Square Foot Gardening

Northeast USA - Wayne NJ Plant Hardiness Zone 6 - 7

Square Foot Gardening is the practice of planning small but intensively planted gardens. The practice combines concepts from other organic gardening methods, including a strong focus on compost, closely planted raised beds and bio intensive attention to a small, clearly defined area. Proponents claim that the method is particularly well-suited for areas with poor soil, beginning gardeners or as adaptive recreation for those with disabilities.

"Before long the most valuable of all arts will be that of deriving
a comfortable subsistence form the smallest area of land"

Abraham Lincoln

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Mel Bartholomew
The Man, The Myth, The Legend

By Victor Alfieri, editor woodlotfarms.com
Urban Homesteading Expert

The following gardening style is a local
take on my personal experience learning
and practicing the square foot and vertical gardening methods.

The Square Foot Gardening method was
invented in 1975 by NJ resident and civil engineer
Mel Bartholomew.

Before Mr. B. became an engineer he was
an efficiency expert. Mel would travel to manufacturing facilities, analyze there
process, and  help companies to become
more efficient and save money. After
retirement Mel started to backyard garden
and SFG was born. 

35 years this method of gardening has now emerged as the most practical, efficient, cost effective, highest yielding forms of backyard gardening on the planet.

Square Foot Gardening is now being implemented and used all over the world.

Click For Square Foot Gardening Website
Click For Mel Bartholomew Blog & Tweets
Click To Buy Square Foot Gardening Book

SFG We Begin
First you have to get prepared mentally. You need to forget about and remove all the preconceived notions that you have about backyard gardening. Do not ever let any negative energy into the process of planning, building, maintaining, and harvesting your gardens. Plants feed off your energy around them, good and bad.

Gardening is a wonderful form of meditation. Gardening should never be stressful, we have too much of that in our everyday life, our gardens should be tranquil, calm, and relaxing. Once you abide this rule you will be ready to proceed further.

This gardening method is all about logic, forward thinking, and being practical. Getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. This is accomplish by collecting garden data. When you garden you learn. Everything you do will be based on what you have learned the year before. With a garden journal start to document your garden plans. This will help you connect the dots and learn from year to year.

The Plan
Putting together a planning for the garden is the most important part of gardening. The size of garden, best location, plant selection are all very crucial to a successful garden. Follow these basic steps in planning your garden.

The Square-Foot-Gardening method uses a box to contain the soil. Square foot gardens can be built on any landscape. If you have a bad back, build it off the ground.

Plant Selection
First things first, what do you want to grow? Start putting a list together of herbs, fruits, vegetables, or plants you are interested in growing. Start researching your choices.

Wayne NJ - Northeast Herbs, Fruits, and Vegetables
Arugula - Asparagus - Basil - Beets - Blueberries - Broccoli - Broccoli Raab
Brussels Sprouts - Cabbage  - Cantaloupes - Carrots - Cauliflower - Celery
Chard Cherries - Corn - Cranberries - Cucumbers - Eggplant - Escarole
Fava Beans
Fennel - Fiddleheads - Garlic - Green Garlic Scapes - Grapes 
Green Beans - Kale Kohlrabi - Leeks - Lettuce - Melons - Mint - Mushrooms  Nectarines - Nettles
- Onions -  Oregano - Parsley - Parsnips - Peaches
Pears - Pea Greens - Peas
- Peppers - Plums - Potatoes - Pumpkins - Radicchio Radishes - Raspberries - Rhubarb - Rutabagas - Scallions - Shelling Beans
Sugar Snap Peas - Spinach  Squash - Strawberries - Thyme Tomatoes
Turnips - Watermelons - Zucchini - Zucchini Blossoms

Finding The Best Garden Location
SFG requires very little space; 80% less than conventional gardening. Find a place
for your garden that is convenient. If possible, being able to see the garden from your home is very important. Seeing it reminds you to go meditate, relax, and tend to your garden.

Pick an area that gets minimum 4 hours of sunshine daily.
Stay clear of trees and shrubs where roots and shade may interfere. Plan your garden as close to your water source as possible.

