Square Foot Gardening is an effective way of gardening used to maximize land and resources. Start your backyard garden and grow all the food you need to survive directly on the homestead. This is Chapter 1 of 11 for the homesteader that wants to start growing all their vegetables themselves.
You are reading Chapter 1 of our gardening series in The Homestead Handbook:
Square Foot Gardening
Some people may still be wondering: what’s the deal with the “square foot garden“? Sure, single-row farming style may not be the most effective method for families, but what makes the square foot garden the best alternative?
A square foot garden provides numerous benefits to the gardener. For example, different types of plants require a different amount of spacing in between each unit—some need up to 12 inches while others only need 3-4 inches of space. In the square foot garden, you can adjust the spacing of your plants accordingly while still maintaining an efficient use of space. If you have a crop that requires a full 12 inches of space, then you know you will have about 1 square foot per plant in your garden. If it needs 4 inches, you may be able to fit 9 plants in the same amount of space. For spacing of 3 inches, you now have sixteen available spots for your plants. You don’t have to adjust the size or room of your garden—you only need to do the math to figure out the healthiest and most efficient spacing for each crop species.
Another drawback of traditional single-row style gardening is that you are in constant danger of ruining your own crop by walking over them, or having the family dog—beloved as he may be—tromping happily through the foliage or helping himself to a berry or two. Walking in your garden also packs down the soil, which only adds work to your to-do list. After the soil is packed, you will need to go through with a hoe and dig up the soil in order to have room to plant. Even someone with a long arm-span can only reach about two feet into any garden space without risking injury, which gives you about a 4×4-foot space that will be neatly and effectively used. This also reduces the amount of space in your yard being occupied by the garden—space that could be better used for family barbeques, fruit trees, or room to play.
Once you’ve established the best area of your yard to set up your 4×4 square foot garden, you will want to get to work improving your soil. Some yards may have naturally rich and fertile soil, and this is certainly a boon to the backyard gardener, but it is safe to say that most families will find themselves in need of supplemental products to make sure they are getting the most from their garden’s soil. Some soils may not even be able to grow vegetables or flowers at all without aid. Unless you know your soil is very rich, it is a safe and good idea to assume you will need to improve the quality of your garden’s soil before you begin the work of planting. Did you know that most soils only have about 4% organic material? Seems low, doesn’t it! And it makes it logical that most soils will obviously need help upping that percentage to help your garden grow. Traditionally, soil improvement comes from the hard labor of tilling, hoeing, or even digging up your entire garden to the deepest depth possible before adding enhancers like manure. According to an informal survey of gardeners, the average amount of time these traditional methods take to yield a healthy, rich garden was seven years! That is a lot of years and a lot of hard work, especially considering most American families do not stay in a home longer than seven years as it is. That does not paint a hopeful picture for the backyard gardener—not unless you can do something to enhance your garden’s soil at a much faster rate.
Were you to work a traditional single-row garden, you would have an enormous waste of time, money, and energy. All the tilling and digging, all the money spent on mineral enhancers and manure, all the wasted space as you plant a single row of crops that you may or may not even need or want to eat—and remember your garden may not even grow healthily under these conditions for almost a decade. But using the 4×4 layout method, you can produce the SAME harvest with 20% of the space. That is a full 80% of your yard that you have just eliminated from the labor of tilling, fertilizing, and watering, without any crop loss!
Square foot gardens in raised boxes, one of the many options of customization
So you’ve arranged your 4×4 space in your garden—now it’s time to improve the soil. Ideally, you want to dig out about 6 inches of soil in this area. Once that is accomplished, it’s time to mix in some enhancers: 2 inches of peat moss, 2 inches of vermiculite, and 2 inches of compost, which are all available at most nurseries or home improvement stores that provide gardening supplies. Some crafty gardeners even know how to make their own compost at home—something easily accomplished and which will make your family even more sustainable and self-sufficient. Compost piles can be made by setting aside a small corner or area of your yard where you will pile dead plant material such as fallen leaves, pulled weeds, or discarded branches, as well as organic kitchen scraps. Instead of shoving your unused organic material (like last night’s leftovers) into the garbage disposal, take them out to the compost pile! Be sure you set this area up as far from your home as possible, as rotting material does certainly emit odors your family may not find very attractive. A small amount of chicken wire can act as a fence to keep the pile organized and keep the family pets from nosing too closely.
Once you have mixed these ingredients with the 6 inches of soil you have dug up from your garden, you will have a full 12 inches of soil that is 50% improved from its original state. Some gardening experts have stated that plants will only continue to grow downward, and that 12 inches of improved soil will not be enough for a healthy garden—but they’re wrong. After all, most rototillers only dig 6 inches deep, and when you provide your plants with soil that is healthy, mineral-rich, and with ingredients like peat moss which helps the soil retain water, the roots will actually NOT need to dig deeper to get the nutrients they need. They will stay right where you’ve planted them, because you’ve given them everything they need to thrive already.
