Grow food as a total beginner to gardening and in a small space! This Square Foot Gardening Guide will walk you through an easy method to learn how to garden, and provide you with free resources and materials to get started.
Did you know you can grow a lot of food even in a really small space? No matter how much room you have to work with, there are creative ways to maximize you’re growing space so that you can put more food on the table, straight out of the garden. The gardening method we’re going to talk about today is called the Square Foot Gardening Method.
A few years back, before the Sunshine Farm, before I had even heard of permaculture, or homesteading, or no-till, I had a tiny garden in the city. I had no clue what I was doing (still don’t at times), but I thought it would be fun.
So along with my husband, Chris, we built a 4′ by 6′ ft. bed and filled it with organic miracle grow soil (do as I say, not as I did). At this time, neither of us had a plant-based diet, we didn’t value homegrown produce, and it was more of a fun project than an exciting endeavor to grow food.
Having no clue what to do once the bed was prepared, I quickly read up about square foot gardening, because at the time it felt easy and accessible for quickly planting the space. We picked up a handful of starts at a local hardware store, and planted tomatoes, peppers, Swiss Chard, zucchini, lettuces, and cantaloupe.
From that tiny space in the middle of an urban environment, we grew our first crops. I don’t remember what the produce tasted like, or even what we used it for, but I do remember quickly being overwhelmed by how much food came out of that tiny space. I remember watching the cantaloupe cling to the chain link fence that was up against the raised bed, and quickly noticing how things began to overtake the space or shade things out.
The square foot gardening method was perfect for a newbie gardener like myself, and it worked really well! It did come with some lessons learned, just like any method, but I truly think it’s one of the most accessible gardening methods out there for first time gardeners and for maximizing growing space.
So when my sister-in-law, Brittany, mentioned she wanted to start a garden this year, I knew this would be the gardening method to recommend, and she was totally up for it! In one morning, we took a space that was serving no purpose, and turned it into a productive and abundant 32 square foot garden for growing food.
We documented the entire day for a series I started over on our YouTube channel, called Extreme Garden Makeover. This is the second video in the series, with many more to come in the future. You can read about the first makeover, A Community Garden Transformation, here.
Square Foot Gardening Method
What is it?
Square foot gardening is simple. This gardening method is exactly as it sounds. You create a grid for the space you’re using and use every single square foot, to grow a specific amount of plants based on the type of crop you’re growing. It is perfect for a first time gardener who wants to have a lot of diversity, but also wants to have simplicity.
It’s based on a 4′ by 4′ grid, with 16 square ft. of growing space, but the method can be adapted to any size plot utilizing the same principle: each square has a clear purpose and intention for growing a specific amount of food.
From the Square Foot Gardening Foundation: “The Square Foot Gardening method saves gardeners time, effort, tools, space and water. Schools across the nation and international humanitarian groups around the world are using the Square Foot Gardening method making inroads against poverty and hunger. The Square Foot Gardening method is estimated to cost 50% less, uses 20% less space, 10% of the water, and only 2% of the work compared to single row gardening. Additional benefits are: virtually no weeds, no digging or rototilling, and no heavy tools are necessary.”
Pros of Square Foot Gardening
- Maximize growing.
- Lower cost.
- Less water.
- Less manual labor.
- Grow a high level of diversity in a small space.
- Decrease wasted space.
- Decreased weeds.
- Organized method of gardening.
Cons of Square Foot Gardening
- High nutrient input.
- Pruning required. j
- Harvesting may be more difficult.
- Thick growth may shade out certain crops.
Who is it for?
The Square Foot Gardening Method is for newbies and professionals. For those first dipping their toes in the sea of gardening (cheesy metaphor alert) or for those trying to profit off of market gardening in a small space. There are many similar methods to gardening that involve a a high level of production, but the Square Foot method simplifies in it a way that is idea for new gardeners or really any gardener who is working with a small space and wants to maximize their output.
It’s also perfect for those living in suburban or urban neighborhoods and using raised beds for gardening. It works great for those on a small budget, and it is ideal for someone wanting to get a garden going quickly, in just a few hours even!
How do I start?
First, mark out your space. Whether you’re going to do a raised bed with sides, or simply plant in the ground, plan it out before you start. Choose a spot with full sun, good drainage, and easy access. Once you have your space marked out, the next step is equally important! Plan very strategically what you want to plant in the area you have selected.
