The Square Foot Garden – Pros and Cons

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My husband and I have tried our hands at the traditional row garden and the square foot garden over the years, and somewhere along the line, we became hybrid-style gardeners. What does that mean? It means that we do not follow square-foot gardening principles to the letter; instead, we only implement what we found worked for us over the years.

With any gardening method, there are pros, and there are cons. So before you fully embrace the square-foot gardening method, take some time to get to know what you’re getting into, because in the end it might not be the best method for your needs – or it might be the greatest thing since coffee. Either way, there is much to learn before building your first raised beds.

In this article, we will take you through understanding the basic concept of square-foot gardening, discuss the pros and the cons and give you a bit of direction about what works and what doesn’t work with this gardening method, so you get off on the right foot.

Square foot garden with wooden grid.

What is The Square Foot Gardening Method

A square-foot garden is small-scale intensive gardening that divides a planting area into individual square-foot sections, typically arranged in a square-foot grid pattern. Each square foot of planting space has plants chosen to grow with a combination of crops based on their spacing and growing requirements.

Square-foot gardening maximizes space, minimizes maintenance, and increases harvest yields.

Square Foot Garden Grid

What is a square-foot gardening grid?

A square-foot gardening grid is a framework used to divide a garden bed or container into individual square-foot sections. The grid is typically made of wood, plastic, or string and is placed on top of the soil or growing medium to create separate planting areas. Each square foot is then planted with a specific crop or combination of crops based on their spacing and growing requirements.

The grid serves as a guide for planting; making organizing and managing a square-foot garden easy.

Planting a large basil plant into a square foot garden.
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Soil Mixes

The right soil type for raised bed square foot gardening is critical to a successful garden. The ideal soil for a raised bed garden should be well-draining, nutrient-rich, and loose enough to allow plant roots to grow efficiently. Most importantly, it should be free of contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides, and other chemicals.

Mels Mix

One popular soil mix for raised bed square-foot gardening is called Mel’s Mix. Mel’s Mix is a soil mix developed by Mel Bartholomew, the creator of the square-foot gardening method. It consists of equal parts of three ingredients: peat moss, vermiculite, and compost.

Mel’s Mix is an excellent choice for square-foot gardening because it is lightweight, well-draining, and nutrient-rich. The peat moss and vermiculite provide good moisture retention and soil aeration, while the compost offers essential nutrients for plant growth.

Mel’s Mix can be spendy, so some gardeners use locally sourced materials to create their own soil mix.

Soil or dirt section isolated on white background.

A note about peat moss

While the eco-friendliness of peat moss is a hot topic, many companies in North America have made efforts to promote sustainable harvesting practices and minimize environmental impacts.

Gardeners can also choose to use peat moss alternatives, such as coconut coir which has similar benefits and are much more sustainable.

We’re against using peat in our own garden. Although sustainable methods are used in North America, we do not know the long-term impact. While researching peat for this article, we encountered many arguments for and against North American harvested sphagnum peat moss. Still, nothing made as much sense as the article we found from David Suzuki and Ian Hanington.

“As the peat study’s researchers admit, there’s much to learn about the relationship between peat and climate, as there is with most natural systems and processes. But the more we learn, the more we come to the inescapable conclusion that everything is interconnected, that even seemingly minor changes to ecosystems can have wide-ranging consequences.”

By David Suzuki with contributions from Senior Editor and Writer Ian Hanington
https://davidsuzuki.org/story/for-climates-sake-save-the-peat

How Does a Square Foot Garden Differ From Traditional Row Planted Gardens?

Square foot gardening has many advantages over traditional row gardening. Implementing raised beds, dividing the planting area into small sections, and using a precise planting layout provide higher yields and better pest and weed control.

Additionally, square-foot gardening promotes healthier soil and plant growth by using compost and other organic fertilizers, and it is easier to manage and maintain than traditional row gardening.

Overall, square-foot gardening is a more efficient, productive, and sustainable way to garden. But it’s not a perfect fit for everyone, and with any method, there are pros and cons.

A lovely square foot garden filled with vegetables, and flowers.

