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5 Tips for a Successful Square Foot Garden

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. 

5 Tips for Successful SQUARE-FOOT GARDENING

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.

5 Successful Square Foot Gardening Principles

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5 Successful Square Foot Gardening Principles

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.

5 Successful Square Foot Gardening Principles

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.

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

Here are a few important directions to follow to have a thriving 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:

Here are a few important directions to follow to have a thriving Square Foot Garden:

Use a grid in your square foot garden.

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 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 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

plant spacing in square foot gardens

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.

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. 

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.

Raised Bed Garden design tips: How to design a raised bed garden #raisedbeds #gardendesign

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)
Best Soil for Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

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.
Use vertical space to have a successful Square Foot Garden
Add Vertical Space to Your Garden in 15 Seconds!

There are several ways to grow vertically, such as ladders, ladder mesh trellises, etc., but no matter how you do it, use the vertical space in your garden!

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.

Vegetable Planting Guide: A Visual Planting Guide for Low Desert Vegetables

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.


perpetual HERB, FRUIT & VEGETABLE  planting Calendar for the low desert of Arizona zone 9b
  • 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!

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.)

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.

Add a layer of fresh compost to the top of your soil.

Planting Calendar for the Low Desert of Arizona

Check your planting guide to decide what to plant.

Plant seeds or transplants in the square!

Plant seeds or transplants in the square!

Use this tool to space seeds perfectly in your square foot garden. 

Use this tool to space seeds perfectly in your square foot garden. 



Mel Bartholomew’s book, All New Square Foot Gardening, made my list of “5 Best Gardening Books“. Find out which other books make the cut in this post



If you enjoyed this post about square foot gardening, please share it:





amie sue

Sunday 29th of January 2023

Thank you so much for such detail. As a new gardener it is wonderful to have such knowledge at our fingertips. I was looking into purchasing watering grids from Garden in Minutes and then I saw that you also recommended the seeding square. I love the idea of both items. My question is, does the planting square fit inside the watering grid squares? Thank you in advance. amie sue

Amy

Tuesday 21st of June 2022

Angela, I just moved to AZ and your blog is FANTASTIC! Thank you, it gets me excited to get started! With the garden grid watering system, when you are planting 1 plant in the square foot, do you simply plant it close to where the lines cross? Thanks!

Angela Judd

Tuesday 21st of June 2022

Welcome to Arizona! For one each square foot, I plant right in the middle of the square.

Elizabeth

Sunday 23rd of January 2022

Do you have issues with hard water and the watering grid? I live on the other side of the Valley from you and we have off-the-charts hard water and I'm assuming you have hard water, too.

Angela Judd

Monday 24th of January 2022

I do have hard water, but it hasn't been an issue with the grids the way it is with soaker hoses. I can wipe off any build up on the outside.

Brandon

Thursday 13th of January 2022

Hi Angela,

Loved this post. Definitely a beginner gardener here and I love the idea of the square method. I’m purchasing the Gardening in Minutes grid for my 4 x 4 bed, but I’m curious to know how much to be watering (how long I should run it)? I’m planning on tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and some herbs. Each of these plants vary with the amount of water needed? So how would the watering grid work?

Angela Judd

Monday 17th of January 2022

Hi Brandon, typically I focus on watering the entire depth of the bed each time I plant - so most beds get about the same amount of water. Depending on your soil, bed depth, and water pressure that may be anywhere from 5-12 minutes. That being said some plants do require more water occasionally. I also install a pressure control valve https://amzn.to/3qBkkvf going into each bed. That way I can adjust the amount of water going into the bed (not individual plants). Hope that helps. I really have found the garden grids to be an amazing way to water. They are the best. Hope this helps.

Gilbert Gardener

Tuesday 11th of May 2021

Hi Angela, Love your posts. I am in the low desert region. I started this month with SFG. However I see that my soil is infested with a lot of tiny little insects (not sure if it is gnats or aphids or combination of both). Some of my saplings are dying because of this. I tried mosquito bits and have stuck yellow sticky sheets to attract gnats but have not seen good results. Any idea how to get rid of this infestation?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 11th of May 2021

Sounds like fungus gnats. Keep replacing the sticky traps to stay on top of it and let the top couple of inches of soil dry out. There are other options in this post that may help as well https://growinginthegarden.com/organic-pest-control-that-really-works/