Planning a Square Foot Vegetable Garden

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

A square foot garden planned using the GrowVeg.com Garden Planner software

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 1970s. It's a simple way to create easy-to-manage gardens with raised beds that need a minimum of time spent maintaining them. SFG rapidly gained popularity during the 1980s through Mel's first book and television series and since then has spread across the world, eventually going 'mainstream' with several companies offering ready-to-assemble SFG gardens. SFG advocates claim it produces more, uses less soil and water and takes just 2% of the time spent on a traditional garden. So what makes Square Foot Gardening special and why don't all gardeners use it?

SFG was developed as a reaction to the inefficiencies of traditional gardening. In 1975 Mel Bartholomew had just retired as an engineer and decided to take up gardening as a hobby. It was only natural that he would apply his analytical skills to the problems he encountered. In particular he found the average gardener was spending hours weeding the big gaps between long rows of plants, creating unnecessary work for themselves. It soon became clear that getting rid of rows and using intensive deep-beds could dramatically cut the amount of maintenance the garden required. Add a one-foot square grid on top and it became easy to space and rotate crops.

The Square Foot Gardening System

Over the years the SFG system has evolved into a precise set of rules:

  • Create Deep Raised Beds: Typically 4 feet by 4 feet, with a square foot lattice placed on top to visually separate the crops. Beds are between 6 and 12 inches deep which gives the plants plenty of rich nutrients, while maintaining good drainage.
  • Use a Specific Soil Mix: One third each of compost, peat moss and vermiculite. This starts the raised beds completely weed-free as well as being water retentive and full of nutrients.
  • Don't Walk on the Soil: This is now common practice with raised bed gardening but back in the 1970s it was revolutionary to suggest that you wouldn't need to dig your soil if you didn't tread on it.
  • Plant in Squares: To keep the planting simple there are no plant spacings to remember. Instead each square has either 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants in it depending on the size of the plant – easy to position in each square by making a smaller grid in the soil with your fingers. As an exception to this there are a few larger plants that span two squares. Climbing peas and beans are planted in two mini-rows of 4 per square.
  • Square foot garden
  • Thin with Scissors: Instead of pulling up excess plants which can disturb the root systems of the plants you want to grow you snip them off with scissors.
  • Accessorise: As well as details of all the above the All New Square Foot Gardening book has practical instructions for constructing various accessories including protective cages that easily lift on and off the SFG beds, covers to extend the season and supports for vertical growing.

There's a purpose to each of these 'rules' and together they make up a powerful and almost fail-safe method for successful gardening. It's a great method for new gardeners, people who have little time, the elderly or disabled (SFG gardens can be built at a raised height to make them more accessible) and children. Many schools have embraced the SFG method because it's easy to install and maintain without becoming an additional burden for the teacher. However, there are some limitations:

  • Easy to Outgrow: Although many vegetables can be grown in SFG gardens it struggles to accommodate larger plants (squash, melons, main-crop potatoes etc), perennials (globe artichokes, rhubarb) and fruit bushes/trees. Once new gardeners experience the success of SFG gardens they often want to expand the range of crops they grow beyond the standard SFG crops.
  • Non-renewable Resources: There's no doubt that 'Mel's Mix' makes an excellent soil for vegetables . However, two of the three ingredients come from non-renewable sources. Peat takes thousands of years to develop and is a valuable natural sink for greenhouse gases. Vermiculite is mined and is therefore also a non-renewable resource with a significant carbon footprint. In common with many gardeners I won't use peat and would prefer not to use vermiculite.
  • Expensive for Large Gardens: Although SFG beds are cheap to maintain they are quite expensive to set up if you have a large area and want to fill it quickly.

None of these reasons prevent SFG from being a useful part of a garden though – you can use 100% recycled compost in the beds instead of Mel's Mix, gradually build up the number of SFG beds and combine it with areas of your garden which are set aside for fruit trees and larger crops. Many of the SFG techniques that were revolutionary in the 1980s are now commonly used for vegetable gardening – deep raised beds, not compacting soil, removable covers and plant supports etc.

Planning a Square Foot Garden is easy with the Garden Planner software
Planning a Square Foot Garden is easy with the Garden Planner software

Planning a Square Foot Garden

At GrowVeg we regularly get enquiries from gardeners following the SFG method who want to plan their beds using our Garden Planner. So we introduced Square Foot Gardening mode in the Garden Planner that makes it easy to add one-foot squares of plants as well as using all the other powerful features of the software such as crop rotation, tracking varieties etc. Best of all is that the SFG plants can be part of a larger garden plan that includes more traditional planting layouts and large plants, so there's the flexibility to combine different methods in a plan of a single garden area.

Square Foot Gardening was revolutionary when it was first invented and it's still a great system for people who are starting out, have limited space or want a highly organised method to follow. However, you don't need to follow SFG to benefit from gardening with raised beds and good organisation. There's a great quote: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." SFG works really well for many situations but it doesn't fit everything. Despite my reservations I still recommend it as being the right option for many and the book is really easy to follow. The success it brings can often lead people on to discovering the delights of fruit trees, using barrels to grow huge crops of potatoes or managing a greenhouse full of high-value crops. It's a great stepping-stone to the world of growing your own food and that's why 35 years on it's still going strong.