Pros of Square Foot Gardening:

Square foot gardening is a popular technique that involves dividing a raised bed into small sections, each containing a different plant or crop. Here are some of the pros of square-foot raised bed gardening:

Saves space:

One of the most significant advantages of square-foot gardening is saving space.

Gardeners can plant various crops in a small area by using a raised bed and dividing it into one-foot squares. Intense planting practices with this method make growing more food in less space possible.

And those with limited backyard space or who want to grow vegetables on a balcony or a raised garden bed or rooftop have a method to make growing food possible. 

A square foot garden with many different flowers and vegetables.

Reduces water usage:

Square foot gardening requires less water than traditional gardening because the soil is contained within a small space. As a result, water is used more efficiently in a smaller area, resulting in less water waste due to evaporation. 

Additionally, gardeners can use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to deliver water directly to the roots of the plants, further reducing water usage.

Less weeding:

Because square-foot gardening involves densely planting different crops in a small area, there is less space for growing weeds. The crops grow so densely in a square-foot garden that it is difficult for weeds to get a foothold.

In addition, a lack of open soil means that gardeners spend less time weeding and more time tending to their plants.

  • Learn More: To better understand how weeds take over your garden, take a moment to learn how weeds grow and the best methods to remove them, so they do not come back.

Adaptable for different areas:

Square foot gardening is adaptable to different areas, such as urban areas, balconies, rooftops, or even indoors. Gardeners can use a variety of containers or raised beds to create a square-foot garden in any location.

Higher yields:

Square-foot gardening can yield more produce per square foot than traditional gardening. This gardening technique involves densely planting crops in a small area, allowing gardeners to harvest more produce per square foot.

Square foot gardening principles also incorporate plants that attract pollinators which will help increase yields in crops that require pollination, like melons, cucumbers, and strawberries.  

Companion Planting:

Another advantage of square-foot gardening is that it often involves companion planting, where different plant species are grown together to benefit one another. For example, some companion plants can repel pests, while others can attract beneficial insects.

By using companion planting in a square-foot garden, gardeners can create an environment that is more attractive to beneficial insects like pollinators and natural enemies of pests, which can help control pest populations and improve overall plant health.

Learn More:

Less pest pressure:

Square-foot gardening can reduce pest pressure by using various plant protection techniques. For instance, planting diverse crops can attract beneficial insects that control pest populations.

  • Related: Bugs aren’t the only pests you can find in the garden. Check out this post on keeping rabbits away from your crops.
Leafy greens growing in a square foot garden.

The Multiple Landing Theory and Square Foot Gardening

The “Multiple Landing Theory” or “Oviposition Preference” is a scientific idea that explains how insects decide where to lay their eggs. Essentially, insects must land multiple times on different plants to evaluate their quality and determine if it’s a suitable place to lay their eggs. This process allows insects to choose if the plant has the necessary nutrients and proper conditions for larval development and if any factors may affect their offspring’s survival.

So, what does this have to do with square-foot gardening?

Well, square-foot gardening allows for more intensive planting, with different types of plants grown near one another. The benefit is that insects may land on various inhospitable plants multiple times, increasing the likelihood that they will not find a suitable host to lay their eggs.

Cons of Square Foot Gardening:

Square foot gardening is a popular method for growing food, but it has drawbacks like any other technique. Here are some of the cons of the square-foot garden guide to full-foot gardening:

Requires Initial Investment:

One of the most significant drawbacks of square-foot gardening is that it requires an initial investment. Building raised beds and buying materials can be costly, especially for creating a larger-than-square-foot garden bed. Additionally, the cost of soil, compost, and seeds can add up over time.

Limited variety:

Square foot gardening is ideal for small-scale gardening but may not be suitable for those who want to grow various crops. The limited space in each square foot section may restrict the growth of larger plants or plants with deep root systems. 

High maintenance:

Square foot gardening requires regular maintenance. Gardeners must regularly water their plants, fertilize the soil, and monitor for pests. This type of maintence can be time-consuming, especially for those with a large garden. (the exact reason why we no longer implement square-foot gardening in our garden) 

Additionally, gardeners must be vigilant about removing dead or dying plants to prevent diseases from spreading.