Full sun with southern exposure is the best. In some yards soil conditions can vary drastically on the same property. Avoid low areas subject to flooding and constant water saturation - too wet and root crops / plant roots will suffer.

Layout & Box Design
Design your garden in 3'x3' or 3'x8'. You can, of course, go smaller. A 2 foot by 2 foot works great on patios and 3 foot by 3 foot box is ideal for kids. The most important thing is that your garden is not to wide. You want to be able to reach all parts of the garden without walking on the soil.

Building Gardens Materials Needed
Boxes are needed to hold the soil in place above the ground. Boxes can be built or bought. You can do fancy or very simple. That's up to you. Either way it's not going to make a difference in your harvest. Space boxes 30" apart for walking aisles.

Once built gardens can be, but do not have to be filled to the top sides with soil.
That should happen naturally over the years by adding compost and organic materials. Just keep in mind the higher the sides and more soil you will need to fill it.

Wood Garden
Boxes can be made from almost any material. Lumber (wood) is ideal and comes in 8-foot lengths and many different types and sizes. Home Depot and Loews will cut your wood for free. Exact dimensions are not critical.

Never use wood anything thicker than 2".
Gardens walls or sides can be build with 4", 6", 8", 10" or 12" sides.

Garden Building Options
There are a number of ways a square foot garden can appear in your yard.

1. You can buy the lumber, cut the wood, drive the screws, assemble the parts,
fill the garden with soil, protect it with fencing, and build your own gardens. This way is the least expansive and takes some skill, But if you are handy this project should not be a problem.

2. Second, you can buy a garden kit with easy assembly and do it yourself. Fill it with soil and start to garden. If you are not handy at all, you could ask a friend or hire someone to assemble the garden kit fro you.

Click For 4' x 4' Square Foot Garden Kit
Click For 4' x 8' Square Foot Garden Kit

3. Lastly, you can hire a professional garden builder to design and build your gardens for you. This is the most expansive route, but this is a very good way to learn how
to build gardens. Watch, learn, ask questions, and talk to an expert gardener.

Click For Local Help With Your Gardens - Garden Building Service

Square Foot Garden Examples

Bad Back 3x6 18 sq.ft.       On Rocks 4x16 64 sqft.     On Patio 3 Level 46 sqft.

For Handicapped

Square Foot Garden 4' x 16'  - 64 sqft.
Gardens Build By Local Urban Homesteading Expert Click For Details

Garden Fencing
Your garden may or may not need fencing depending on your garden design.

Improving Soil
To get started your existing soil should be fine. Your garden soil will always need to be improved and will never be perfect. Rome was not built in a day, having great soil takes time and is accomplished over many years.

That's why it's so important to get started and soon as possible. Adding organic matter and turning over the soil many times before the first planting is the perfect start to the growing season.

Clay Soil
Because of its particles size and shape, tends to become compacted, and so will drain slowly or not at all. A clay or heavy clay soil, will greatly benefit from the
addition of organic material, and it’s
almost impossible to add too much.

Also, the heavy compact nature of clay tends to prevent air from reaching the
roots, which will slow plant growth.

As water passes down through the earth
it draws air (oxygen) behind it. Soils with little or no air tend to become "sour" as oxygen is a necessary ingredient for biological activity.

By combining a generous amount of organic material with clay, you can off set it's tendency towards compaction, improve drainage, and allow the nature of clay to help maintain moisture in your garden. A good ratio of clay soil to organic material is roughly 50/50.

Sandy Soil
Sandy soils are the opposite of clay and generally drain too fast, and so are unable to hold onto any nutrients long enough for a plant to use them.

Just like clay adding organic material will greatly improve your garden’s performance.
A higher ratio of organic material to sand is a good option, as the organic matter tends to break down faster due to faster drainage.

Bottom line is adding organic material will greatly improve your garden’s performance.

Mel's Soil Mix
This mix is lightweight, rich with nutrients and minerals, drains well, is easy to work
and most importantly there is no need for fertilizers.