My number one suggestion for choosing what to plant is PLANT WHAT YOU EAT! Sounds simple, right? Well it is! Do you like soups, salads, pizza, pasta, sandwiches? Do you enjoy ketchup and french fries? Or maybe you’re more of a gnocchi and pesto kind of person.
The amazing thing about gardening, is it can supply food for anyone with any kind of diet. Before you start growing kale and lettuces, consider if you really enjoy eating greens or making green smoothies.
Prioritize growing crops that can be used directly in the meals you enjoy the most. For us, we prioritize garlic, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and greens. We also grow all kinds of other crops, but those provide us with so much food throughout the summer AND the winter.
Sit down, make a list of what you enjoy eating, and rank the list from high priority to low priority. Then you can choose to fill the squares in the order of priority. This is what we did in Brittany’s garden, it’s what we do in our own garden, and it’s what you can do as well.
I’ve created 3 free printables you can download, that cover 1) some common crops and the # of each you plant in a single square foot; 2) a 4′ by 4′ grid you can fill in yourself; and 3) a 4′ by 10′ grid you can fill in with what you plan to grow.
Download the FREE Printables HERE.
What will I need?
Square Foot Gardening is simple when it comes to supplies. You can choose to build a raised bed for your garden plot, or you can choose to do it in the ground. For our garden in the city, we made a raised bed because you’re not supposed to plant in-ground in the City of Rochester. For Brittany’s garden, we simply marked the space with logs, and planted directly in the ground.
Whether you’re planting in-ground or in a raised bed, you will want to add a high quality compost-based soil mix to plant in. My favorite is a company called Coast of Maine, and I purchase their raised bed mixture for starting a plot utilizing the Square Foot Gardening Method. When it comes to soil, it’s important to source organic, and also to avoid companies like Miracle Gro, or those associated. You want to look for something that is full of organic matter and includes a variety of different ingredients.
You also will want to create a grid. They talk about creating grids on the Square Foot Gardening website: “Grids can be made inexpensively from Venetian blinds, or wood lath sold in home improvement stores. The grid is one of the most important features of a Square Foot Garden. The grid lets you clearly see how to space your seeds/plants and keeps your garden looking neat and organized. ” For Brittany’s garden, we went with an even simpler option than those discussed above, we used string! You can see how we used string to mark her garden in the YouTube video.
7 Tips for Square Foot Gardening
- Use a grid to mark out the squares. As discussed above, this is essential for marking out your space and keeping it organized.
- Prune regularly. If you’re planting a tomato per ft. pruning is more important than ever! Make sure you research how to do this properly so you’re prepared before plants grow out of control.
- Strategically plant crops. With square foot gardening, you have a lot of variety in a small space, so it’s important to understand how the plants will grow and potentially shade out or compete with each other. Know where the sun rises and sets so you can strategically plant your smaller crops south facing and your larger crops behind them.
- Utilize vertical gardening. You can use trellising alongside the Square Foot Gardening Method, to maximize your growing even more! Add an arched trellis or other vertical trellising for vining or climbing crops like melons, cucumbers, winter squashes, and pole beans.
- Use natural supports. Similar to the above point, you can even use other plants as a form of trellising. Pole beans can grow up corn or potentially sunflowers. You could try using sticks to make a tepee, like I did in this video.
- Take advantage of companion gardening. This relates to point number 3, you want to consider how plants will interact with each other in relation to the sun, shade, as well as the way they absorb nutrients from the ground. Some crops, like garlic and onions, are heavy feeders; whereas, beans are nitrogren fixing, and root vegetables actually thrive off of much less nutrients. This is all important to consider when utilizing the Square Foot Gardening Method.
- Mulch your square foot garden! Mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch is my biggest tip for any gardener. It retains moisture, breaks down to provide available nutrients, and protects the health of the soil. In Square Foot Gardening, maintaining soil health is critical, use mulch to support the healthiest soil possible, and thus, the healthiest (& tastiest) plants.
Download the FREE Square Foot Gardening Guide Printables HERE.
Have you considered this method? Have you used it before? I would love to hear all about it! Send us an email, or comment below and let’s chat about the Square Foot Gardening Method.
All my best,