Limited soil:

The small size of the beds often used in square-foot gardening means a limited amount of soil is available for plants to grow. Shallow soil depth can restrict root growth and limit the nutrients available to the plants. Gardeners must be vigilant about adding compost and other organic matter to the soil to keep it healthy.

Soil quality:

The soil used in square-foot gardening can quickly deplete because of the high density of crops grown in a small area. Therefore, gardeners must regularly amend the soil with organic matter, such as compost or manure, to keep the soil healthy and fertile. Additionally, soil-borne diseases can become problematic if the garden soil is not regularly amended and replenished.

Garden beds separated by paths made of pine cones.

The Best Plants For Square Foot Gardens

Square foot gardening is an efficient and space-saving technique allowing gardeners to grow crops in a small area. The best plants for square-foot gardens are compact, have a short growth period, and have a high yield. Here are some of the best plants for square-foot gardens:

Leafy Greens:

Leafy greens are ideal for square-foot gardens because they grow quickly and have shallow roots, which makes them perfect for growing in a small space. Additionally, they can be harvested multiple times throughout the growing season, which makes them an excellent choice for small gardens.

Learn More: See our grow guides for:

Herbs:

Herbs are perfect for square-foot gardens because they are compact and have a short growth period, meaning they can be planted and harvested multiple times throughout the growing season. Additionally, they can be grown in small pots, making them suitable for urban gardens or balconies.

Note: The recommended spacing may vary depending on the size and growth habits of the herb. Additionally, some herbs like mint and oregano are invasive and will require containments to prevent them from taking over the garden.

Here is the recommended square-foot garden plant spacing for common herbs:

  • Basil: 4 plants per square foot
  • Cilantro: 4 plants per square foot
  • Dill: 4 plants per square foot
  • Oregano: 1 plant per square foot (contain)
  • Mint: 1 plant per square foot (contain)
  • Thyme: 4 plants per square foot
  • Rosemary: 1 plant per square foot
  • Sage: 1 plant per square foot
  • Chives: 16 plants per square foot
  • Parsley: 4 plants per square foot

Tomatoes:

Tomatoes are a popular crop for square-foot gardens because they are easy to grow and yield lots of produce. Use determinate varieties for raised beds since they are more compact than indeterminate varieties.

Here are a few determinate tomato varieties suitable for square-foot gardening:

  • Celebrity
  • Rutgers
  • Roma
  • Bush Early Girl

Peppers:

Peppers are another popular crop for square-foot gardens due to their short growing period, high yields, and compact size.

Radishes:

Radishes are ideal for square-foot gardens because they have a short growing period, are easy to grow, and can be grown in small spaces.

Carrots:

Carrots are easy to grow in a square-foot garden and are ready to harvest in a few months. You can always double your crops by planting spring and fall crops.

Beets:

Beets are a great addition to a square-foot garden because they are easy to grow and don’t take up much space. You can also plant beets multiple times throughout the growing season, making them a high-yielding vegetable crop perfect for a square-foot garden.

Parsnips:

Parsnips are similar to carrots and are easy to grow in a small space. They have a sweet, nutty flavor that makes soups and stews delicious. Unlike carrots or beets, parsnips have a long growing season that will prevent succession planting.

Onions:

Onions are the staple vegetables that everyone needs. When planning your square-foot garden, definitely add a few sections for onions. Since onions can be planted 9 per one-foot square, you can get a nice-sized harvest of onions by utilizing only a few squares. Onions grow exceptionally well in a square-foot garden and can be interplanted with fast-growing vegetables like leafy greens early in their growing season.

Cucumbers:

Cucumbers are a good choice for a square-foot garden with a vertical trellis. The plants sprawl, and having a location to sprawl up makes great use of garden space. Cucumbers are a great addition to your raised bed garden because they produce a lot of fruit and are usually easy to care for.