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Comments

 
"I bought the book a couple of months back and now a lovely SFG box in my back garden. I was absolutely brand new to growing ANYTHING and this was a great way to start. However, I'm now growing other things too, just in normal soil, so having this SFG addition to the software is absolutely ideal for me. Thank you very much, I love it! :-D"
Donna Green on Friday 30 July 2010
"My first garden was a square foot garden. I love this method. I gardened for 3 years this way in my small in town backyard. This year we moved to a farm with 53 acres. I decided I had all this land, so I would try the "traditional" garden method. I have failed miserably! My garden is over-run with weeds and I have no idea how to keep up with it. This fall we will be building nine 4x10 square foot gardens. It will be an expense to get started, but I can't wait to get back to this style of gardening!"
Jaime Anderson on Friday 30 July 2010
"You can use 100% compost in your boxes?"
toni on Friday 30 July 2010
"Yes, you can use 100% compost if it comes from a reliable commercial source such as I describe in this article: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=74. Because they achieve very high temperatures you don't get the weed problems that home produced compost often has (though you can still use that for the bottom of the boxes)."
Jeremy Dore on Friday 30 July 2010
"We can get coconut 'peat', from Fair Trade coconuts plantations. I have to say that it really does help to keep the compost airy (we have very heavy clay so not much good unless you like knobbly carrots!). I use it mixed with compost in pots and raised beds, except for my barrel potatoes that don't seem keen. I have used 'normal' peat as a test alongside my veggie boxes; while normal peat was better I still think I prefer my cocopeat. Does anyone else use it and have good results? "
Kim on Saturday 31 July 2010
"Kim - I use a compost for starting seeds made from coconut fibre (coir) called Fertile Fibre and it is fantastic stuff - the best seed starting compost out of all the ones I have tried, so I can well believe that it might work instead of peat in SFG. It's not cheap however and would need mixing with compost like the SFG method describes for plants larger than seedlings."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 31 July 2010
"Good afternoon - nothing to do with the article above - qick question - im turning my side yard in south california into a veg growing area , based on the high temps we get every year which type of topsoil/ compost should i be looking to purchase? , ive now dig out all the old soil and have an average depth of 10 to 12 inches over 200 square foot approx , hope this isnt too hard a question. Many thanks Danny."
Danny Lovegrove on Saturday 31 July 2010
"I wonder that kind of timber you use to build the raised beds? There are hardly durable timber around and treated timber might not be the right choise for organic gardening..... .Any suggestions? Thanks a lot."
Claudia on Sunday 1 August 2010
"Claudia...go to www.lowes.com and take a look at their 4' x 6' x 9" Cedar Raised Garden Kit. It's $31.60 and made of Cedar so it should last a few years. I don't have one yet, but going to order at least one and give it a try. God Bless. Wayne"
Wayne on Sunday 1 August 2010
"Thanks Wayne..., but Cedar is one of your country's indigenous forest species, unfortunately rarely planted and managed sustainably ...,it's worth to consider when buying products."
Claudia on Sunday 1 August 2010
"Claudia, we have an article all about how to preserve wood for raised vegetable beds here: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=71 and there are some very useful comments people have added."
Jeremy Dore on Sunday 1 August 2010
"Thank you Jeremy,....having read all the links and comments...I guess I'm on the secure side using rocks as a local resource ...it just takes a bit longer (and the slugs never changed their mind in front my existing timber frames ;-), have to transplant all seedlings anyway, a bit of coffee-ground around the edges also helps ... thanks again"
Claudia on Sunday 1 August 2010
"Jaime, I am veg-gardening in two places: a small kitchen garden with small, raised beds planted in the SFG way, and a 30'x70' row garden. I too assumed the row garden would take more work, but it's actually been less. The key has been the right tools: we run down the rows with either The Winged Weeder, or more frequently a heavy-headed Scuffle Hoe. This fab tool is a shallow pentagon with sharpened edges—looks like a Stealth Bomber—that you push along the soil's surface to unroot the weeds. It works best while the weeds are small. (I should also admit that the row garden has sandy loan soil that was tilled in early spring, so it started fluffy and easy to scuffle through: clay soil that's only been shovel-turned might offer more resistance to the hoe.) We found if you do this through springtime, by July the weeds have given up trying. One person scuffling, and the other raking up the weeds, makes for a very tidy row garden! I tried using my Stirrup-U-hoe and found that, because it was a lighter-weighted tool, my muscles instead of the ground were supporting it, making me work harder. There also exist diamond-headed scuffle hoes. I'd recommend finding one with a handle long enough to create a shallow angle relative to the ground plane: with a sharper, 45°-like angle, your pushing may drive the head deep instead of gliding just under the surface. You might have to re-bend the neck to bring the head flat to the soil."
