Pro Tips: Square Foot Gardening

Compact, efficient and easy to maintain, Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening offers new and experienced gardeners a smart, space-saving backyard alternative.

By Jennifer Noonan | Updated Aug 18, 2015 12:57 PM

Tips from the Master

Mel Bartholomew

The Square Foot Gardening technique, developed by Mel Bartholomew, is enjoying a surge of recognition with the 2nd edition of his book All New Square Foot Gardening. Bartholomew popularized this super-intensive and efficient gardening method in his original book published in 1981, which spawned a PBS television series. Here's how it's all done.

4-Foot Square

Raised Bed Gardening

Bartholomew’s square foot gardening method centers around a 4-foot square raised bed, divided into a grid of 16 squares, in which vegetables, herbs and flowers are densely planted. He uses a special mix of soil that is equal parts peat moss, compost and vermiculite.

Seed Grouping

Seed Grouping

Different seeds are planted in each square, in varying numbers, depending on the space required for each plant. For instance, a tomato plant (large) would take an entire 1-foot square, whereas you could fit 4 lettuce plants (medium), or 9 bush bean plants (small) in the same 1-foot square space.

Vertical Growing

Growing Vines

Vining plants, like cucumbers and squash, that ordinarily take up a lot of space grow vertically on frames or netting. Plants requiring more depth, like potatoes or carrots, are grown in a section with higher sides so that 12 inches or more of framed soil is available to them. Watering is generally done by hand, which avoids waste.

Easy Access

Garden Bed

The smaller 4’x4’ bed size means that a gardener can easily reach plants from all sides, without stepping in and compacting the soil. A plywood bottom can even be attached to the bed, so it can be raised up to table height for gardeners who have physical difficulties working with traditional beds.

Fewer Seeds

Planting Seeds

Square foot gardening is wonderful for the beginning gardener. It is easy to understand, and the small bed space is very manageable.  It also requires fewer seeds than the traditional row planting method (where seeds are over-planted and then thinned), saving both money and effort.

Easy To Maintain

Efficient Gardening

Square foot gardening is super efficient, growing 100% of the crop in 20% of the space, making it ideal for those with space limitations. The densely planted crops can create a “living mulch” of sorts, preventing weeds from germinating or getting firmly established.

The Right Mix

Soil Mix

The special soil mix (Mel’s mix) is designed to hold moisture, so it also requires less water.  With square foot gardening, you create your soil on top of what already exists on the ground, so those with poor soil, or who are concerned about pesticides from prior use of the land, can succeed and feel comfortable.

Expand and Grow

Four Square Garden

If you try square foot gardening and get comfortable with it, you can expand your beds, or bring the technique into other areas of your landscape. Before you know it, every square foot of your property may be growing something beautiful and delicious.

For More...


If you're interested in more on gardening, consider: 

Flowering Climbers: 8 Cures for the Common Garden

Starting Tomatoes from Seed

How To: Plant a Vegetable Garden


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