Beans (bush):

Bush beans are easy to grow and produce a lot of beans in a small area. They also fix nitrogen in the soil, which can benefit other plants in the garden. You can plant 4 bush beans in one square foot, providing a generous harvest.

Beans (pole):

Pole beans are a good choice for a vertical garden, as they can grow up a trellis or fence. In addition, they are easy to grow and produce a lot of beans in a small space.

Peas:

Peas are another excellent choice for a vertical garden, as they can grow up a trellis or fence. In addition, they are easy to grow and produce a lot of peas in a small space.

Closeup of a small square-foot garden bed.

A Chart Of Square Foot Garden Plants and Their Spacing

The number of plants per square foot may vary depending on the variety of the plants, and you may need to test and experiment for your specific growing area and conditions. 

  • Leafy Greens: 4 plants per square foot
  • Herbs: 4-16 plants per square foot
  • Tomatoes (determinate): 1 plant per 2 square feet
  • Peppers: 1 plant per square foot
  • Radishes: 16-24 plants per square foot
  • Carrots: 16 plants per square foot
  • Beets: 9 plants per square foot
  • Parsnips: 9 plants per square foot
  • Onions: 9 plants per square foot
  • Cucumbers: 1 plant per square foot (trellis required)
  • Beans (bush): 4 plants per square foot
  • Beans (pole): 8 plants per square foot (trellis required)
  • Peas: 8-10 plants per square foot (trellis required)

Note: The number of plants per square foot may vary depending on the size of the plant, the spacing requirements for in-ground planting, the soil mix, and the growing conditions.

Densely planted garden beds.

Plants that Do Not Work Well In Square Foot Gardens

While many plants are suitable for a square-foot garden, some are not recommended due to their size, growth habits, or water requirements. Here are some plants that are not suitable for a square-foot garden:

Corn: Corn is not a good choice for a square-foot vegetable garden because it requires a lot of growing space. A tall plant needs plenty of sunlight and water for a good harvest. Corn also requires multiple plants to ensure good germination; in a square-foot gardening setting, it simply does not work.

Pumpkins: Pumpkins are another plant that requires a lot of space to grow. They are vining plant that needs a lot of water and nutrients to produce a good harvest.

Melons: Large plants like watermelons and cantaloupes require a large growing space. Vining plants also need lots of water and nutrients to produce a good harvest.

Brussels sprouts: Brussels sprouts are a cool-season crop that requires a lot of space to grow. They have a long growing season and need consistent moisture to produce a good harvest.

Artichokes: Artichokes are too large to plant in a square-foot garden. They are also long-season crops that require lots of water and nutrients to produce a good harvest. Adding artichokes to your square bed plan will not yield a good return on space investment.

Asparagus: Asparagus is a perennial plant that requires a lot of space to grow. Establishing and producing a crop takes several years, making it a somewhat poor choice for a square-foot bed.

Cabbage: Cabbage is a cool-season crop that requires a lot of space to grow. In addition, it is a heavy feeder and needs consistent moisture to produce a good harvest. For more info on cabbage companion plants, check out this full guide.

Raised garden beds densely planted with carrots, beets, and strawberries.

Final Thoughts On Square Foot Gardening

In conclusion, square-foot gardening is an excellent method to maximize space, increase yields, and minimize maintenance. Furthermore, with a precise planting layout and close spacing, square-foot gardening allows for more efficient use of space and resources, making it an ideal choice for small gardens or urban settings.

However, like any gardening method, square-foot gardening has pros and cons. While it can be highly productive, it also requires an initial investment in materials and more high maintenance than other gardening methods. Additionally, the small planting areas can limit the variety of plants that can be grown, and the soil may require more frequent amendments to maintain fertility.

Our best tips: Before you begin, grab a square-foot garden planner, even something as simple as grid paper, and plan before you plant.

It’s also not a bad idea for new gardeners to get a second opinion on their plans by sharing them online in gardening communities ( like Facebook or Reddit) to let seasoned pros look and see if there was anything you missed or didn’t catch before you plant. We find the gardening communities on Reddit to be open, inviting, and very helpful, especially to new gardeners Rgardening is where we go when we’re stumped!

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