How and Why to Start a Square-foot Garden

How and Why to Start a Square-foot Garden

How and Why to Start a Square-foot Garden

With most things we do in our busy lives, we often do our best to simplify things and make them manageable. Often, less really is more. This is a minimalist approach we can take to all areas of our lives—even the garden. And whether we’re a beginner or a vet in the garden, we can bring that same approach there, too, with the Square-foot Gardening method. 

The creator of this gardening technique sitting in his garden.

So what is square-foot gardening?


Square-foot gardening is a type of raised-bed gardening where the gardening box is divided into squares. This method groups pants into 4x4 clusters rather than in long rows. A lattice is laid across the top to separate each square foot within the boxes.

This method is so widely used and influential within the gardening community that there is even a Square Foot Gardening Foundation in honor of the inventor of the famous process, Mel Bartholomew. Mel’s vision was humanitarian; he wanted to develop a formula to grow a robust garden with all one could need to eat in a small space. He believed that his design for a garden could potentially solve issues of hunger in underserved countries. 

Nowadays, the Square-foot Gardening method is so standard—or at least some variation—that people don’t recognize it as an innovation. Put before its inception during the 1970s; traditional row gardens were the norm. The beauty of Square-foot gardening is that it requires far less water than row gardening, no tilling machinery, no fertilizers, and no background in horticulture necessary. Mel created the perfect everyman (and woman) process to design the ideal personal garden. 

But it doesn’t have to be personal either; square-foot gardens can be as expansive as acres. That’s the beauty of this fully scaleable method. 

Why it’s worth considering…

Apart from the appealing mentions above, the best reason to take on the Square-foot gardening method is for functionality and savings. This method requires far less expense, space, and work with the added benefits of far fewer weeds and much less digging.

Maximizing space is probably the most significant reason for building a Square-foot Garden. If you have limited space in a backyard, this method gives you the most bang for your buck. Because of the mixture of nutrient-rich soil Mel came up with, plants have the capacity to grow well in a much denser environment. 

The Square-foot Garden is also perfect for kids, it's a great way to show little ones how we get our food, and it’s small enough to be easily managed and reach from all sides. It’s easy to maintain and protect so kids can enjoy gardening, even at a young age. 

The small size of the boxes (or raised beds) is also convenient for intervening with drastic climate changes. You can quickly and easily drape shade cloth over the box if there's a sudden heatwave. And the same goes for sudden changes with cold weather and a frost blanket.

Another excellent reason for using this method is companion planting. Companion planting can allow for even greater control over the nutrient-rich soil that can remain pesticide free. Many companion plants keep insects at bay, allowing their companions to thrive.

Who’s the method good for?

I mentioned a bit about this being a great approach for families because it's easy to approach and maintain with kids. This is also great for seniors who don’t want to manage digging into hard dirt and having to bend down into the ground. Having a raised bed makes all the difference on your back. 

Beginners do great with this approach as well. It’s straightforward. The soil mix for this type of setup is almost guaranteed to produce nutrient-rich and delicious food. 

How to do it:

Step 1: Building a box

The best materials for building a 4x4 box is using untreated cedar, pine, or fir. Even better is to use something stronger and long-lasting like a brick if possible. Either way, line the ground with plastic or a weed mat at the bottom to keep unwanted weeds from crashing the party. Also, a good thing to do, depending if gophers are a problem, but lining the bottom of the box with mesh wire can help keep unwanted pests out.

Step 2: The soil

After some years of experimentation, Mel decided to prescribe a specific mix to his method. 

He breaks down the perfect proven formula like this:

  • 1/3 Coarse grade Vermiculite (Mel’s preferred medium) 
  • 1/3 Sphagnum Peat Moss
  • 1/3 Blended Organic Compost (Mel recommends 5 different composts combined for optimal results)

Once you’ve got the mix in and moistened, you can start configuring the plots. Using anything as simple as a notepad and pen can suffice. 

Step 3: Make a grid and plant!

This is the most important part! Make your grid! A piece of food tied with metal twists works great across the top of the box. This is essential for the measurements and placement of the plants. The grid is one of the nicest parts of the production, as it gives the garden a neat and organized aesthetic. 


While the Square-foot Gardening method may seem somewhat obvious and basic, it was highly innovative for its time and is still one of the most clever ways to construct your garden. When Mel Bartholomew popularized this method, his book, Square-foot Gardening, was the highest sold gardening book of its time. So go ahead and take this tried and true gardening method straight to your backyard and patio and get growing!