Is Square Foot Gardening Worth It?


For most gardeners, especially beginners, lots of consideration is given to lots of things, from what to grow, to where to grow, but not much is given to how to grow, or at least, how best to grow. Many gardeners still engage in traditional bed gardening, and those that consider new methods, like raised gardening may still plant in rows.

Square foot gardening is an ideal method to gardening with many benefits if done appropriately. From saving space to increasing yield, square foot gardening will help any gardener reap a good harvests in small spaces.

This post will take you through the pros and cons of square foot gardening, as well as some steps to take note of when planning your garden. It’s a convenient method to use, so make sure to follow this post and make the choice yourself.

What is square foot gardening

The concept was invented by backyard gardener, Mel Bartholomew as a better way to grow a vegetable garden, and it became widely accepted when he introduced the idea to the gardening public in 1981 in his book Square Foot Gardening.

To get an understanding of what square foot gardening is, we should know what raised garden are.

A raised-bed garden is simply a planting area that’s higher than the level of the surrounding ground. They keep pathway weeds from your garden soil, prevent soil compaction, provide good drainage, and serve as a barrier to pests such as slugs and snails.

You may have come across those highly organized raised beds divided into perfect squares, each producing a variety of plant. Those are square foot gardens. It is simply a raised bed that is divided into squares. 

It is a simple method of creating small, orderly, and highly productive kitchen gardens. The beds can be 2 feet x 2 feet or 4 x 12, but the most common is a bed that is 4 feet by 4 feet.

Effectively, this means 16 squares. The idea of dividing the planting area into squares makes it more efficient than row planting. This allows plants to be situated more closely together, benefitting from one another.

Planning and Spacing a Square Foot Garden

Getting the ideal square foot spacing is important. There are lots of square foot garden kits on the market you can buy to make the frame of your raised beds, but you could also create your own. You can consider building a bed with bricks, old concrete blocks, stones or even logs from your garden.  

Once you have assembled your frame, create a grid to demarcate each square foot. You could do this by using string. The grid is purely a visual tool and there is no actual need to divide the soil to ensure you allocate exactly one square foot to each crop you choose to grow. You could also consider bamboo canes, straight branches pruned from garden trees

Benefits of Square Foot Gardening

Square foot gardens, when densely planted needs less weeding. Since most of the garden is dedicated to crops, there is little room for weeds to start coming up.

Also, you’re not using soil that has existing weed seeds in it, so the likelihood of having weeds is low. You also reduce space as each area of the square foot garden is made for a specific use, so you can expect to increase the volume of your yield.

Raised gardens warm faster, allowing for earlier planting and harvest. Having a square-foot bed makes it possible for you to have a continuous succession of plantings.

As one square has finished producing, you can immediately plant another crop so there is a continuous pool of produce to select from, lengthening the growing season for as long as possible.

Intensive planting minimises bare soil and acts as a cover crop to protect the important soil ecosystem that lies below.

Square foot gardening can give high yields in small spaces. This is because you maximise the space for gardening in each square. Moreover, you don’t give room for weeds to grow so you, so you can use the space to plant more. A lot 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. Some of these plants also increase the nutrient levels in the soil.

Square gardening also makes gardening easier for most gardeners. In the first place, the neat, raised beds or square foot gardening makes it easier to garden if you are getting on in years or have mobility problems.to move and garden without having to bend too much.

Then the square makes it easier to keep track of the plants. The orderly nature of the system also makes it easier to create a good plan for the whole of the gardening year. The garden system is essentially easy to set up, even for complete beginners.

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 time.

With square foot gardening, the raised beds are placed above the ground, right on top of your existing soil, and a special soil mix is used for the garden, so there is no need to worry about improving your existing soil.

Square foot gardens are highly adaptable. Your square foot garden can be made to almost any dimensions according to what will work best in your yard and in your available space. It is recommended, however, that you keep your garden at a maximum of 4 ft. deep so that you can always have easy access and can reach each square.

Disadvantages of Square Foot Gardening

Although many vegetables can be grown in square foot gardens, they struggle to accommodate larger plants Some crops may require a lot of space and the small beds may not be convenient for some crops 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.)

Square-foot beds (like all raised beds) require more water, as they will dry out more quickly than in-ground growing areas.

It may be rare to find weeds in square foot gardens, but those that do establish are difficult and more time consuming to deal with. You will have to weed little and often, using your hands, rather than going between traditional rows with a hoe.

