How to plant a square foot garden

square foot garden
Photo by Thomask0 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

If you have a small backyard or aren’t able to tend to a large garden, square foot gardening may work for you.

Much like the name suggests, a square foot garden is made up of square-foot grids. The term “square foot gardening” was coined by American author Mel Bartholomew in 1981. Bartholomew wrote Square Foot Gardening, a book that explains how to layout and build a square foot garden, place grids, mix soil and take care of a square foot garden. Since the book was published, square foot gardening has become a popular method of gardening.


Non-rotting wood should be used to construct the boxes. Typically, square foot gardens are 4 feet by 4 feet, but they can be smaller or larger. The boxes should have a depth of 6 or 8 inches. It’s suggested that the width of the garden be no larger than 4 feet so you can still reach across the frame to all of your plants.

Mel Bartholomew recommends lining the bottom of your box with weed fabric, then adding “Mel’s special mix”: ⅓ blended compost, ⅓ peat moss and ⅓ coarse vermiculite instead of using native soil. Ohio State University Extension offers an alternate soil choice if your soil is heavy clay: Add ⅓ compost or peat and ⅓ coarse sand to the soil, plus garden fertilizer.

Once the soil has been put in the frame, place a permanent grid across the frame to mark each square. Nails and twine can be used to make the grid, or narrow wood laths and screws.

How to plant

In each square, you will plant 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension explains how to plant a square foot garden.

  • Plants that are grown one foot apart, like tomatoes or cabbage, should be planted singly in a square.
  • Chard and lettuce are two plants that are typically spaced 6 inches apart, so four of these plants can be put in one square.
  • A square with nine plants will be spaced 4 inches apart, like beets and spinach.
  • 16 plants can fit in one square if they only need to be 3 inches apart, like radishes and carrots.

Once your seeds have been planted, tending to your square foot garden is much like taking care of a traditional row garden.

Protecting your square foot garden from pests, the sun and frost is easy. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension suggests using bent metal hangers to support garden fabric as a shield from the sun. Chicken wire or netting will work to keep wildlife away. And to extend your growing season, add a row cover supported with bent metal hangers.


The following are some benefits of square foot gardening, adapted from North Dakota State University Extension:

  • The soil isn’t packed down since it isn’t walked on
  • Harvest can be larger that a garden designed in rows
  • Less water is used because there aren’t rows
  • There is less weeding because there aren’t rows
  • Pest control is easier because the space is more contained
  • Crops can be rotated by square each season
  • The squares require less work than a traditional garden designed in rows
  • No tilling is required each spring
  • Vertical gardening can be easily incorporated at the end of squares
  • Square foot gardens warm more quickly and drain better than traditional gardens

3 more posts about gardening in small spaces:


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