Growing Vegetables by the Square Foot

Box #2

My Square Foot Garden: Top row, left to right, Vintage Wine, Brandywine, and Hillbilly tomatoes; middle row, left to right, "little finger" eggplant, rosemary, and Italian large leaf basil; bottom row, "spicy globe" basil, plus room to plant two more crops.

I don't know exactly how it happened, but somehow I came across a series of photos of "square foot gardens" on flickr and, before long, I was completely drawn in. I must have been searching for information on growing vegetables, since I've been wanting to plant them, but have been daunted at the challenge. I'm a completely new to the art of gardening, but when I came across the square foot gardening method, I was fascinated.

Here was a system which not only simplified the process and made gardening more manageable, but works beautifully (using so many flickr photos of bountiful gardens as evidence). Grow 16 different crops in just a 4x4 foot space? Sure! Grow as many as 16 carrots within just one of the tiny squares? Amazing! The garden is a vision of serious outdoor organization. With a place for everything, it's gardening for the perfectionist. And, let's face it, they're also adorable. I was hooked.

The gardening technique, which has apparently been around for a while, is based on the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (there's a companion website too). It seems to have a cult-like following. One of its major attractions is that you use raised beds filled with a very specific growing medium, so there's no worrying about how to prepare your existing soil to make it ready for vegetables to grow. Another reason to try the technique is because it conserves space. Instead of planting in rows, you plant in squares and eliminate a great deal of the spacing required by rows.

Of course, nothing as simple as it seems, and because I decided to create my garden only days before we are scheduled to leave on a two-week trip to Europe, the process became, let's say, very compressed. In addition, because I didn't start this project in the spring, I now needed to rely mostly on transplants, which meant rushing to buy some before the garden centers stopped selling them in the next few weeks (probably when I will be gone).

So, for the last week, I've been racing through the process of setting up my square foot garden:

Lay it OutStep #1: Build the box. The standard box is 4 feet by 4 feet with 16 squares to grow up to 16 different crops. But a number of variations on the basic design are possible. The goal is not to go larger than 4x4 or you will have difficulty managing the plants in the middle. With limited space, I made two 3x3 boxes (each containing 9 squares). I bought 1x6 pieces of pine and strips of lattice to go on top and had them cut down to size at the store. I screwed them together at home and lined the bottom of each box with a weed barrier.

Mix the IngredientsStep #2: Into the boxes go a prescribed mixture of one part compost, one part peat moss, and one part vermiculite. Sourcing vermiculite ended up being one of the most difficult steps (and could be a post in itself). I mixed together 9 cubic feet of all this stuff  on a humongous tarp and filled the the boxes. The grids go on top to keep the plot organized into square foot sections.

Boxes, PlantedStep #3: Put your plants in the box. I purchased a variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, "little finger" eggplant, rosemary, and oregano. That leaves some extra spaces for more crops. I'm going to try planting seeds for red chard, radishes, carrots, arugula, frisee, and broccoli rabe. It might be a disaster to still try to plant from seed so late, so do tell me if I am going about this all wrong. That brings the total to 18 crops. Ta-da. Instant farm!

The next step is to create a permanent trellis (he skinny bamboo stakes for the tomatoes and cucumbers are only temporary). I will need a taller, much stronger structure to support the vines as they grow (up to 6 feet high or more!). After some preliminary searching, there are many different types of plant supports, few of which are both effective and aesthetically pleasing. Since we are about to leave, I'm leaving this to figure out when I return.

This experience may turn out to be a complete disaster, but hopefully, with regular watering by my neighbor, I'll come back in two weeks and see things still growing. This should be an interesting adventure. I'm posting photos of my progress to a set on flickr if you want to follow along.


The Food Section's Square Foot Garden photoset The Food Section's Square Foot Garden photoset



You'll love this technique. I've been gardening this way since the book was first published and have never regretted it.


Good for you!

Can't wait to see how it turns out. Although I'm not a SFG myself (am a little more free-form in style), I recommend the book all the time to friends who are newbie gardeners, especially those intimidated at the prospect of gardening. In fact, my copy is at a neighbor's house right now.

Also, Kitchen Gardeners International is a great resource for folks seeking to plant small veg beds. Just FYI. And don't forget how important home gardens were in the US, Canada & England during WWI & WWII, when we also faced food/fuel scarcity issues like we're starting to see now. Bring back the Victory Garden!


Sounds interesting, but I do have some concern about wasted space, since this is suppose to optimize space. By the garden being square there is wasted space in the corners. The corners are very inefficient for growing since it comes to a point. It would be better if everything was circular and then there would be no wasted space in the corners, and one could maximize there space and crop.


Get verminators full of red wigglers going indoors in the winter months, and feed them table scraps, but most delightful, feed 'em all that old junk mail, newspapers and cardboard! Then in the spring you'll have lots of good worm-castings to start your plants off with a bang! Free of course! Mix your worm castings into the soil in your square foot garden. plant some leaf lettuce, green onions and try a few herbs.Mother Nature thanks me every year for this small act of recycling with an abundance of free food!


Re: corners...they come in handy for bushy, sprawling plants like squash that might otherwise crowd out other can actually let them jut out into the surrounding lawn/rock/what have you which makes more room for the plants in the middle.

Unless one is very much this-whole-garden-must-fit-in-the-exact-space-outlined-by-the-bed's-borders person, a box is just fine.


I don't get it. How can things grow like they should when they're crammed together? How can you grow full grown tomato plants only a foot apart? I have 4 feet between mine and they'll use every inch of it eventually. It's cute, tho. Would work great for smaller plants like herbs. Can't wait to see it develop.


You did a great job with them! I've been growing my garden, using a semi-square foot method, for 12 years. LOVE IT! It's "semi" because I have 9, 3x9 beds. Not square but square filled.

Tomatoes do great as do cukes. All depends on how many squares something needs to grow. 2 zucchini plants take up a whole bed but produce TONS.



You can use wine barrels if you'd like a more circular shape to plant in. A friend of mine has been doing this for ages and she loves it. Now, the collecting of barrels may be a little difficult for someone not in California, but I'm sure you could find something similar.


We started out with this method. It is great for beginners and some people love it and stay with it.

As for the 'wasted space' - you can obsess about inches, or you can grow some food. What's more rewarding?

And if you want to know how all those plants will grow if they are allegedly 'crowded' then try this book out:

How To Grow More Vegetables.

In it, the author clearly illustrates how CLOSE spacing benefits the plants by creating beneficial microclimates, shading out weeds and so on.

We've taken bits from Mel B. and bits from this guy, and our own decades of experience, to find what works for us.

Regardless of what you do, happy and productive gardening to all!


The system works great - I've "grown" my square foots over the years to 3 3'x20' beds and you can't believe how much grows in them (except this year we had an unfortunate start with a hungry woodchuck). Just remember to rotate the vegetables each year from one square to the next and add compost. I highly recommend the spiral supports for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and even squash. Once a week just wind the growing plants up the sprial - couldn't be easier.


I like the square foot gardening method. I set one up a while ago but used the wrong type of compost, so things aren't growing too good. I will replace the soil with the mixture you mentioned and give it another try.


That's kinda what I do with my garden but I do six inches instead of twelve. Still a good method though.


I live in a village and work in agriculturing. We produce vegetables in our farms and i try to read everything
about them. This information is very useful for me and i also found another useful guide about vegetables;


Don't forget to install a little irrigation system for that garden. That is one of the most important aspects of gardening that a lot of people don't plan for. Plan, plan, plan and you're garden will grow. Get your own irrigation system at Orbit's website here:


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