DIY: Getting Dirty with Square Foot Gardening

Want to know a dirty little secret? It’s kind of filthy, promise. I’ve been busy building raised garden beds and giving a green thumbs up to square foot gardening. Square foot gardening is a growing (smirk) movement where budding gardeners build boxes that hold soil and grow vegetables above ground.

Growing up in an urban city environment I never bothered with conventional vegetable gardening since space was at a premium and land almost nonexistent. But planting several small raised garden beds is a possibility for many families with a modest plot. Raised beds just don’t take up a lot of space.

raised garden beds strawberries container gardening

Now that I live on a sizable family farm with acres of viable gardening space, I’m still drawn to cultivating a small square foot garden. The reasons are simple – it’s far easier to manage and care for squares of soil than acres of wide open space.

10 Reasons to Love Raised Garden Beds

If you’re wondering if growing a modest square foot garden is for you, here’s some food for thought. Chew on this!

square foot gardening strawberries

1. No heavy digging. Raised garden beds don’t require you to dig deep into the ground. An advantage if you’re not into, well, digging.

2. Soil quality is irrelevant. If you don’t have fabulous fertile soil then worry not. Just use compost or buy a few bags of soil to fill your raised beds. Perfect soil every time. You can also customize the soil in each box for different plant types.

3. Uses less water. Because the garden is contained you end up using far less water compared to conventional gardening. You also save on your water bill since a contained garden prevents soil from getting spread out and compacted.

4. Easier to care for and protect. Raised garden beds can be placed close to your home and thus under your watchful eye and easier to care for. This depends though, if you have deer grazing in your area then protecting your bounty is still a bit of a job.

5. Easier to manage. It’s easier to reach for and sit beside a raised garden bed than a conventional in-ground garden. Raised beds grow closer to our sitting height and don’t require lots of bending over to get down and dirty. Reaching to weed, water, or harvest is unnecessary since the box frames are not wider than 4 feet.

6. Less weeding? Some square foot gardeners claim there are less weeds with raised beds. I’ve found this claim to be valid since weeds can’t grow inwards from outside the box frame. Also, because the soil is raised and lighter (not compacted), it’s easier and quicker to weed out the unwanted. Lastly, because plants are closer together in square foot beds they can easily crowd out the weeds.

7. Less likely to rot or succumb to bugs. Raised beds are elevated so excess water can easily drain away from the plant and prevent rotting. Bugs, slugs, and critters will have a harder time munching on your veggies too since the garden is raised on higher ground.

8. Supports and trellisis made easy. It’s easy to attach vine supports or a trellis to a raised bed box. Your tomatoes, peas, beans, and other taller plants will love you.

9. Go for Organic Gardening. If you’re into knowing the full history of your food and desire organic produce, then growing your own vegetable garden is a sure fire way to get into organic gardening.

10. Frugal fun! Teaching your kids to cultivate food or just growing the garden for yourself is inexpensive fun. Besides, there are not many hobbies that allow you to enjoy the fruits of your labor when the season is over. Freezing the extras for winter meals can cut grocery expenses and taste yummy in the colder months too.

How to Build a Raised Garden Bed

Raised gardens have been around for decades and building a framed garden box doesn’t require any carpentry prowess. But the world seemed to go crazy for perfect cubes, squares, and boxes when a guy named Mel Bartholomew wrote the book, Square Foot Gardening. Seriously, people. To build a raised bed you don’t need to be a perfect square. Raised garden beds can be misshapen rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, or whatever. I don’t think the plants care.

There are lots of square foot gardening resources available for free online, including: building plans, garden designs, and forums. These sites can help you get gardening with raised beds sooner.

Carl and I got our garden groove on fast by using existing materials and tools we had kicking around the house, for free. Here’s a no-nonsense getting started list:

Square Foot Garden Materials:

  • Tools: hammer, saw, rake, trowel
  • Frame Box: nails, lumber
  • Garden: soils, seeds, plants

The Building Process:

1. Sourcing Lumber.
The lumber we used was just a mix of scrap 2x4s and a few 2x10s we had sitting around. We also sourced some odd pieces given to us as waste from a local sawmill. Calling your local hardware store and asking for flawed or odd pieces may get you a decent discount. You don’t need the prettiest lumber pieces to build a garden frame.

