Square Foot Gardening: Tips For Starters

Square foot gardening, a technique originally conceived by Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening, involves starting small, using the measurement of a square foot. The first such garden was a 4-foot square, but many container, rooftop, patio, organic and herb gardens are much smaller, about 1-foot square. Here are some considerations when starting a square foot garden.

Pick Your Spot

Location is important for a successful square foot garden. To grow properly, plants need 6 to 8 hours of sunlight daily, so choosing a sunny location is primary. Make sure the garden is near the house, as it needs to be convenient to water the garden often. Square foot gardening requires more water than regular, in-ground gardens.

Build or Buy and Arrange Boxes

Boxes can be purchased or made at home. Use 1 by 6-foot, or 2- by 6-foot lumber in 8-foot lengths, but not treated lumber, which has chemicals. Box should be a depth of 6- to 8-inches and not wider than 8 feet.  Deck screws should be used to hold the box together.

Boxes need to sit above the ground where they will hold all the soil and plants. If more than one box will be used, place boxes 3 feet apart to allow walking between. Always work from the sides of boxes, never in them.

Boxes should be laid out in 4-foot by 4-foot space, with a square-foot grid on top, and then separated into 1-foot sections.

Mix Soil and Fill Boxes

Soil mixture for square foot gardening consists of equal thirds of compost, peat moss and coarse vermiculite. Some garden websites sell soil specifically for square foot gardens, but making the right soil mix is easy to do – and much less expensive in the long run. Once mixed, fill the boxes with the soil.


If using seeds, place no more than 2 to 3 per hole. If setting in plants from garden centers, arrange according to space requirements. The recommendations from Mel Bartholomew include using 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per square foot, and placing a different flower, vegetable or herb in each square foot.

Water and Weeding Requirements

Once planted, square foot gardening experts say to water with a bucket of sun-warmed water to get the garden started. Use a hose to regularly water after that. Also tend to weeding, which should be easier than for in-ground plants. But only kneel beside the box, never step on the dirt in the box.

After Harvesting Tips

Following the harvest in square foot gardening, add more compost and soil mixture to replace what has been taken out with the harvested plants, and add new plants. Never let the square foot garden sit idle, as long as growing conditions permit. Most areas of the U.S. have 3-season crops: spring, summer and fall. On the West Coast and some southern states, growing season is year-round.

With a minimum of preparation and follow-through care, the square foot gardening techniques described here should yield a bountiful harvest in as little space as possible. How’s that for return on investment?