raised bed structure (the method’s standard raised bed dimensions), you don’t have to do anywhere near the amount of work required for the in-ground planting of a larger plot.

With the purchase or construction of such a bed (whether wood, plastic, fabric, or even DIY from makeshift cinder blocks) and the addition of a bottom lining, you can keep your bed completely weed free – thus eliminating out a good chunk of the gardening work entirely.

Adding a lining to your 4-by-4 foot raised bed growing space ensures that it stays weed-free, and reduces the amount of work you have to do.

This is especially true if you add a seed-free soil mix rather than planting in soil from your own yard, an important aspect of Bartholomew’s method.

The method’s standard 4-by-4-foot total raised bed growing space is also the perfect size for reaching across to get to just about any spot in the bed, whether for weeding, planting, amending – you name it. This is quite the ergonomic option!

Plus, the techniques for setting up and planting are incredibly easy to learn, and can even provide the perfect medium for a beginner who is just starting out on their first adventures in edible gardening.

Of course, anything truly great tends to draw at least a little heat! Some critics of the method state that, in spite of its space- and work-saving techniques, startup can be expensive – the purchase or construction of a raised bed may be costly, as can getting your hands on completely weed-free, nutrient-rich potting soil or compost.

My comeback to that? Sure, you might ring up startup costs in the $100 range (though the initial cost tends to be much lower if you’re a smart bargain-hunter or handyperson), but think about the ultimate impact on your food budget (and self-confidence that will be gained in growing your own food) over time!

That’s right: over time, you’ll save money on your food budget by growing your own food (while feeling good and healthy about it!)

Sourcing your own food straight from your backyard with this method is also an excellent way to feel proactive about changing your part of the food system for the better.

By growing an edible garden organically and by using this method in your own backyard, you’re getting produce straight from your own soil at much smaller environmental and health costs, in comparison to the average grocery store produce.

The Basic Setup

Square foot gardening has a time-honored, well-tested place in the gardening world, with many noticeable benefits to gardening and lifestyle.

But what are the special techniques that bring about such awesome results?

At their foundation, they are very basic and ridiculously simple to learn:

1. Get Your Grow Space

First, build (or buy) a 4-by-4 foot raised bed box (lined with weed barrier landscaping fabric if you want less weeds and you’re building on top of other soil).

2. Put In Your Preferred Soil

Fill it with fertile potting soil (part peat moss, compost, and vermiculite, or another mix of your choice – preferably weed free).

3. Lay Out Your Grid

Overlay a square foot grid atop your box for plant spacing, then plant your seeds.

4. Get Growing!

Water, grow, and presto!

All of these steps seem pretty simple, right? Nothing new to most of you green thumbs out there.

But you might have noticed the obvious thing that makes this method different from other techniques: the square foot grid.

According to Bartholomew’s canon, this grid is typically an easy-to-make, homemade measuring tool crafted from long, thin slats of wood (particularly lath) that are then cross-hatched and fashioned into square foot-sized squares.

This grid is then fastened atop one’s 4-by-4 foot wooden beds, and used to measure and designate specific 1-by-1-foot planting areas for various herbs, veggies, and more.

If you’re not the handyman (or handywoman) type, these grids can be found for purchase on Amazon, primarily made of fiberglass material.

Mr. Garden Grid Kit

Or, you can build your own with wooden lath, though I have also seen gardeners and farmers use a temporary string-and-post setup to cast their measurements instead of wood.

Growing on the Grid

It’s these grids that create the magic of the whole concept, and which in turn help to make the whole endeavor of gardening this way so easy.

It’s simple: certain vegetables are planted in certain amounts (the number depending on the plant) within each square, at their ideal distances from one another. This then maximizes each plant’s space and nutrient use while crowding out weeds as a living mulch, allowing you to grow more veggies in a small space, and even boosting plant health through companion planting (which we’ll get to later).

Depending on the type of vegetable, herb, or even fruit that you are planting, one only plants so many seeds or seedlings within each square in a continuous grid-like spacing – while the actual grid itself helps to measure and keeps your rows looking neat!

Simply put, all you really have to do is consider the number of plants you need per square, plant them, and make sure to space them at healthy distances in a grid formation within the larger grid.

It’s wonderfully easy – no doubt one of the reasons why it’s a technique that’s caught on like wildfire!

Below, we share the general number and spacing rules for the most common vegetables you might like to plant in your square foot garden.

