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Today, more and more people are interested in growing their own food as a way to reconnect with nature and stave off the rising cost of living. But, if you only have a small space for growing, did you know that you can grow more food without wastage by using the square foot gardening system?
If you understand how this system works and use it to your advantage, you’ll be surprised at how much lovely fresh produce you can grow, even all year round. In this introductory article, I’m going to explain the square-foot gardening concept so that you can understand how it works.
I also plan to write further follow-up articles that will give you examples of how you can put this system to use to create a wide variety of themed food gardens.
What Is Square Foot Gardening?
The concept of square-foot gardening was first developed by Mel Bartholomew, way back in 1981. He even wrote a book about it which you can find here if you want to explore this further.
As a civil engineer and hobby gardener, Mel Bartholomew decided to marry the two together to create a structured garden system that would produce the most food in small spaces.
The concept is actually quite simple and has a myriad of uses for gardeners all over the world, no matter how much or how little space they have. Essentially, it’s the practice of dividing your gardening space into squares (or similar) with each one measuring 1 foot (30 cm) all around.
Furthermore, not only does this give you an actual plan for planting out your space more effectively, but it also explains how many plants of different varieties can happily grow in each square. More about this later.
What Are The Advantages Of Using The Square Foot Gardening Method To Grow More Food?
Apart from the obvious advantage of being able to grow more produce in small spaces, there are numerous other advantages to this method.
- You can plan out your space accurately and know exactly what you’re going to plant where.
- This is perfect for raised beds that allow easy access to your crops on all sides.
- You don’t need a large growing area to grow enough fresh produce.
- This concept can be applied to growing in pots, raised planters, or even grow bags.
- If growing in pots or raised garden beds, it eliminates the need for weeding.
- It involves a great deal less work than traditional growing methods.
- The concept is so easy to implement that it’s perfect for both new gardeners and seasoned experts.
How Does The System Work?
There’s nothing complicated about setting up a square-foot gardening system. The basic method uses a raised bed that measures 4 feet by 4 feet (120 cm x 120 cm). However, in my example below, I’ve used one that measures 3 feet by 3 feet. I’ve used this simple design to explain this method to you.
However, once you understand the concept, you don’t have to use this same size raised bed because you’ll be able to work out how you can apply this to different sizes of containers or even patio or balcony spaces.
So, to get started, you’ll either make or purchase a raised garden bed measuring 3 feet by 3 feet. If you’re quite handy, you can make your own from recycled timbers or even besser or cinder blocks. If this is beyond your capabilities, there are plenty of kits that you can purchase that only require you to assemble them yourself.
Divide Your Garden Bed Into Squares
Once you’ve assembled your garden bed, you line the base with weed cloth or similar and fill it with premium quality soil.
You then divide this garden bed into 9 equal squares. You can use whatever you like to section off the squares like thin planks of wood, pegs and a string line, or even old tiles that you insert into the soil so that they form a low fence around each square.
This is what your garden bed will look like in its simplest form. With this setup, you now have 9 individual planting spaces for 9 different types of plants. Can you see how this is the perfect way to create a highly productive garden?
This type of setup also allows you easy access right around the garden bed which makes tending your veggies so much easier.
Once you have your basic setup, it’s then just a case of working out what varieties you’re going to grow in each square and there’s a science behind this too. Depending on which vegetables you want to grow will determine how many seedlings you’ll need for each square.
This is worked out by how much space each plant will need to grow happily. Another advantage of this system is that you can fully utilize companion planting to ensure the health and vitality of your crops.
How To Determine How Many Seedlings You Need Per Square
Even this step is easy because all the calculation has already been done for you. You see, some plants will need an entire square to grow in while others will only need a section of each square.
Here’s a rundown of which vegetables and how many you can plant in each square.
Plants That Need A Whole Square
Larger varieties are going to need an entire square to grow in. These are planted in the middle of a complete square and include:
- Staked Tomatoes
- Sweet Potatoes
- Iceberg Lettuce
Plants That Can Accommodate Two Seedlings In One Square
Most of these varieties will require a trellis so that they can be trained to grow vertically, saving even more space. These include:
- Winter Squash
Plants That Can Accommodate Four Seedlings In One Square
The following plants can be grown as a set of four in just one square. Make sure you space them evenly with each plant close to one corner of the square.