1/3 Peat Moss - 3 Cubic Feet Compressed - Home Depot Cost $9
1/3 Vermiculite - 2 Cubic Feet Course Grade - Home Depot Cost $20
1/3 Blended Compost - Organic 1.5 Cubic Feet - Home Depot Cost $7
Use soil from your compost bin or buy bags of blended compost.
Or use existing soil, just add vermiculite and peat moss to existing soil.

Buying all these materials can become very expensive. Keep in mind a 6" side
4x4 garden will hold 8 cubic feet of soil mix. Using Mel's will cost you about $50.00
To mix soil pour soil materials on a tarp. To mix lift corners of the trap in random
order and blend soil.

Vic's Soil Mix
On my small homestead I do not spend any money improving our soil. Our homestead produces everything we need to improve our soil from year to year.

Our soil mix includes egg shells, yard leafs, grass clippings, chicken droppings, used coffee grounds, organic kitchen waste, sea food shells, composted soil, and ashes from wood burning stove.

Keep in mind once you start gardening you will start to produce organic waste. All this wonderful waste should be cut up into small pieces and thrown back into your gardens all year long. Every garden essentially becomes a compost bin.

Grass Clippings

Do not use grass clippings if you treat your lawn with pesticides or herbicides.
Meaning weed and bug killer. Stop using these harsh chemicals. Wait one year before using grass clippings in gardens or compost.

Chicken Manure
Adding manure to your gardens is not going to make or break you. Not everyone has access to chickens manure. But to improve your soil quickly adding manure will get you off to a great start to improving your soil.

Info On Manure
Click For More Info On Composting and Manure
University of Minnesota - Using Manure & Compost As Nutrient Source
University of Minnesota - Study Printable PDF

Turning and Tilling Garden Soil
Carbon Dioxide is plant food. Lack of carbon dioxide is the biggest mistake people make when starting to garden. Carbon dioxide plays an enormous role in the growth of your plants. Loose soil allows for Carbon Dioxide to get down deep into the soil to promote life.

Loose soil enables growing roots to roam freely and search for nutrients and minerals. Also insects have an easier time moving, eating, and breaking down the organic matter for the perfect compost.

To do this your must turn over and loosen your garden soil. Turn your soil early and often until planting. Use a round point shovel, pitchfork, or a tiller to turn soil. Tillers are expansive. Shovels build muscle.

Spring Soil Turning
Ideally, you want to start tilling your garden about 2 to 3 weeks prior to planting. Early April in the Northeast. Till in whatever organic matter you have from your spring clean up.

This will allow the microorganisms and insects to wake up from the cold winter and have some tasty morsels. About a week before planting put in your compost and manure. Don't till it to deep, just mix in lightly. You want the best stuff on the
top 4" of the soil, so the good stuff washes down to the roots.

Fall Soil Turning
Fall is the best time of year to add organic matter to your gardens for the winter. In the northeast in the fall we have organic matter all around us. Leafs are rich with Fold in fallen leafs, and small sticks. Add compost and manure for the winter allowing for a  good head start for spring.

Sowing and Buying Plants
Sowing is a term used for starting a plant from seed. Starting from seed is the less expensive way is to start, but also the hardest way to start, or you can buy started plants at your local nursery. Either way is fine.

Starting Will Seed
Coming Soon

Plant a different flower, vegetable, or
herb crop in each square foot. When you finish harvesting a square foot, add
compost and replant it with a
and different crop.

Square Foot Garden 4'x4' each square
is one square foot.
The number of how many plants that can be in one square
for is based on the plant full size.

To encourage variety of different
crops over time, each square would be planted with a different kind of plant,
the number of plants per square depending on an individual plant's size.

A single tomato plant might take a
full square, as might herbs such as oregano, basil or mint, while most strawberry plants could be planted
four per square, with up to sixteen
carrots per square foot. 

SFG Planting Diagram
Each Square Foot Can Hold
A Different Number Of
Plants Based On The Plant Full Grow Size

As you can see in the chart, 16 carrots can be grown in one square foot.
When compared to row gardening, if 16 carrots where planted in a row 6" apart like the seed packed says to do. You would need 8 square feet. Now you would have to weed, water, and care for 8 square feet of gardening space for only 16 carrots.

Why weed and water 8 square feet when you can weed and water 1 square foot?