Since we are abandoning the single-row gardening method, we must also point out that there is no need to turn your square foot garden into a smaller version of single-row gardening. It is often wise to stagger the crops within a garden, so long as you are providing whatever necessary space the plant in question may need to thrive. The fact is, single-row gardening is effective for especially commercial farmers because they need all their crops to ripen at the same time, so that they can then harvest them all at once and take them to be sold to the general public. If you are growing for your family’s needs, however, it’s safe to say there isn’t nearly as much demand for a large amount of a single crop to be harvested all at once. Staggering your crops means you can have veggies ripening on a cyclical schedule—no hurrying to use up an enormous batch of tomatoes before they all go bad, or hoisting off extra bell peppers to your co-workers lest they wind up in the compost heap. Instead, you can treat your garden like your own personal grocery store produce section, harvesting the staggered crops while others are still growing.
Now it’s important to point out that the staggering method means you may not have the one-time yield necessary for other self-sustaining home food projects such as canning or freezing food, which many families have done since the days of the World War Two “victory gardens”. If your family practices these methods, you should adjust your plans for your square foot garden accordingly, and just remember all alternatives if your needs change in the future. Regardless of whether you stagger your crops, you will still be making far more effective use of your space by just abandoning the single-row method.
Another fantastic advantage of the square garden method will be felt especially by families who may not have a lot of yard space to begin with—or who have oddly-shaped yards, or yards which are occupied by features such as large decks, storage sheds, playgrounds, orchards, carports, or any other space-strangling feature. You can customize your garden space to your yard and rest easy knowing you will not be losing any capabilities to grow a great amount of produce for your family’s needs. You can even move your garden right next to your house! There are a lot of advantages to having the garden close to your home—you’re more likely to visit it often, more likely to keep a keen eye on it when it comes to birds, family pets, and other pests, and you’re more likely to notice when something is amiss.
Some readers may be wondering about the specific benefits of the soil improvement mixture, so let’s discuss a bit about why this mixture is so effective for your square-foot garden. The first obvious improvement, to repeat, is that it cuts down on labor from trying to improve whatever condition your yard’s soil may be in—and there are some terrible soil types in this country! Rather than “digging down” and trying to improve it, by using the square foot method, you will be “building up” good soil, taking only the first six inches which is much easier to dig, and adding to it ingredients to improve its quality.
This particular mixture is a very light-weight mixture, an important characteristic, as it will make it easier for plants to grow and roots to spread and take hold. The mixture is nutrient and mineral rich and eliminates the need for smelly, messy fertilizer supplements. And the mixture is excellent at retaining moisture for your plants—yet it drains well, should your garden experience overwatering either through manual watering or a particularly rainy season, as will occur depending on your living location.
For your perfect soil mixture, you want to take the 6 inches of dug soil and mix it with:
1/3 Peat Moss
1/3 Vermiculite (for this ingredient, we recommend the large 4-cubic-foot bags of coarse grade)
1/3 Blended Compost (whether purchased from your garden store or created yourself at home, but you’ll want to get a home compost heap started long before you plan to plant your garden)
These are all natural, organic ingredients. You are not adding anything chemical or man-made to your garden to risk contaminating your crops. You will not need to worry about waterlogged roots, and unlike compost, these ingredients actually smell quite pleasant! It is important to note that it is your final ingredient—the blended compost—which will be providing the most of the nutrients and minerals to your garden, so be sure to pick up quality stuff for your mixture. It is by far the most important ingredient to improve your soil quality. This is about the same method one would see used by professional greenhouse gardeners—and you’ve probably already done something similar yourself, if you have ever taken care of potted houseplants. Chances are you went to your local garden store to purchase mineral-rich potting soil to accomplish such a task; there’s little chance you went out into your backyard and dug up soil for your indoor plants, even though that would be the “economic” choice, but that soil would be unlikely to help your plants thrive. This method of soil improvement is much like purchasing bags of potted soil for your garden, but without the ridiculous cost such a task would surely incur!
Some readers may be wondering—what about fertilizer? After all, it has been touted by gardening experts as a necessity for healthy soil and hearty plants for a very long time. But, much like the “12 inch deep” rule and the single row method of gardening, use of fertilizer is a traditional tool that isn’t necessarily “wrong” to use, but it certainly isn’t always the most effective tool in your belt, either. There are a lot of different types of fertilizer, from organic to chemical, and they all have different types, ratings, features, and uses. The fact remains, however, that using the square foot gardening method means you can forgo the use of fertilizer in your own garden. You won’t need it!