Karen Dale on Vashon Island, WA on Friday 6 August 2010
"This year Sam's Club sold 42" x 6" x 7' raised bed kits, no maintenance, slide together, $40. They have been awesome!!"
Barb Ramlow on Monday 9 August 2010
"I use sfg more for keeping me from growing something like 300 carrots to something more manageable like 32 or 2 or 3 heads of cabbage instead of 20 so in that respect it works quite well. "
David on Tuesday 31 August 2010
"I've recently built 9 beds some 6ft by 4ft, some 4ft by 4ft. The reason a bed is never wider than 4ft or 1 metre is so you can reach all plants with out climbing in! All are made out of old scaffold boards which can be purchased quite cheaply on Ebay or in the local ads. I've filled with topspoil/vermiculite/compost. The topsoil being bought in tonne bags, the compost being compost containing peat rather than pure peat moss (purchased from Wickes). Instead of buying vermiculite from a garden centre I've used Mycafil (insulation matter made from vermiculite)about £15 for a 100ltr bag comapared with £5 for a 1ltr bag at the garden centre. Mycafil is available on Ebay and at builders merchants. All is working very well with encouraging growth of my winter hardy cabbages, broc, psb, onions, shallots and garlic. We'll see how we got on in spring and summer 2011."
Niall Radford on Wednesday 27 October 2010
"I am wondering how you water a series of raised beds? We have a large garden with typical long rows and a drip tape system. I have one solar pod with a mickey mouse spray waterer. Ideas??"
Pat Roloff on Sunday 22 May 2011
" Several years ago you could obtain reccycled plastic that was formed in the shape of logs for a 4 ft by 8 ft raised bed garden of 10 inches high. I have had these for years and they work great. What happened that they cannot be found anywhere now? Another thing that can be used for durable raised beds: bricks, concrete blocks, or pvc plastic shaped in the form of wood."
Cal Sturdy on Saturday 13 August 2011
"I am at this time constucting my 1st SFG I always grow runner beans using a conventional support system, I'm puzzled as to how you would plant 8 beans in a sq ft and train them up a support albeit like one in the SFG book.can anyone explain "
norman on Monday 12 March 2012
"Norman: I think you plant two rows of four - one row in each half of the square, and you have the support running across the square in between the two rows. "
Chris on Monday 2 April 2012
"I started my first-ever vegetable garden in 2012 with the SFG method. I did not use raised beds as I live in Colorado where it is very dry, plus I didn't want the expense, so I just prepared the soil with a broadfork and compost, planted everything, laid out gravity-fed drip lines (that were on an automatic timer)and mulched with straw. I left the country for a month in early summer, with someone filling the gravity tanks once a week and that was it. I came home fully expecting the garden to be dead, but instead my beans had climbed up the 8' trellis and were spilling over the top, the watermelons and squash had grown through the garden fence and I had cherry tomatoes waiting to be picked! I spent almost zero time weeding and no time watering and wouldn't garden any other way. Obviously I highly recommend SFG!!"
Karen Conduff on Tuesday 8 January 2013
"As a new vegetable gardener I am very confused with how I can follow a square foot method with crop rotation. I have 5 raised beds built with the idea that one will be for perennials only. The other 4 for rotation. Do I mix up the Crop Families as per the square foot method, or group them as per what I have read in the 4 Area Crop Rotation method?"
Astrid on Thursday 6 June 2013
"Can store bought humus be used as part of Mel's Mix?"
Gary Brown on Thursday 6 February 2014
"Thank you!"
Anni Kuusimäki on Monday 20 April 2015
"I found this when I was looking for similar that I had viewed last year on a tv programme.This is so nicely explained I will order the book too. I have also just started to really experiment with gardening by the moon so will incorporate the two. I have been gardening for many years and have had allotments too,but this is such a tempting way to grow at home in the garden Thank yo "
cynthia price on Wednesday 18 January 2017
"I've been using this method for five years now. I grow pickling cucumbers at the back of the box on an 8-foot trellis made of electrical conduit and large tomato meshing. I grow determinate paste tomatoes in the two middle rows and the front row is reserved for jalapeno peppers. I end up with dozens of jars of pickles, relish, tomato sauce and pickled jalapenos every year. I have always had a difficult time finding four foot wood strips to form my grids. Last year I came across melamine veneer edging that's on a 50-foot roll. It's 13/16ths-inches-wide which is perfect for the grid. I simply nail one end, unroll the veneer, cut it to fit and nail it down. The whole roll cost $6 or $7. At end or beginning of the season it's easy to take the strips off in order to prepare the soil in the whole box without the strips getting in the way. The box looks like a jungle when it grows in (8 ft. cucumber vines, 6 ft, tomato bushes, and 3 1/2 ft. pepper plants) but the incredible yields speak for themselves. I introduced several neighbors to this method and the book. I live in a suburb outside of Toronto."
Steve on Monday 12 June 2017

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