Square Foot Gardening (2024)

When we imagine growing food, we often think of neat rows, planted in straight lines, occupying lots of land. But in 1975, backyard gardening enthusiast Mel Bartholomew was looking for a more space-efficient way to grow food. He applied his engineering background to develop a new gardening method called "square foot gardening," which he turned into a best-selling book and popular television show. Today, more than 2 million gardeners use the square foot gardening method. But is it right for you? Let's take a look.

What Is Square Foot Gardening?

Square foot gardening is exactly what the name says: dividing a growing area into 1-foot x 1-foot sections. In a true square foot garden, an actual grid is placed on the growing area to divide up the space. What you grow in each section depends on the mature size of the crop. Some sections will house 16 small plants, like radishes, or only 1 plant, like a cabbage. Check out these examples:

Plant 1 per square foot

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Pepper
  • Tomato
  • Eggplant
  • Melon (trellised)

  • Winter squash (trellised)

Plant 2 per square foot

  • Cucumbers (vining, trellised)

  • Summer squash (trellised)

Plant 4 per square foot

  • Leaf lettuce
  • Swiss chard
  • Marigolds
  • Strawberries

  • Bulb onions
  • Basil

Plant 9 per square foot

  • Bush beans
  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Beets

Plant 16 per square foot

  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Green onions
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The same universal gardening principles still apply to square foot gardening. You need a site with plenty of sun, easy access to water, and good soil Miracle-Gro® Raised Bed Soil is an excellent choice, as it provides an ideal environment for plant roots). Square foot gardening also works best in a raised bed that's no more than 4 feet wide (so you can reach the middle easily), though it can be whatever length you like.

Now, let's look at the pros and cons of square foot gardening.

Benefits of Square Foot Gardening

For new gardeners, square foot gardening offers a simple vegetable garden layout that makes it easy to calculate exactly how many plants you need. It's also a handy solution for gardeners with limited room to grow, since the intensive planting style lets you plant more plants in less space. A square foot garden is also relatively low maintenance, since it leaves little room for weeds.

Drawbacks of Square Foot Gardening

Some crops, like large, indeterminate tomatoes, need more space than a single square foot—otherwise they'll start stealing nutrients and water from other plants. Plus, plants can deplete moisture and nutrients quickly in a square foot garden due to the intensive planting technique. Feeding your plants regularly with Miracle-Gro® Shake ‘n Feed® Tomato, Fruit & Vegetable Plant Food will help provide the nutrition they'll need in order to produce a big harvest. Also, be sure to water whenever the top inch of soil is dry.

It's worth noting, too, that traditional square foot gardens are only 6 inches deep, which is too shallow for many plants. Vegetables need plenty of space to stretch their roots and absorb nutrients from the soil. If you choose to try this method, make your beds at least 12 inches deep to allow lots of room for the roots.

How to Tweak Your Square Foot Garden for Success

So, how can you benefit from the helpful aspects of square foot gardening while modifying the approach to fit your needs? Try one of these ideas:

Mix and match. Choose multiple plant types from the same category to give you more flexibility over what to grow in the space you have. For example, instead of planting a square with 4 lettuces, plant 2 lettuce plants and 2 marigolds, which not only attract pollinators but also add a pretty accent to the garden. Or, since you can fit 4 strawberry or 4 basil plants in one square foot, combine 2 of each of the plants in each of the outermost squares to create a lovely edible border around the inside perimeter of the bed.

Think small. Rather than planting a large tomato plant that would require more nutrients and water than are available in a single square foot, choose a smaller dwarf or bush variety, like Better Bush, that can flourish in less space.

Grow up. Adding a trellis to your square foot garden is a perfect way to increase available growing space and vines off the ground. Do this for peas, pole beans, cucumbers, melons, and squash. The easiest way is to attach the trellis to the back of the bed and use the back row of squares for the plants to be trellised.

So, no matter whether you appreciate a highly-organized planting plan for your raised bed or prefer a tad more creative approach, a little tweaking to the square foot gardening approach, plus some extra attention when it comes to watering and feeding, can lead to an impressive harvest. Enjoy your planning and planting!

Article and images by Julie Thompson-Adolf.