2. Putting it Together.
To build the frame, Carl picked boards that fit well together (not all were straight or square) and nailed them into an 8 foot by 3 foot rectangular frame about 16 inches high. To be completely honest, he winged it given the materials we had on-hand and improvised to save money on lumber.

square foot gardening

Given our materials, an 8 foot by 3 foot rectangular frame was the ideal size before the construction became unwieldy. Any wider than 3 feet, and it gets harder to reach the middle of the beds when gardening. Any lower than 16 inches and you need to stoop down to weed. So we made due with what we had. You can too.

square foot gardening

We also build a few smaller boxes ideal for an herb garden. I don’t know which is cuter, Carl or the squares.

3. Location. Location. Location.
Find a sunny location close to your house to situate your raised garden box frames. The ideal location would provide 6-8 hours of sunshine daily, be clear from trees or where shade may interfere, and not be located where puddles or heavy rain could harm the plants. We spent a few sunny days deciding where to place our bigger garden beds to maximize growing hours. Planning ahead to see where the sun shines strongest could prevent a meltdown.

raised garden beds

We placed our herb boxes closer to the house to shelter our parsley, chives, lemon balm, and chamomile from too many hours of direct sunlight.

4. Fill Boxes with Soil.
Carl got fancy and filled the tractor loader with soil, compost, and well-seasoned horse manure.

square foot gardening tractor soil

You don’t need a tractor to do this deed though. We just happen to have this equipment available on the farm, so Carl got geared up and played farmer boy.

gardening

With your own packaged soil or compost mix, fill each box to the brim and use a rake to smooth over the surface. We had to do some minor weeding and rock cleanup after the soil settled.

5. Make a Grid, Or Not?
Many square foot gardeners swear against rows, preferring to make perfect grids on top of each box. The thought is that grids increase crop yields and decrease weeding work.

organic gardening square foot gardening rows

Farmer Carl is more of a row kind of guy though, and thinks squares are nonsense. He’s got some reasons, below.

Reasons to Plant in Rows:

  • Some plants require more than a square foot to grow and risk crowding in a smaller space, like larger tomato plants.
  • Other plants don’t need a full square foot to grow, but putting two of them in a square foot would crowd them too much. Either you waste space, or you end up having to break out of the square foot box.
  • Some plants grow better in rows. For example, a nice long row of radishes is easy to till from the sides to keep the weeds down, while giving the plants air to breathe from the sides.
  • Squares and grids force you to be boring and regimental. Think outside the box! A nice ‘U’ shape of tomatoes growing with basil plants interspersed? Why not!

So needless to say we planted our radishes, strawberries, and tomatoes in rows. We only used squares for our herbs. I’m all for breaking the rules too. ;)

6. Get Planting!
We went a little seed crazy and planted more than 2-3 seeds per hole. We were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and wanted to save our skins. So we planted quickly. (I can hear the uber frugalists screaming in horror) Sorry. It’s done. These are yellow zucchini.

vegetable gardening yellow zucchini

Covering the seeds with organic soil rich in nutrients.

gardening planting seeds

Our harvest this year should include Early Girl tomatoes, Brandywine and Black Krim heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, chard, kale, zucchini (green and yellow), peas, beans, radishes, strawberries, and a handful of savory herbs and tea flowers.

Some Early Gardening Results

So far so good. We’ve managed to keep the deer away from our kale and chard by placing plastic salad containers over the tastiest plants. These salad containers serve well as protection and have a green house effect, helping the vegetables grow faster.

container gardening square foot gardening gardens

The rows of tomatoes, radishes, and strawberries are doing very well.

container gardening strawberries gardens

We even have a little strawberry ready for picking. Carl is hoping to harvest the radishes this weekend or sooner.

square foot gardening strawberries

The chamomile and lemon balm plants are growing slowly. The savory herbs are growing well though.

square foot gardening rows

I can’t wait to see our final results and see if we’ve saved any money by freezing the extras.

More great gardening stories:

Got any square foot or vegetable gardening tips to share? How’s your garden growing?

