The Pros And Cons Of Square Foot Gardening

It sure looks neat and orderly, but is this method the best way to grow your vegetables?

March 29, 2017
square foot gardening method in raised bed
duckycards/ Getty

Maybe you’ve seen them—those highly organized raised beds divided into perfect squares, each featuring their own variety of plant. They sure are look beautiful, but is this method—known as square foot gardening—effective? Here, we cover what exactly it entails, along with the pros and cons, so you can decide if square foot gardening is right for you. 

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!) 

Square foot gardening
duckycards/ Getty
What is square foot gardening?

Square foot gardening is a simple method of creating small, orderly, and highly productive kitchen gardens. It was invented by backyard gardener, retired engineer, and efficiency expert Mel Bartholomew as a better way to grow a vegetable garden, and it became a huge hit when he introduced the idea to the gardening public in 1981 in his book Square Foot Gardening

The basic concept: Create a small garden bed (4’ by 4’ or 4’ by 8’ are common sizes) and divide it into a grid of 1-foot squares, which you manage individually. Seeds or seedlings of each kind of vegetable are planted in one or more squares, at a density based on plant size (e.g. you’d plant about 16 radish seeds per square, but only one tomato plant). Since there are no paths, there is no wasted space, and the soil in the bed stays loose because you never step on it.

Twenty-five years later Bartholomew updated his methods with a new book, All New Square Foot Gardening, which advocates creating a 6” deep frame (or raised bed) and filling it with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost to plant in instead of garden soil enriched with compost.

So, now that you have a basic understanding of square foot gardening, let's move on to some of the benefits and the drawbacks.  

Related: 8 Tips For Growing An Organic Vegetable Garden On A Budget

Pros

Super productive. Intensive planting means huge yields from small spaces, so it is ideal for gardeners with limited space. (Here are 5 vegetable that grow back year after year to consider planting in your square foot garden.)

Fast to set up. Square foot gardening is a fast way to start a new garden (especially with the updated method using a raised bed filled with soilless mix), so it is great for first-timers. You can place your raised bed anywhere, even over grass or pavement, allowing you to build, fill, and start planting in a just few hours! Even if you work in your existing soil you only need to prepare the planting areas, not the paths, so it takes a lot less time and effort.

Minimal maintenance. Since the garden is small and you have only a few specific tasks to do on any given day, you only need to invest a few minutes planting, maintaining, and harvesting at any one a time. 

Hardly any weeding. If you build a square foot garden filled with soilless mix there will be few if any weed seeds in it (depending on the compost you use) and thus no weeds to pull for the first season. Weeds will, however, become more common over time as seeds blow or fall into the bed.

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Cons

Sometimes pricey. The cost of building even a small raised bed and filling it with soilless mix for the updated method adds up quickly. But, if you have good soil to work with, you don’t have to build raised beds and buy soilless mix. Instead, stick with the original method and form in-ground garden beds for much less money.

Things get cramped. Small square foot garden beds aren’t ideal for crops that take up a lot of room, such as vining winter squash, asparagus, or a big planting of sweet corn. A smart approach: Grow herbs and more compact veggies such as carrots and radishes in your square foot garden and relegate large plants or plantings to a traditional rowed vegetable garden.

Not deep enough. The 6”-deep beds recommended in Bartholomew's updated book are too shallow for most plants, especially if their roots can’t extend into the soil below. The solution: If you are gardening on top of pavement, make your frame at least 12” deep and fill it to the top with growing mix. If you are gardening on top of soil, use a layer of cardboard instead of weedblock fabric under the bed; the cardboard will slowly break down and allow veggie roots to extend into the soil below. 

Lots of watering. The soil in raised beds tends to dry out faster and is harder to re-wet if it dries out, so you may find yourself having to water every day in the heat of the summer to keep your plants growing well. To combat this, consider installing soaker hoses or some other type of drip irrigation system. Here is an idea that combines marking out the planting squares with an efficient watering system. Mulching the surface of the soil with an organic mulch such as grass clippings or torn newspaper also conserves moisture.

Hard to maintain with time. Because a square foot garden is planted so densely, weeds are a huge pain to remove once their roots get established. Your best bet: Remove weeds when their still tiny seedlings. This may require weeding a few times a week, but it beats wrestling with a full grown monster. If you prefer hoeing a few times a season over hand weeding, stick with a more conventional vegetable garden design with long, wide-spaced rows.

Related: 10 Tips For Growing An Organic Herb Garden On A Budget

 

Bottom line

Square foot gardening is a solid gardening method for any home gardener, but especially beginners and people who are short on space. The drawbacks, while real, all have fairly simple solutions. Of course, it's all about your individual needs and preferences, but if it interests you, we say give it a whirl!