1-Per-Square Plantings

Simply form one hole in the center of the 1-by-1-foot square of your choice, and plant your seeds (or transplant your seedling), keeping in mind the seeding techniques and layout guidelines that you’ll find later in this article.

  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Kale
  • Lettuce (head)
  • Okra
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Rosemary
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes (staked)

2-Per-Square Plantings

Plant these seeds side by side within the square, at the recommended seeding distance with an appropriate support trellis.

  • Cantaloupe
  • Cucumbers
  • Pumpkins
  • Watermelons
  • Winter squash

(Up to) 4-Per-Square Plantings

Plant these in a square with each seed or plant forming one of the four corners. They should be placed at equal distances from each other and from the border of the grid, with one hole close to each corner of the square space.

As noted, some of these veggies do not necessarily have to be planted 4 per square. If you want to grow a little less food, you may do so.

  • Basil
  • Garlic (for growing larger bulbs)
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks (for growing larger plants)
  • Lettuce (leaf)
  • Onions (for growing larger bulbs)
  • Winter radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Summer squash (with cage)
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomatoes (with cage)
  • Zucchini (with cage)

(Up to) 8- or 9-Per-Square Plantings

Plant these in a grid- or square-like pattern within the square space (i.e. 3 plants long by 3 plants wide, forming either a square or a square-shaped ring border, simply making sure that they are equidistant from one another and the border of the grid.

Like with 4-per-square plantings, don’t feel pressured to plant that many of each vegetable if you don’t necessarily want that much food!

  • Green beans (bush or pole)
  • Beets
  • Cilantro
  • Garlic (smaller bulbs harvested, but more plants)
  • Leeks (smaller but more plants)
  • Onions (smaller but more plants)
  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes (with no supports)
  • Turnips

(Up to) 16-Per-Square Plantings

Plant these in a grid or square pattern within each square space (i.e. a maximum of 4 plants long by 4 plants wide). Make sure they are equidistant from each another and the border of the grid to avoid crowding.

If you don’t plan to thin or pick any of these vegetables for quite awhile, plant less if you like – you might prefer to use the 8- or 9-per-square spacing method. This will allow their root size to grow larger without leading to bolting or disease.

  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Radishes

(Up to) 2-Per-4 Planting Squares

The veggies in this category need LOTS of space to flourish, and a more complex arrangement of the square grid method is required than for other crops.

Depending on the number you wish to plant, just make sure they have ample space from one another and the sides of the grid.

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower

What About Perennial Vegetables?

Unfortunately, some vegetables simply aren’t ideal for the square foot garden, namely perennials that require more space to grow. The foliage of these plants grows too large and creates too much overshadowing to grow in a companion planting style close to other veggies in a garden.

These include:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Rhubarb

The ferns of full-grown asparagus would fall over onto other plants, as would the growth of artichokes and rhubarb. You’ll have to keep these separate!

Fancy Footwork

Another unique aspect of this gardening technique is found in the way you plan your growing space – or more specifically, where every plant and veggie is going to go within that space, in order to get the maximum benefits out of your small garden.

Techniques like companion planting are a big part of this, too – namely, the mutually beneficial inter-planting of different species with one another for natural perks like insect resistance and disease prevention.

Within your 4-by-4-foot space, carefully selecting the type of plants that you plant together – and even where you plant them within your container, and within each space of the grid – is very important.

You can use the following tips in combination with the grid setup guidelines described above to plan which squares will be best for which plants, especially if you’re planting many different things.

Making a mock-up and getting all of your arrangement ideas down on paper is a great idea for this part of the planning process!

Below is a list of the best companion planting layout tips for your square foot garden – so you can produce the most productive, happy, disease-free, and harmonious harvest possible!

The exact placement of these companion plantings in your square foot garden is important.

Companion Planting Tips

Not all plants get along. Some compete with one another for nutrients, or attract harmful pests that can be detrimental to certain plant neighbors.

On the other hand, some special pairings do exactly the opposite: they bring out the very best in each other, attract the right insects or pollinators, and create the perfect healthy balance.

Before planting your seeds (or transplanting your seedlings) into your raised bed, do the necessary research to determine what you should plant together within each square.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into companion planting in the very near future.

Square Foot Layout Tips

Adopt and adhere to these very straightforward guidelines for the best results – especially if you’re companion planting in your bed (and you should be)!

No Monoculture

Always plant your square foot garden with a variety of mutually benefitting plants, since one variety planted closely together will attract more pests and disease.

