Small Outdoor Space? Consider “Square Foot Gardening”

updated Jun 26, 2019
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(Image credit: Claus Mikosch)

There’s nothing quite so satisfying as growing your own food—and nothing quite so frustrating as being a would-be gardener with a too-small outdoor space. I have known this pain myself, so I was particularly intrigued when Dabney, our Projects Editor, told me about Square Foot Gardening, a very efficient technique for growing things you can eat. Could this be the perfect way to grow a lot of veggies in just a little bit of space?

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Square Foot Gardening actually has quite a bit of history: It was invented by engineer, efficiency expert, and gardening enthusiast Mel Bartholomew, who described the technique in his 1981 book Square Foot Gardening. Here’s how it works: you set aside a garden bed, divide it into a grid of one-foot squares, and plant different vegetables in each one. A chart in the book explains the appropriate density for different plants: one per square foot for tomatoes, 9 for beets, 16 for carrots.

Mel published a second book, All New Square Foot Gardening, in 2006. In it, he refined the technique a bit, recommending a 6″ raised bed filled with a combination of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost (rather than just soil mixed with compost). The beds can be set up pretty much anywhere: on grass or pavement, or even built into a table.

Creating a Square Foot Garden

There are different methods for constructing these gardens. Trois Fois Parjour has a very helpful step-by-step guide to building one (including cute charts for optimal vegetable placement and planning). She uses string to mark out the grid, which you can see above and in the lead image. But you can also build individual boxes, with simple wood dividers. Others have devised DIY irrigation systems using soaker hoses or PVC pipes laid out in cross pattern and laid over the raised bed.

(Image credit: Claus Mikosch)

If you have a really small space, consider going vertical and stacking your growing boxes in tiers. This compact set up will allow you maximize your square footage and grow more with less.

Some taller plants need to be caged or staked. In this garden shared over on Homemade Ginger, trellises in the back row give plants something to grow on.

Benefits of Square Foot Gardens

One obvious advantage of this approach is that you can grow a huge variety of food in not much space at all. And unlike your typical vegetable garden, which can get a bit chaotic, square foot gardens have a very neat, trim appearance. You can grow leafy vegetables (which need room above ground) next to root vegetables (which need room underground) to save space.

It’s also great for beginners. Because this method is fairly structured, it’s easy to get set up for success. As mentioned, the raised beds can go anywhere—on pavement or grass—and are easy and straightforward to build. You’ll be gardening in no time at all.

Lastly, because of the unique soil mix and the high density of plantings, many gardeners report that their plots are much less prone to weeds than the typical variety. Plus, they are just smaller, so it’s less of a commitment than a huge vegetable garden.

Above, Kim Drissell over at 3 P’s and Q loves her square foot garden and has lettuce and other fresh greens on a daily basis during the growing season.

Other Resources

If square foot gardening sounds like the perfect thing for your space, here are some great projects to inspire you and resources to get you started.

My Square Foot Garden is, as you might have guessed, a website devoted entirely to Square Foot Gardening. There’s a very helpful guide to different kinds of vegetables, including suggested planting densities.

Grow a Good Life takes you through the steps of creating a Square Foot Garden, including mixing the soil.

• At the Square Foot Gardening Store, you can buy Mel’s books, and also products, like vinyl grids and planter boxes, developed specifically for square foot gardening.

• Mel recommends 6″ high planter boxes, but if you’re planting on top of something impermeable like gravel or concrete, you might want to opt for deeper boxes. Here’s a DIY from Frugal Family Times for making boxes that are 11″ high.