In a nutshell, the square foot gardening method involves:
- Dividing a 4-by-4-foot box into 16 squares; one type of crop in each square
- Laying a permanent grid of 1-foot squares over the box to guide planting
- Filling the box with a special, fresh soil mixture
- Replanting each square after harvesting
The method was invented in 1981 by Mel Bartholomew, a retired civil engineer and efficiency expert who trained his time-is-money eye on traditional, single-row gardening.
“Traditional gardening was a lot of work and weeds,” Bartholomew says. “And when I asked, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ I was told, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’”
Wrong answer for an efficiency guy. So Bartholomew analyzed everything he hated about gardening — weeding, watering, and long walks to large garden plots — and came up with a method that eliminates vegetable garden minuses and accentuates the positives — lots of organically grown vegetables in a fraction of the space and time.
Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening, inspired millions of small-space gardening acolytes and led to a foundation to feed the world, one square foot at a time.
Why should you square foot garden?
Bartholomew, 81, recently walked HouseLogic through the 9 reasons you should switch to square foot gardening.
1. Saves space: Square foot gardening boxes grow 100% of veggies grown the traditional way in only 20% of the space.
2. Saves water: Instead of shocking young plants with icy hose water, you water square foot garden plants with ladles of sun-warmed water from buckets or rain barrels. In the end, you use about 10% of the water you’d spray on a traditional garden.
3. Saves money on gardening tools: Since you never walk upon and pack down square foot gardening soil, you don’t need hoes, spades, or rakes to break it up. All you need is a hand trowel to mix the soil and a pair of scissors to cut greens.
4. No walking: You can place square foot gardening boxes anywhere there’s sun — outside your back door, on patios, and on decks. The closer the boxes are to your kitchen, the more you’ll tend and harvest produce.
5. No bending and reaching: Square foot gardening boxes typically are 4-by-4-foot square because Bartholomew figured adults can comfortably reach 2 feet. Gardeners can walk around their boxes, tending veggies without ever overreaching. If bending is a problem, build boxes on legs or rest them on a card table.
6. No weeding: Most weeds come from seeds or spores buried in soil. Square foot gardening soil, however, uses a 6-inch-deep mixture of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 coarse vermiculite, and 1/3 blended compost made with at least five different sources — leaves, manure, food scraps, coffee grinds, and eggshells. If a wayward seed does blow into a planting box, you can easily pluck it from loose soil.
7. Uses fewer seeds: Traditional gardeners sprinkle seeds around, and then thin seedlings. Square foot gardeners plant seeds and seedlings according to a precise plant-spacing formula: 1 tomato seedling per sq. ft, 16 onions, 8 peas, 4 celery, and so on. The formula eliminates guesswork and stretches a pack of seeds much further.
8. Raises little gardeners: Kids love to play in dirt and watch things grow. Square foot gardening lets them do both, without the tedious chore of weeding. As a bonus, kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves.
9. Raises rolling crops: After you harvest 1 square foot of veggies, throw in a handful of compost and plant a different crop in the bare square. That way, you’ll have a steady supply of greens throughout fall or until the first frost, whichever comes first.