Fertilizer is typically used for the same reasons as compost: as an all-natural, nutrient and mineral rich addition to soil which won’t cause any harm to plants. It is certainly a time-tested and useful tool, no question about it. However, the point of the square foot garden method is to make gardening easier—on your energy, on your time, and on your wallet. Since the soil mixture we previously discussed does all the work of fertilizer (particularly the blended compost ingredient), there is simply no reason to waste time and money also adding a fertilizer to your garden. The “perfect soil” mix on previous pages does all the work. Plus, you can create compost on your own if you wish—and that is not something the average American family can say about fertilizer. Not everyone has access to farm animals!
Now let’s talk about exactly what your square foot garden is going to look like. This method means you will be building a box to hold your crops, and this box can be customized to your needs and available supplies, once again saving you time and money. Since you are building this box to fit your needs, it also means you can put it wherever in your yard you want, wherever the most effective use of space may be. How often have you seen friends or neighbors struggling to make a garden work in a terrible spot in their yard, simply because it was the “only place” where they could fit a single-row garden? How many gardens have been wasted by being forced into shady corners or dry patches? That won’t be a problem for you. You can build your garden box wherever is ideal for you. Plus, having your garden in a contained space means it is much easier to keep your yard looking neat, tidy, and organized.
As previously mentioned, your garden box can be built from a variety of materials, meaning you can customize its look to match an aesthetic of your yard or house, or to fit your particular climate. Bricks, stone, and lumber are just a few of the materials you can use, so feel free to figure out what’s going to work best for your budget and your energy. Once you build them, they are done and reusable. You can place your box anywhere in your yard—since you are using the soil mixture laid out in this guide, there is no need to worry about placement! You’ll also be eliminating one of the most annoying and time-consuming chores of the gardener: weeding. Boxes can be build individually or stacked end-to-end, and you will still be able to reach all the squares for your crops so you can maintenance them and harvest as necessary. If you decide to build your garden box directly against any existing structure, such as your house, a shed, or a fence, you will want to use a smaller box width size to make sure that you don’t lose any capability to reach the entirety of your garden (you do not however need to sacrifice box length). Should you choose wood for your building material, there is no restriction on the type of wood you use, yet another way you can customize the look of your square foot garden to fit your yard’s aesthetic, as well as the constrictions of your budget. Some wood types, such as cedar and redwood, are more pricey but may last longer. You can decide what best suites your needs. While you do not need to treat the wood to have a successful garden, you may decide to do so regardless. Make sure you do not use paint or stain on the inner wood, where your soil and plants will be—this could cause damage to your crops. This is also a danger with pretreated wood. This guide recommends avoiding pretreated wood for your garden box. It is simply safer, and treatment is not necessary to begin with.
You also have customization options when it comes to what is under your garden box. Depending on your family’s yard, you probably have some grassy areas, maybe a concrete or wooden porch, or some other type of ground material in other areas. Placing your box on top of your existing lawn is certainly an option, but remember you will still need to maintenance your lawn around the garden. Another option is to lay down landscaping fabric (available at most garden and home improvement stores) over grass or bare soil, and then place shredded bark on top of the fabric. Building your garden over this set-up will basically eliminate any chance that your garden will be plagued with weeds, saving you time and energy in the process. There is really no limitation to how you place and design your garden. Some people may even go as far as to lay concrete or pavement in the aisles between their garden boxes, which will again cut down on the risk of weeds and provide another level of aesthetic customization. This will not be the best option for every family—some families may not even have the room or capability for such an undertaking. However, it is an option. Truly, there are quite a few options for “dressing up” the look of the aisles between your garden boxes. We recommend laying down landscaping fabric first regardless of your choice, as this will help prevent weeds. On top of this, some of the things you could use to create your aisles include shredded bark, stepping stones, crushed stones, concrete, brick, etc. Really, any material is potentially useful! Get creative and make your garden your own!
One of the most important parts of your square foot garden will be the grid system. Building a 4×4 garden box alone is deceiving—it almost looks like it’s not nearly enough space to have a viable garden. But once you actually place the grid system, suddenly it becomes apparent exactly how to set up your garden and how it’s going to look. One of the best features of the grid system is that once a single square has been harvested (say, were you to stagger your crops), all you need to do once harvesting is complete is add just a bit more compost to the newly vacant square, plant a new crop, and voila- you have harvested and replanted without disturbing a single other square within the garden. Using a different crop in every square is the best method for maintaining soil health, as will be demonstrated throughout the rest of this guide.
