The very beginnings of this blog, way back in 2008, covered my original square foot garden I started as a mature student in the back yard of our rented house. I had just about 22 square feet to use and my (then) boyfriend bought me a raised bed kit as a gift. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever had, and in fact, I still use it. Even today, my (now) husband helped our kids sow lettuce and flowers in the very same raised bed, although I’m happy to say, I don’t still live in a rented student house!
The raised bed kit was moved to our allotment last year and placed upon some carboard to block the grass and weeds underneath. This year we chucked some spent compost on top, and voila, a raised bed suitable for non-taxing veg such as lettuce and a few flowers to attract the bees and beneficial insects.
Above is the raised bed I had alongside my last house – a simple 36 ft/2 made of some cheap wood and a spare roll of chicken wire. The poles were recycled from old plastic greenhouses I used to have when we first bought the house. As you can see, this is extremely simple, and it was quick to make.
Benefits of the Square Foot Gardening Method
- Square foot gardening is easy because you don’t need much space to get started – as the picture above shows, this was just the side passageway next to my previous house. You can pop small raised beds in random areas.
- Saving space means more space or more produce! Rather than using the old-fashioned wide spacings of Victorian gardening provenance, you use the modern, efficient spacings that the plants can tolerate, without wasting loads of space in the form of rows for walking between plants.
- It’s ergonomic – You only make sections which are 3′ wide (4′ if you can access all sides, or have long arms!). This is a similar idea to the market garden bed widths of 30″ – because that’s about the max distance that the average person can comfortably straddle and squat to plant and harvest across. As square foot gardening is typically done with raised beds, this means less bending down, no straddling, and no need to use large equipment for weeding, etc.
- Reduce water usage – moisture is more efficiently retained inside raised beds compared to flat, row-based gardening.
- Everything is kept neat and tidy in organised squares – it can be aestethically pleasing if done well.
How to Set up a Square Foot Garden
- Plan where your raised bed will be and measure it out in feet. If you have a weedy area you want to convert, lay down some layers of plain newspapers and then cardboard on top to suppress the weeds. If you plan to access the raised bed from every side, you can make it 4×4′ if you can only access from 2-3 sides, then make it 3′ wide and as long as you like.
- Use old sleepers, scaffolding boards, recycle some wood (not chemically treated!) such as pallets, or plastic boards, hoarding, slats, cladding, etc. or you can buy a pre-designed kit for a raised bed, made from wood or plastic. Assemble these as a kind of frame around your designed layout. Use nails or brackets and screws rather than glue to attach the boards. Try to make the beds 6″ deep or more. The deeper the better – my bed in the photo above is about 5″ on the right and 10″ on the left, but there is soil underneath, so the plants can put down roots further. This is very important for root crops, but not so important for things like salads and spring onions, etc.
- Fill the raised bed with compost, spent mushroom compost, maybe some topsoil. Other good things to put in are some sphagnum moss or coconut coir, if you can get hold of either cheaply, and some coarse vermiculite. If you are using a mixture like this, try to get about 1/3 coarse vermiculite, 1/3 moss/coir, and 1/3 compost. Otherwise, bump up the compost proportion to 50-70% and split the remainder between the other two ingredients.
- Personally, I put down a layer of kitchen scraps on top of cardboard. These will be buried under several inches of a soil/compost mix so they won’t smell as they decompose, and they will attract worms and other beneficial biology into the beds. I use a multipurpose compost. You can also add a little well-rotted manure at the bottom, such as the bagged manures you can get, or perhaps a sprinkle of pelleted chicken manure.
- Make a simple grid from recycled bamboo poles, thin pieces of wood, or something like recycled ventian blind slats. You can even use old string or twine as long as it will last your growing season. The grid is to measure out the raised bed into the squares of 1′ each, so if you made a 4×4′ raised bed then you will have 16 squares in your grid. The grid just sits on top of the soil/compost mixture and helps you organise your crop spacing properly. Tie your poles or wood together at the points where they cross over.
Crop Spacing in a Square Foot Garden
This is where we get efficient – the square foot gardening method saves a lot of space, but you need to use these crop spacings, rather than the typical in row and between row spacings found on the back of seed packets. These spacings are usually based on Victorian row gardening spacing, which we don’t want. The plants will still have enough space and light using square foot garden crop spacings, but won’t waste massive amounts of space for rows to walk in between. Crops are spaced so that each square in the grid usually has 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants in it (there are a few exceptions) see the table below:
|Crop Name||Plants per Square||Crop Name||Plants Per Square|
|Beetroot||9 (16 for baby beets)||Peas||16 (need twigs for support)|
|Corn||4||Spinach||9 or 16|
|Cucumbers||2 (diagonally placed)||Spring Onions||16|
|Fennel||4||Strawberries||1 – 4|
|Lettuce (open, leafy)||4 or 9|
|Onions||4 or 9|
Large Crop Spacing in the Square Foot Garden
As mentioned above, there are a few exceptions to the spacings, because some crops require more space. Pumpkins, squashes, and so on typically need about 9 or 16 sqare feet EACH to grow adequately. You may be able to get away with 1 square foot per plant for summer squashes such as patty pans or small pumpkin varieties (like the delicious South African Gem squash), but try to grow them upwards by tying them onto poles or canes to save space. Similarly, courgettes can be done in 1 square foot, but they would also probably be best to train upwards on some kind of poles or frames, as otherwise they will spread out too much. Be careful to trim off some of the lower leaves as the plant is trained up and tied to the poles.
Some varieties work better trained upwards than others – I bought Olga oilseed pumpkin seeds this year, and they have lots of little tendrils, so they would have been perfect to train upwards, although I didn’t know this wehn I bought and planted them! It was only after they started growing and spreading in earnest that I noticed they had good tendrils. A lesson learnt for next year.
Final Thoughts on Square Foot Gardening
I have thoroughly enjoyed using this method for well over a decade now, and there aren’t really any disadvantages. It is quick and easy to do, and cheap/free if you can use recycled materials and get hold of compost/manure etc. for free. Square Foot Gardening is not something to do if you have lots of space though, and you’re wanting to produce large amounts of fruit and veg for a family or to sell. In that case you’d probably be better off using the 30″ wide market garden rows and having paths of 9-18″ in between (depending on if you need to get a wheelbarrow or cart in between the rows).
I hope you enjoyed learning about square foot gardening, do drop me a line if you have tried it yourself or have any questions!