- Caged Tomatoes
- Loose Leaf Lettuce
- Caged Zucchini
- Swiss Chard or Silverbeet
- Caged Summer Squash
Plants That Can Accommodate Eight Or Nine Seedlings In One Square
There are even smaller growing plants that will allow you to plant up to 9 seedlings in each square. These nine seedlings are planted in a square pattern of their own just like the overall garden bed.
Some of these may need staking or trellises that they can climb up.
- Bush or Pole Beans
- Garlic (this will produce smaller bulbs)
- Peas (trellised)
- Leeks (for smaller stalks)
- Onions (for smaller bulbs)
Plants That Can Accommodate Up To 16 Seedlings Per Square
This might surprise you, but there are even plants that can be grown with up to 16 seedlings in each square. You want to space these out evenly so that each one has enough room to grow. Of course, you don’t have to plant this many seedlings in each square but it’s nice to have the option.
Plants That Need More Than One Square
There are a few plants that require more space because they have a large root system. For these, you want to utilize 4 squares to grow a maximum of two plants. You want to space these far enough apart and also a good distance from the edge of the squares.
- Brussels Sprouts
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, it’s really easy to plan out your vegetable garden so that you can get the maximum yield from the space you have available.
Tips For Getting The Best From Your Veggie Garden
Before you get started, it’s a good idea to plan what you want to grow and where in your square grids. You should also familiarize yourself with companion planting so that you’re growing vegetables that complement each other. Here are some useful tips to remember.
- Make sure you grow a mix of different vegetables in your square-foot garden in order to keep pests at bay and reap the most benefits.
- Plant taller growing varieties on the north side of your raised garden so that they don’t completely shade out the other veggies that you’re growing.
- If you’re also growing some shade-loving veggies, you can plant tall varieties in the center of the bed and then plant sun lovers on the south side and shade lovers on the north side.
- Don’t forget to add some herbs and flowers around the perimeter of your bed if you have the space as these will help to keep pests away and attract pollinators.
Use This Concept To Adapt To The Space That You Have
Now that you understand the basic concept of square-foot gardening, you can easily apply this to your own space even if you just have a small courtyard, patio, or balcony to garden on.
For this, you want to work out where the sun hits the space and then measure up the area. This will give you an indication of what size garden bed you’re going to need.
And, you don’t even have to work with a raised garden bed. You can use the same concept by using large 12-inch (30 cm) pots to represent each square in the grid. Even grow bags will work well with this system.
The other thing that you want to consider is where your bed will be situated because you don’t want to cause drainage problems or damage to the surface that your veggies will be growing on. All of this should be worked out at the same time as you’re calculating the amount of space you have.
Frequently Asked Questions
Square foot gardening is a way to grow many different plants in small spaces. The method involves dividing up a gardening space into square sections that typically measure 1 foot by 1 foot (30 cm x 30 cm). Then, different plants are grown in each section.
Ideally, you want a space that measures a minimum of 3 feet by 3 feet. However, it is possible to use this method in both a larger or smaller space.
Square foot gardening allows you to maximise the space that you have available and allows you to grow a greater variety of crops in a small space. Other benefits include better water conservation, greater yields and less maintenance.
An ideal soil mix would include a mix of compost, coco coir and vermiculite. This provides a good balance between adequate drainage and good water retention as well as an excellent nutrient base.
A square foot garden can be used to grow a variety of different plants. More commonly, these types of gardens are used to grow vegetables and herbs. However, you can also grow other plants such as fruits and flowers.
This will depend entirely on the weather conditions and the types of plants you’re growing. In general, if you’re growing vegetables during summer, you can water on a daily basis if the weather is dry. The best idea is to test the top few inches of the soil and if it’s dry, you need to water it.
As square foot gardening focuses on growing a variety of different plants relatively close together, it reduces the need for pesticide usage because some plants will repel pests rather than attract them.
The maintenance of a square foot garden is relatively simple. All you have to do is water it, provide nutrients and remove weeds if there are any. You also want to harvest your crops regularly and keep an eye on any possible problems such as pests and diseases.
A square foot garden is the best option if you only have a balcony or rooftop garden. You can even use a variety of different containers rather than a raised bed if you wish.
Although the concept of square-foot gardening has been around for many years, not everyone has embraced it or understood how it can easily be used to grow more food in even the smallest spaces.
I hope that you’ve found this information useful and I encourage you to give it a try. I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the results.