You have several options when it comes to materials to build your grid system, again going back to the aesthetic of your garden, the materials available to you, and the budget you are working with. For example, if you have ever seen an archaeologist working in the field, you may have seen them building their own grid system at the dig site, usually out of string or twine. This method is meant to separate sections of the site to make it easier to catalogue things that are dug out of the ground, to record where they are found in relation to other things. You also have the option of using string or twine for your grid, but you may want to go for something a little more sturdy and permanent. Archaeologists can use this method because their sites are temporary and the grids are not meant to last beyond a few weeks or months during the dig. If you use these materials in your garden—especially considering the regular watering you will be doing—you may find yourself with broken or rotted string and a suddenly gridless garden. Even if your string grid does survive, you may find it hard to see the boundaries of the thin string grids once your plants begin to thrive and their leaves bush out.
For a more permanent grid solution, it is better to use rigid material that does not have a high chance of rotting in the elements. When your grid is more visible, it also adds another visually pleasing element to your garden box, customizable to your desires. Being able to see your grid system will also help you visualize how you want your garden planted.
Earlier, we talked about the shocking amount of lettuce seeds that are typically sold in an envelope of seeds you would purchase from your garden store—some packets contain thousands of individual seeds, the large majority of which will surely go to waste with traditional gardening methods. Indeed, you could say the very reason there are packets with 1000 seeds is specifically because the manufacturer knows—or thinks he knows– you will be likely using gardening methods that will waste the vast majority of them! You may wonder why people using the single-row method don’t just practice conservation of seeds as-is, but consider the work and energy of such a task: measuring out the tedious inches between plants, planting just a few seeds there, and moving on to the next space. Even though you will be “saving” in terms of the amount of seeds you’re wasting, you could waste multiple weekends just getting your garden planted in this way. Square-foot gardening means you don’t have to waste seeds, time, or energy.
Another tedious activity ended by square foot gardening is “thinning”, which we previously mentioned. Typically in a single row garden, you will be wasting that entire packet of 1000s of lettuce seeds, because the alternative is slow and tedious measurement and planting. Then, when the plants begin to sprout, you’ve got another chore ahead of you: it’s time to thin the “herd” of lettuce plants so they don’t suffocate each other out of existence. Not only is this a very tedious activity itself, but your actually risk damaging the root systems of the plants that you aren’t uprooting by pulling up its neighbors. Instead, in your square foot garden, we recommend that you snip. Don’t uproot the unnecessary extra crops. Identify the strongest, healthiest looking bloom, and simply snip off the rest around it with an ordinary pair of scissors. This ensures the root systems will not be disturbed. You should also have a surplus of seeds through this method, since you are not wantonly spreading them all across your garden, so store them in a dry cool place, either in your house or garage. This will save you money and time! You won’t need to purchase new seeds every season, and you will gather a collection of surplus seeds that you can access at your leisure as your garden is harvested and you rotate your squares. Seeds can last up to five years if they are stored properly! Think of how many trips to the garden store you will be saving; think of how convenient it will be when you decide that, this time, you want to change your crops from carrots to tomatoes, and all you need to do is head to your family’s seed storage to make that happen. Your seed storage also makes a great addition to any family’s long-term emergency preparedness supplies.
Another great feature of the square foot garden is its portability. Adding a plywood bottom with appropriate drilled holes for water drainage means you can relocate your garden box whenever you need! Say it’s your year to host the big family reunion, meaning you’ll need space for all the aunts, uncles, and cousins, plus a grill, and room for the kids to play—no problem. You can move your garden box to the garage or an unused corner of the yard to accommodate the temporary crowd without doing any damage to your crops. Say you live in an area of the country that experiences huge weather events, such as hurricanes. Along with the rest of your possessions, you can keep your garden safe by moving it indoors during such an event—something that will also provide your family with fresh produce during an emergency when travel to a store would be dangerous or even impossible. You can also move it for less dramatic weather-related reasons. As the seasons change, you can shift your garden box to areas of your yard that get more appropriate sunlight, or likewise shift to shade if it’s a particularly blazing summer and you are concerned about your plants drying out.
Portability also means that if your personal capabilities change, your ability to garden successfully does not have to be affected. If you are temporarily injured, say you pull a muscle in your back and cannot bend down to do the work on the lawn, simply have the garden box moved to a suitable tabletop or up onto the deck, where you can better access it during your recovery. This also means you can arrange access to your garden depending on your family’s needs—maybe you want one down low where the little ones can reach a bit easier and learn how to garden young, or you want smaller boxes that will fit on the patio or balcony of a city condo or a townhome with no large, traditional yard space. Your options are multitude. This is really the most attractive feature of the square foot garden system– its capability to be customized to any gardener and any type of space. Make your garden work for you, instead of the other way around!
That was Chapter 1: The Square Foot Garden from our Homestead Handbook: How to Grow All The Food You Need In Your Own Backyard