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Square Foot Gardening - Growing Your Own Vegetables

Updated on February 27, 2008

This picture is before my plants really started coming in. You can see how I have the beds divided.

We have had a garden every year since we were married. It wasn't until last year though that we had a very productive garden. Last spring we built raised beds and tried our hand at Square Foot Gardening, a method developed by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970s. For the first time we had plenty of vegetables to eat from July through October and excess vegetables to store for the winter. We had an incredible yield for the small area we gardened. I think that Square Foot Gardening is a great way to go, especially if you are just starting a garden.

Last spring we made four raised beds, each one four feet by four feet for a total of 16 square feet per box, or 64 square feet total. We got more vegetables out of these 64 square feet than out of the 800 square foot garden we had previously. I am sure you are wondering how that is possible; believe me we were shocked too. I think the key is in having the raised beds and the great soil mixture.

Our old gardens had all been dug into the ground. We tilled down into the earth and tried to add nutrients to the existing soil, but just could never get it to grow very much of anything. The Square Foot Gardening method does take some time and effort up front to get the raised beds started, however I don't think it took as much time as trying to dig down into the earth and then amend the soil.

Mel Bartholomew wrote a book called Square Foot Gardening in 1981 and recently updated it in 2005. This book is an excellent resource for gardeners and was the key in making our garden successful. Bartholomew completely disagrees with the traditional row gardens. I tend to agree with his way of thinking. Bartholomew wonders on page 14 of his book "Why plant hundreds of seeds in one long row, and then turn around when they sprout and thin them out to one plant for every 6 inches?" I have often thought this was wasteful of the seeds and made more work for me.

As much as I like gardening, I don't have time for a lot of work and thinning out the seedlings after they sprouted just seemed like an extra step to me. Another step of gardening that I have never liked is weeding. It was just more work for me. Can you tell I like to take a hands off approach when it comes to gardening? We found that using the Square Foot Gardening method meant very little weeding. As in I pulled only a handful of weeds throughout the entire growing season.

Bartholomew also thought that having three foot paths between rows was wasteful of space and created a lot more area that would need to be weeded and maintained. Let's think about carrots. If they need a spacing of only three inches, then why do they need a three foot path between each row of carrots? They don't. You can plant 16 carrots in one square foot section of a raised bed and they will grow just fine.

The Square Foot Gardening book gives all the details on plant spacing and tells you exactly how many of a plant will fit in each square foot of your bed. I found this very helpful for the most part. The only problem we had were with our tomato plants. They grew so big that they overtook the boxes around them. Next year I will be sure to leave them two boxes per plant. In the past we had never been able to grow a tomato plant taller than three feet - this year they tomato plants were taller than me. I think this is because of the wonderful soil mixture that Bartholomew has come up with.

Mel's Mix as it is called is the key to the Square Foot Gardening method. There are three ingredients in Mel's Mix - compost, peat moss and vermiculite. This special formula holds moisture but drains well, both needed things for your garden. You don't need much of this soil. The raised beds need to only be six inches deep for most vegetables. Root crops do better in a box that is 12 inches deep though.

I like the raised beds for a few reasons. The soil that you create with Mel's Mix is just so much better than most people's soil in their backyard. The raised beds also make it easier to take care of. You don't have to bend over as far to take care of the garden or harvest the vegetables. It is easier on the back and knees. The raised beds also help the soil warm up earlier in the spring and stay warm longer into the fall.

My favorite reason for loving the Square Foot Gardening method is that you will get a lot more vegetables in less space, so your overall garden is not taking up as much space as a regular garden. This really works for me because I don't have a large area that gets much sun. Having plants so productive was a real benefit to my family last year.

Raised beds and the Square Foot Gardening method is not just for vegetables though. You can make beautiful flower beds using this method as well. I mixed things together and planted flowers in with my vegetables and that worked very well.

I have found the Square Foot Gardening method to be the easiest and most productive method I have ever used or heard of. This method is very easy to use and just makes more sense if you ask me. I can't wait to get back into the garden and start my second your of Square Foot Gardening. If you haven't already tried it, this is definitely something worth doing.


