"I can only have a big garden with a variety of plants if I have a big yard. It’s the only way, right?"

A lot of people have this misconception that you need to have a vast amount of land to have a great garden. The truth is that there are actually quite a few ways for you to grow some great vegetables, plants, and flowers in a smaller space. One of those ways is square foot gardening.

What is Square Foot Gardening?

a square foot garden

In square foot gardening, you pick out a small section of land and create a small and orderly garden on it. Mel Bartholomew is credited with creating this intense cultivation system. In most square foot gardens, a raised bed is built inside a four-foot by four-foot square. The bed is then divided into four rows of square feet for a total of 16 units. Of course, this size isn’t set in stone, and you can always change it to meet your needs. The basic idea is that each square will have a different type of plant growing in it. For that reason, the number of plants growing in each square depends on the type of plant. For example, a larger variety like a pepper or tomato plant would take up a whole square by itself, while smaller plants like herbs could probably stand to share a unit.

Benefits of Square Foot Gardening

There are several benefits to reap from square foot gardening beyond just being able to grow a wide variety of thriving plants in a small space. For instance, having a densely populated garden will create a natural weed barrier, because the leaves of your plants will provide you with perpetual mulch. Alternatively, you can try companion planting to keep pests away, as a square foot garden is already an enclosed space. The large variety of crops in such a concentrated area can also help fight diseases. Plus, square foot gardens are easier to protect from the elements, especially if you need to use a cover to keep your plants safe from early frosts or other weather-related problems. Finally, smaller square foot gardens can often be turned into cold frames, allowing you to extend your growing season even more.

Picking a Location

You’ll want to start by selecting an ideal location. You may not have an open four-foot by four-foot square in your yard, but you should still use what’s available to you. You’ll want to find a spot that will get about six to eight hours of sunlight daily, since most of the plants you grow will require about that much. Putting a square foot garden too close to the trees on your property can cause problems with roots and shade. Soil nutrients aren't as big of a concern here, since the raised bed's soil will almost always be separate from the soil in your yard. The more important factor to consider is whether or not the soil is going to drain well. If it puddles after a rain and takes too long to empty, you’ll either want to find another location for your garden or add amendments in to assist with drainage.

Setting Up Your Square Foot Garden

a square foot garden

The next step is getting your raised beds into position. Keep them bottomless unless you’re making a tabletop garden (in which case you can you can use plywood for the bottom). Add in your favorite soil mix. If you don't have a set favorite, we'd recommend a mixture of one part compost, one part moss, and one part vermiculite. Determine what your layout will be and plant each variety in its designated square. Mark the grid with what plant goes where to make it easier on yourself. When you plant your seeds, only plant a few at first. Then clip the weaker plants to give the stronger ones a better chance of success.

Square Foot Garden Care

consider installing a drip irrigation system in your square foot garden

Once your garden is up and running, there are a few things you’ll need to do to care for it (just like any other garden). Use a bucket to water your garden or install a drip irrigation system in the raised bed. You may be tempted to use a hose, but this can actually damage your garden and remove a lot of soil from the bed. Gentle waterings are always best. You can harvest your crops throughout the growing season, and when it’s over, just add a layer of compost over the soil before planting anything else in it. It can also be beneficial to implement some kind of crop rotation in your square foot garden, as it'll further reduce problems with diseases, pests, and loss of nutrients. Keeping track of what you plant in each grid will make rotating your crops much easier.

Square foot gardening is a marvelous way to get a nice variety of plants out of a small space. It may seem complicated at first when you're learning how to set up the grid and determining what can fit where, but over time, you’ll find that it's an orderly system that actually makes gardening easier. You’ll love all the crops you get from this little garden!