Planning your square foot garden

If you do decide to get a square foot garden, you have to make sure you care for it appropriately. You have the consider some of the following

A good Location

The first thing to decide is where to locate your new garden bed. Most fruit and vegetables grow best in a sunny position that is sheltered from wind but you can also grow where it is shady as well; it just depends on the plant. Some plants such as chard and spinach do well in shade while plants such as potatoes and carrots tend to do better in sunlight

Try to locate your square foot garden as close a water supply as possible. The reason for this is simple – you are much more likely to take good care of your crops if you see them everyday,

In the case you decide to plant climbing trees such as peas and runner beans, it’s best to locate your square foot bed backing onto a vertical structure such as a wall or fence,. Generally, no matter where you put your garden or what you decide to plant, three basic things have to be well thought out, if you want your vegetable garden to yield the best: sun, water, and soil.

Layout

One of the best things s about gardening is that you have the freedom to plant what you want to grow.  If you aren’t sure whether to start with fruit and vegetables, I recommend you grow things that you enjoy to eat, as well as produce that isn’t readily available in the supermarket.

Grow taller crops at the back of the bed, and smaller ones at the front so that the larger ones don’t create too much shade for the smaller ones.  If you want to grow climbing vegetables, put them at the back of the bed near the supporting vertical structure 

Crop rotation

Basically speaking, you should avoid growing vegetables from the same family in the same bed year after year to reduce the risk of certain pests and diseases. Also, crop yields decrease when plants are repeatedly sown in the same square/beds. Plan to rotate plant families to new beds each season to keep pests on the run.

Companion planting

Plants are delicate, and require as much care as possible, but you won’t always be around to give them just that, so you can grow plants among other plants. Plants can be really good for one other and create mutually beneficial relationships. 

For example, some plants can help reduce the incidence of pests or disease in their neighbours. Marigolds in a square foot garden, for instance will attract ladybirds and hoverflies which will help to pollinate your crops.

Planting strong-scented chives beside your carrots will help to deter the carrot fly. Some plants can help those in neighbouring squares by gathering nutrients.

Plants 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.

If you would like to delve deeper into companion planting then I wrote an article on it and you can view it here

Fill Your Square Foot Garden Bed

After creating your square foot garden frames and accessories, the next step is to fill them with your soil. Mel’s Mix is the recommended soil for use in your square foot garden. It is a combination of ⅓ peat moss, ⅓ vermiculite and ⅓ compost so it may be the most expensive part, but it’s likely to be the most valuable too.

Mel’s Mix absorbs and holds the moisture such that you don’t have to water as often or as much as typical soils. It’s also naturally very loose, making weeding a breeze, saving you a lot of time and effort.

Planting and harvesting are also simple because of the looseness of the soil. However, peat is not a sustainable source of material to use and its use in composts and plants is now being rejected. 

A more eco-friendly and sustainable suggestion is using a mixture of 50% peat-free compost, together with 25% potting grit or fine gravel, and the final 25% fine chipped wood bark. The gravel and bark help to improve the drainage as well as water retention of the mix.  

Planting Your Square Foot Garden

The next thing is to know the varieties you want to grow. Depending on the kind of plant you decide to grow, square beds help your measure out just how many you may grow in one square.

Whether you are planting seeds or seedlings, the key thing is to ensure you are placing the right number of each crop into each square foot of the garden. 

One Plant Per Square Foot

One whole square foot each might be required of the largest plants that can easily be included in a square foot gardening system. These include brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, brussels sprouts & cauliflower, and herbs such as coriander, oregano, sage, rosemary, 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 Swiss chard, parsley, basil and a number of other leafy greens.

Nine Plants Per Square Foot

Crops in this category include peas, beetroot, large turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi 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.

Here are examples of what you can plant in each square foot:

  • 1 tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage or corn
  • 1 squash, cucumber or melon per 2 square feet
  • 4 lettuce, chard, marigolds or kohlrabi
  • 6 vining plants, such as beans or peas, on trellises
  • 9 onions, beets, bush beans, bush peas, garlic or spinach
  • 16 carrots or radishes

Don’t forget to make sure to have companion plants.

Conclusion

Square foot gardening is a highly beneficial method to use when gardening. Its benefits outweigh its negatives. It’s also easy to set up.

As highlighted in this post, not much goes into the preparation for a square foot, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be done properly. Once you set it up, you can expect a higher crop yield, better organization, and more time saved, among other things, so yes, I do believe square foot gardening is worth it.

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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter and long term gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 45. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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