Square Foot Gardening (2024)


Does square-foot gardening actually work? ›

Popularized by retired engineer-efficiency expert Mel Bartholomew, square-foot gardening allows you to get a high yield from a small area—a win-win situation for beginning and experienced gardeners. It's especially beneficial to gardeners who don't have much time or yard space.

How much can you plant in a square foot garden? ›

Here's a general guide: Large Plants: 1 per square foot (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.) Medium Plants: 4 per square foot (carrots, beets, lettuce, etc.) Small Plants: 9-16 per square foot (radishes, onions, spinach, etc.)

How many square feet of garden do I need to be self sufficient? ›

The general rule of thumb when it comes to growing a garden is to have 100 square feet of gardening space (traditional row gardens) per person for fresh eating only. To preserve food and put it up for the non-growing season, you're looking at 200 square feet of gardening space per person.

What is square-foot gardening summary? ›

Square foot gardening is the practice of dividing the growing area into small square sections. The aim is to assist the planning and creating of a small but intensively planted vegetable garden. It results in a simple and orderly gardening system, from which it draws much of its appeal.

What are the problems with square foot gardening? ›

The Cons of Square Foot Gardening

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.

Is square foot gardening too close? ›

It allows for more plants per square foot while providing shading for the soil, which limits evaporation and inhibits weed seedlings. Having your plants too close together, however, can have detrimental effects. Poor air circulation can create an environment ideal for disease.

What is the square garden method? ›

With the square-foot gardening method, you plant in 4x4-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 separate each square foot.

How many tomatoes to plant in a square foot garden? ›

SFG recommends planting one indeterminate tomato per square in the grid. We're assuming you're attaching your trellis to the north end of your raised bed and that the tomato is planted in those adjacent squares.

How to layout a square foot garden? ›

The guideline for plants in a square-foot garden is one extra-large plant per square; four large plants per square; nine medium plants per square; and 16 small plants per square. Some huge plants will require special spacing.

What is the best layout for a vegetable garden? ›

As a general rule, put tall veggies toward the back of the bed, mid-sized ones in the middle, and smaller plants in the front or as a border. Consider adding pollinator plants to attract beneficial insects that can not only help you get a better harvest, but will also prey on garden pests.

How big of a garden do I need to support 2 people? ›

A general guideline for a summer vegetable garden is to plan on about 100 square feet per person. Advanced: If you're more ambitious and want year-round groceries, plan on about 200 square feet per person.

What size garden for a family of 4? ›

Generally speaking, 200 square feet of garden space per person will allow for a harvest that feeds everyone year-round. For an average family of four, plan for an 800 square-foot garden—a plot that's 20 feet by 40 feet in size should do the trick.

Is square-foot gardening a good idea? ›

One of the most significant advantages of square-foot gardening is that it saves or consumes 80% less space than conventional gardening. Gardeners can plant various crops in a small area by using a raised bed and dividing it into one-foot squares.

How many square feet is a good size garden? ›

As a rule of thumb, you should start small then add if needed. A good starting size for a garden would be between 75 and 100 square feet.

What is the square foot method? ›

Square Foot Method – In appraisal, a method of estimating the replacement cost of a structure; it involves multiplying the cost per square foot of a recently built comparable structure by the number of square feet in the subject structure.

Is square foot gardening the same as intensive gardening? ›

Intensive gardening is a generic term used to describe methods of maximizing the garden space you use to grow your plants. Square foot gardening, an intensive gardening technique, was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his book Square Foot Gardening.

How much does a vegetable garden yield per square foot? ›

With good soil and close planting, you might estimate a conservative yield of about 1 pound per square foot. So in a 400-square-foot garden — just 20 by 20 feet — you can grow enough veggies for yourself.

Is gardening really worth it? ›

When done correctly, even the smallest backyard plot can produce copious amounts of fruits and vegetables and possibly even a significant saving to the grocery budget. However, it takes time and patience, and a small outlay of money to buy seeds, and tools, if you need them.

Why would square foot gardening be a helpful choice in our situation? ›

The SFG Method reduces the amount of land needed to cultivate food compared to traditional row gardening, making it the better option for those who want or need to grow fresh produce in small spaces. A 3-by-3-foot, elevated raised bed at Globeville Village Community.


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