Also you now have 7 square feet left to plant something else. Square Foot Gardening is a practical and logical approach to backyard gardening using less space,
less time, less water, and less care.

Three 4"x8" Square Foot Gardening Examples - 96 Square Feet

Vertical Gardening

Creating a vertical garden is a perfect solution if you have limited gardening space.

Adding a vertical side your planting square
footage can more than double your gardening space.

Many of the vegetable space hogs in the vegetable garden can quickly and easily be trained to grow "up" instead of "out", taking one-tenth of the space they would otherwise.

When planning a traditional backyard
vegetable garden, a container, patio, or
raised bed garden, vertical gardening is
an easy way to save space in your garden layout.

You can now grow and harvest vegetables
in sunny spots in the yard that would otherwise be lost.

Getting Off The Ground
Vertical gardening makes it easier to
harvest vegetables. Vegetables now off
the ground are easier to reach when
harvested. Also keeps Vegetables off the ground and prevents mold, soil-borne disease with better air circulation around Plants. This provides ideal growing conditions for healthy plants.

The vertical side is always the northern row or back side of the garden and supported with lattice or netting. Not to shade smaller lower growing plants in front.

Picture on the left is a good example of vertical gardening. One high side can double your gardening space using the same soil. Bottom picture shows front, middle, and back vertical gardening with center walkway for garden access.


Watering The Garden

When your garden is first planted your soil needs to stay wet and moist. Young or new plantings require more moisture at the soil surface to help their budding roots get started. You should water lightly and more frequently to accommodate their needs.

After your garden has taken hold you than need to use your eyes, if vegetables look wilty in the morning, water them right away. Mature plantings with large root systems can be watered heavily and less often than younger plants. The moisture soaks deep into the soil and encourages the roots to thrive.

At least 90 percent of every plant is composed of water, which should give you some idea of how important this substance is. No plant can live without some moisture.

Without water, plants wilt and die. But too much water can be as bad for plants as not enough. If land plants are submerged in water for too long roots may start to rot.
Everything should be consumed in moderation. Provide your plants with enough water for good health, but don't flood them with it.

Keep the soil lightly moist and to prevent it from drying out completely, which would be damaging to most plants. Apply water in the cool of the morning or evening when the wind is calm, the sun is less hot, and water loss through evaporation is minimal. If water sits on plant foliage for hours, it can encourage fungal diseases to attack leaves, buds, flowers, and fruit.

Harvesting Your Crop

Saving Seeds

Storing Saved Seeds
Seeds are a fragile commodity, and if not treated properly, their viability will sharply decline. While some seeds may survive for thousands of years under the proper conditions, others will lose viability quickly, even when properly stored.

To maintain dormancy, keep seeds in a cool, dark location with low humidity, like a refrigerator. It's very important to label seeds (seed name, source, year) and store them in a re-closable plastic container

"We need to work together for peace, and balance with the other side. We need to take care of the Earth that feeds and shelters us. We need to put our entire mind and heart into pursuing unity and unity now, to confront the other side and preserve life."  

"The greatest wisdom is in simplicity. Love, respect, tolerance, sharing, gratitude, forgiveness. It's not complex or elaborate. The real knowledge is free.

Mayan Elder Carlos Barrios


Gardening may pull you away from your
television and out into the fresh air.
Gardening may create or rekindle
relationships with loved ones.
Gardening may cause your children to
stop texting & start talking to you 
making eye contact.
Gardening may make you feel
healthy, rejuvenated, and alive.

Gardening Side
Affects May Include

Saving Money - Healthier Eating
Exercise and Weight Loss
 Excesive Learning & Research
Confidence Building May Occur
More Sun D3 Better Immune System
Less Trips To The Supermarket
Dirt Under The Finger Nails

Lastly Look Out For Increased
Interesting Conversation With
Friends & Family

Mel's Soil Mix
1/3 Blended Compost,
1/3 Peat Moss
1/3 Coarse Vermiculite

Vic's Soil Mix
Add To Existing Soil
Organic Kitchen Waste
Egg Shells
Yard Leafs
Grass Clippings
Livestock Dropping
Used Coffee Grounds
Ashes From Wood Stove