Keep Height in Mind

If planting short sun- and heat-loving plants with taller ones, make sure to plant taller veggies (e.g. tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) on the north side of your bed to allow shorter ones (like basil, bush beans, celery) to get their share of the sun’s rays.

On the other hand: If mixing tall plants with a blend of shade- and heat-loving plants, plant your tall ones right in the middle. Plant shade-lovers on the north side of them, and heat-lovers on the south side.

Border with Veggie Protectors!

Border your growing space with alliums (i.e. onions, garlic, leeks, shallots) since these repel insects and pests (but keep them far from beans).

Add a Flourish of Color (and Pest Control)

Planting certain herbs and flowers – such as sage with brassicas, or marigolds with nightshades – helps to repel certain insects like egg-laying butterflies and nematodes.

Starting Out

So you’ve decided which veggies you want to grow in your little garden – and now you know exactly how many to put into each square.

Here’s the next step: getting them started from seed!

In the same vein as planting using a grid, square foot gardening employs its own unique approach to seed starting. This involves thinning out weak seedlings so you only give nourishment to the strongest, most (potentially) successful ones for the most productive garden.

When planting seeds:

1. Form Holes for Each Seed

First, form holes in each square using your finger or another tool, correlating to the number of plants you will be growing (which depends on the type – reference the list provided above).

Make sure holes are set up in an equidistant, grid-like fashion within each square, so that plants are equally spaced apart in their correct number – this arrangement will differ depending on the total number (either 1, 2, 4, 9, or 16).

2. Place and Plant Your Seeds

Plant 2 to 3 seeds of your chosen vegetable in each hole. Cover lightly with soil, then water.

3. Watch Them Grow

Once sprouted, choose the strongest-looking seedling from each set of 2-3 seeds that you have planted and remove the others to give it clearance. This will become your final, full-grown vegetable or herb!

Some may choose to direct seed straight into their bed, as the instructions above demonstrate. However, lovers of the seed-starting and transplanting tradition don’t have to change their ways to make this gardening method work.

Planting appropriate veggies (i.e. those that do well with transplanting) in smaller containers first, then sizing them up before transplanting into their final space, works just as well if you enjoy that method – and especially if you want to get started earlier on your garden indoors during cold seasons!

Setting the Pace

Once your seedlings and sprouts are well on their way in your square foot garden – well, you know the rest!

Water regularly, harvest, and enjoy. You’ll be amazed by how much food you can cultivate in such a small space, and with so little work required once your seedlings have sprouted. And once you’ve harvested everything you can eat, it’s shockingly simple to plant another succession and have delicious veggies again in no time.

If some seedlings don’t do so well, just plant new seeds in their place. However, it’s wise in more crowded squares (such as in 8-, 9-, and 16-plant spacings) to wait for other successful veggies in the same plot to reach maturity and harvest first, so they don’t overshadow and crowd out your tiny new plant introductions.

Not only will you have a flourishing, quaint food garden with minimal effort in comparison to what it takes to manage a full-sized one, you’ll also see significant savings in terms of your food budget.

Who doesn’t want fresh, homegrown produce straight from their own yard (and the fruit of their own labors) and from their very own hands? Nothing beats veggies you grow yourself.

You can also practice this method with practically no change, potential negative consequences, or damage to your space. There’s no need to dig up your garden soil – you can set up your square foot garden on your patio, balcony, or lawn without breaking any soil (or even a sweat)!

Of course, keep in mind that not all raised beds may be appropriate for all surfaces. With any bed you build or buy, look into the details on where the best setup should take place without creating drainage problems, rot, or damage to the surface blow, depending on your product or design.

Do you love square foot gardening and tend your own fruitful little patch of earth? Or are you one of the many out there who absolutely needs to try this efficient method – but haven’t yet?

Either way, please share your comments and experiences below. We love to hear from you!

And if you’ve ejoyed this guide, then some of our others might be right up your alley:

  • Growing Plants 101: The Complete Guide to Getting Started
  • Planning and Planting Your First Vegetable Garden
  • Guide to Growing Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables with 11 of Our Favorite Varieties


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About Adrian White

Adrian White is a certified herbalist, organic farmer, and health/food writer and expert. She aims to bridge the world of natural, holistic health and nutrition to the realm of organic foods, herbalism, gardening, and sustainability – or “Food as Medicine” – throughout her writing.