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    • profile image

      Arlene M 

      8 years ago

      We never have had a better garden in all our years of planting gardens then this years raised beds.Our neighbors loved to see us with boxes of free produce.Have fun-we did thanks

    • orthosrich profile image


      9 years ago

      Katlyn, a friend told me some oldtimer told her to mix garlic with cayenne pepper in a solution and let sit a few days. Then strain off liquid into a spray bottle and spray the plants

    • Jennifer profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      leoproject, if I remember correctly, the book talks about how they have introduced this kind of gardening in third world countries. But regardless of that, I do think it would work, if you can get the good soil to grow good veggies. TEaching people to compost will help them amend the soil. Good luck!

    • leoproject profile image


      10 years ago

      Would you actually recommend this method for 3rd world countries? We're experimenting with SQ Foot Gardening at the moment to see if we could possibly introduce this in Sri Lankan orphanages and make them more self sustainable. What do you think?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      We are using the Square foot gardening as well but we bought local dirt with cow manure mixed instead. It was cheaper and is working wonders. It is so much easier to keep the weeds under control and much easier to reach in and get the vegetables than in a regular garden. We also still have a regular garden for corn, etc. as well but the raised beds are by far my favorite. I would add thought that we plan to include wooden trellis' next year for the cucumbers to grow upwards rather than out. The cucumbers keep trying to latch on to the peppers, tomatoes, etc.

    • profile image

      mark e 

      10 years ago

      Jennifer, of all the webpages I have found so far concerning Square Foot Gardening I think yours is not only the best advertisement but the clearest overview of the method I've seen! Nicely done! Like you, my family and I have created four SFG boxes and I'm looking forward to the summer harvest!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      10 years ago from Houston, Texas

      We had built a raised garden bed for my mother when she was widowed. Gave her something to do and she loved the output from all the veggies.

      I noticed the photo in your hub. Looks like there are some large trees nearby. How much sun do your garden plots get each day?

      We are gardening in the ground, but with my aging knees (and the rest of my body) I could definitely use the help of having the garden raised. Trouble is, there are spots in our yard that only get about a half a day of sun at the most.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      10 years ago from East Coast, United States

      really like the method and its attractvie in a small yard, seems to be simpler to manage as well but where do you get all the extra dirt to fill up the raised boxes?

    • eaglegordon profile image


      10 years ago

      As soon as I read the title, I got the drift. Reading further confirmed that.

      Well yes you are going to get more, because you increase the density of the plants.

      Yet still allow room to get around for harvesting, watering, weeding, etc.

      Brilliant, love it.

    • profile image

      William Engle 

      10 years ago

      Very informative hub. I have a plenty of land but it has no yield yet. I would try the Square foot gardening to grow vegetable plants. I'm sure the information is would be very helpful for me. Thanks for the nice info.

    • foodstorage profile image


      10 years ago from Utah

      I LOVE square foot gardening! My husband made me some sweet garden boxes out of vinyl fence materials. I LOVE LOVE LOVE them. Great summary of Mel's system. It really is amazing. You get SOOOOO much food!

    • Jennifer profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago

      John, I tend to water my garden on the days it doesn't rain, unless it isn't very hot and then I just check it and water as needed.

    • Jennifer profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago

      Thanks C S Alexis, I will look at my library

    • C.S.Alexis profile image


      11 years ago from NW Indiana

      I cannot remember the names of any of her books as it has been so many years ago that it seems like another lifetime but.... you might like to find anything written by Ruth Stout as she is the one who got me started in this method of gardening. Her ideas were fantastic. I remember her name because my friend and highschool art teacher had the exact same name. Just thought you might be interested.

    • C.S.Alexis profile image


      11 years ago from NW Indiana

      Hey there. I love this method of gardening. I use a self made version. Can't wait for the ground to warm...snow to melt. I plan to write on this subject through the growing season. I hope we can share ideas.

    • johnr54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 

      11 years ago from Texas

      In your area do you need to do much watering? If so what kind of irrigation system do you use?

    • MarloByDesign profile image


      11 years ago from United States

      Jennifer, do you recommend planting the seeds indoors (in little pots or an egg cartons) in the Spring to start the growing process earlier (prior to planting outside)? My neighbor suggested that to me last year.


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