In 2008 I bought my first gardening book, “Square Foot Gardening,” by Mel Bartholomew. I read it cover to cover and then read it again. Square foot gardening principles make gardening easy to understand, with simple steps to help you get started and be successful.
I followed Mel’s advice and agree that square foot gardening is the best way to get started and have a thriving home garden. In this post, I’ll share five essential tips to help you have a productive and beautiful square foot garden.
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5 Successful Square Foot Gardening Principles
1. Start small to have a successful Square Foot Garden
When you begin gardening, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But, if you start small, it is easier to succeed. Then, as you gain experience, expand your garden.
One 4’x4′ or 4’x 8′ (1.2m x 1.2m or 1.2m x 2.4m) raised bed is a good starting point. You can grow a surprising amount in this size space. Although Mel recommends beds be 6 inches (15 cm) deep, I’ve had the best success with beds between 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) deep.
I use the Deep Root Cedar Beds from Gardener’s Supply and the Metal Raised Garden Bed with Garden Grids from Garden in Minutes in my garden.
Starting with one bed is manageable, and you can learn as you grow. Add more beds later as your experience increases.
This 4’x 8′ (1.2m x 2.4m) raised bed has three varieties of peppers, 4 different herbs, carrots, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, onions, flowers, and more.
2. Follow the directions to have a successful Square Foot Garden
As you read the book All New Square Foot Gardening, Mel gives specific advice about:
- The importance of using a grid
- Proper planting spacing guidelines
- Optimal sizes for raised beds
- Distances between beds
- Which type of soil to use
Here are a few important directions to follow to have a thriving Square Foot Garden:
Use a grid in your square foot garden.
I used to have raised beds with permanent grids and some without. Here’s what I learned: the ones with grids utilize the space much more efficiently. Also, I quickly filled an empty square (see tip #5 below) with seeds or transplants in my gardens with grids. Now, all of my raised beds have grids.
I am not the most naturally-organized gardener, but here’s my secret — the permanent grids give me a framework and guidelines to be organized. I love them!
I use watering grids from Garden in Minutes for the permanent grids in my garden. The benefits of using the Garden Grid™ from Garden In Minutes include:
- The grids are prominent and easy to see.
- Assembly is simple; the garden grids come in preassembled sections that press together by hand in seconds.
- At the end of each season, lifting the grid off the bed and adding compost to fill the beds is easy. With my previous grids made of wood, it was challenging to add compost because the grids were screwed into the beds.
- Each square is watered evenly with 16 water streams, which helps seed germination.
Follow the plant spacing guidelines.
Planting the recommended amounts allows you to utilize all the space in the beds without overcrowding. This post shares the recommended plant spacing for square foot gardens.
Follow the garden bed and aisle size guidelines.
Square foot gardening recommends beds no wider than four feet with at least three feet between each bed. It may seem like a lot of space between beds, but plants thrive in square-foot gardens and will quickly fill in the spaces.
Answer to frequently asked question: The white buckets in my beds are in-bed vermicomposting bins. Learn more about in-bed vermicomposting in this blog post.
The guidelines in square foot gardening helped me design my garden. I share more raised bed garden design tips in this blog post.
Use the best soil for raised bed gardens.
A fundamental principle behind the success of square foot gardening is the soil Mel Bartholomew developed.
“Years of experimentation led Mel Bartholomew to a simple mixture of equal parts peat moss, coarse vermiculite, and blended compost as the perfect growing medium for his revolutionary gardening method. Mel was forever experimenting and adapting his method, but although he recognized that there were circumstances under which gardeners might need to alter the ingredients in the growing medium, he never, ever found anything that could fully substitute for the original Mel’s Mix formula.”All New Square Foot Gardening, page 125.
Use the correct blend of soil, and don’t forget to add fresh compost each time you plant.
- 1/3 vermiculite or perlite
- 1/3 coconut coir (triple washed is best) or peat moss
- 1/3 compost (several different types are best)
If you live in the Phoenix valley, I worked with Arizona Worm Farm to develop a modified Mel’s Mix that is well-suited for growing in the low desert of Arizona’s harsh conditions. Read this post for more information about the best soil for raised bed gardens.
3. Use vertical space to have a successful Square Foot Garden
There never seems to be enough space in the garden; fortunately, there’s a simple solution – growing vertically. Vertical gardening has several benefits, including:
- Saves space and adds additional growing room.
- Many vining crops grow best when grown vertically.
- Adds visual appeal to the garden.
- Growing crops vertically provides additional sunlight and airflow for plants.
- Pests and diseases are often easier to spot when growing crops vertically rather than sprawling on the ground.
I utilize many different ways of growing vertically in my garden. Learn more here.
4. Follow a planting guide for your area
Each crop has a preferred growing temperature. Some prefer cooler weather and tolerate a slight frost; others need warmer weather to grow well and would die in frosty conditions. Plants are happiest and grow best when planted at the ideal soil temperature and growing conditions.
Planting crops at the right time is a crucial part of gardening. However, the best time to plant varies significantly by region. A big part of gardening success is learning the unique growing conditions of your area.
Find a reliable planting guide for your area, follow it using square foot gardening principles, and you will be successful. Read this post to help find a local planting guide for your area.
For example, where I live in Arizona, our planting dates differ significantly from other parts of the country. I use this Arizona Vegetable Planting Guide.
- PLANTING GUIDE: Each month lists vegetables, fruit & herbs to plant outside & seeds to start indoors.
- HARVEST GUIDE: Photos show what may be ready to harvest that month.
- Planting dates are for the low desert of Arizona (zone 9b).
5. When a square opens up, plant something
The last of the 5 tips for a successful square foot garden seems simple, but it is essential. When you follow correct square-foot gardening principles, you will harvest plants from squares and have open space that might go unnoticed in less-organized gardens. An empty square is an invitation to plant!
A few steps and you’re ready to plant in your empty square:
Remove the spent plant by cutting it at the base of the plant. (The roots will add organic matter to the soil.)
Add a layer of fresh compost to the top of your soil.
Check your planting guide to decide what to plant.
Plant seeds or transplants in the square!
Use this tool to space seeds perfectly in your square foot garden.