Your two cents:

  1. David June 25th, 2009

    Beautiful pictures of your garden, great book as well.

  2. Melanie Reformed Spender June 26th, 2009

    Great post! I’m loving the gardening tips.

  3. Carrie Boyko June 26th, 2009

    Very thorough post on square foot gardening. I’ll pass this link along to a friend who is interested. Keep up the good work!

  4. Tony June 26th, 2009

    Kerry:

    Have you looked at permaculture or edible forest gardening? It’s a great concept. Check out the book Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. It’s a great primer on ecologically sound edible landscaping.

  5. Kerry June 26th, 2009

    @Tony I’ll check it out! Sounds right up my alley! :D

  6. Maddy June 26th, 2009

    I am so glad you posted this! For the last couple of years I have been wanting to start a veggie/herb garden and didn’t think I had the space. Thanks!

  7. wydawake2002 June 26th, 2009

    Looks great. This is my 1st season using the sq.ft. method and its going great. Thanx for the post

  8. Chiot's Run June 26th, 2009

    I’m a big fan of square foot gardening. This year I’m also adding veggies & edibles to my other flowerbeds in little pockets. It makes for a great way to add some usefulness to those other areas of the garden.

  9. Sagan June 26th, 2009

    What a fun project! Gardening is wonderful.

  10. My first year with square ft. gardening. Things are going pretty well. I have several vegetables in small amounts that I am kind of experimenting with. I have every intention of expanding my square ft. garden next year.

  11. Laurel Alanna McBrine June 26th, 2009

    I love this idea – I wonder if it is important to use wood that has not been treated with chemicals?

    I am putting this on my to-do list! Thanks for the pictures and instructions.

  12. Cheapchick June 27th, 2009

    Excellent post. As someone with arthritis anytime I don’t have to go on my knees to garden is a good thing. Raised beds look so neat and tidy as well. The rabbits are particularly high in population this year but it appears no one has been eating my neighbors raised beds!

  13. Eric Laj June 28th, 2009

    You alluded to this with the raised beds, but I’ve had groundhogs and rabbits living in my yard or my neighbors yards (and they like to visit mine), but the raised beds keep them out of my tomatoes, cukes, etc. Won’t work with deer, but for those short to the ground animals, it keeps them away from the goods. (I learned this from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society back when I was a member) Also, for the best tasting tomatoes, I UNDER-water them, almost to the point of only watering when they are drooping from thirst. Makes for very flavorful fruit!

  14. annie August 2nd, 2009

    want to elevate my garden,do i need to support the corners ?

  15. JoJensen January 10th, 2010

    These are great ideas — but still a lot of work for gardening-challenged folks. Personally, I love the EarthBox. You buy it once and reuse it year after year. Initial investment is about $35-$60, depending on whether you buy the basic box or the full kit. You can set it up in 20-30 minutes. It has a special water reservoir and fertilizer, so all you do is add water when needed and harvest!

    It has a sort of “shower cap” cover, so NO WEEDING! Uses less water and produces huge amounts of vegetables or whatever you plant. Just a few Earth Boxes can provide a lot of produce on a deck, balcony or yard with good sunlight. Definitely worth a try.

  16. Lucy July 5th, 2011

    I love that you repurposed the salad containers! A great idea I will use.

  17. misha March 25th, 2012

    My mom made a raised bed with left over concrete wall slabs and roof tiles. It cost nothing and looked cute.

  18. Len April 14th, 2012

    Been doing a raised bed garden for 10 years , it is 8 x 16 ft and we harvest various veggies for fresh eating beginning in June then preserve or dry for 2 people. Sure cuts down on the grocery bill.

    Len

  19. haverwench May 7th, 2012

    “6. Less weeding? Some square foot gardeners claim there are less weeds with raised beds. I’ve found this claim to be valid since weeds can’t grow inwards from outside the box frame.”

    Oh, but they can! At least here in New Jersey, they can. The most prevalent weed in our yard (I don’t know its name, unfortunately) reproduces by underground runners, and it can easily worm its way in under the frame. Dealing with this green monster is like fighting a Hydra–for every shoot I pull, three more pop up. Argh!

    But at least the more closely planted crops leave less room for the weeds, once they finally get growing.

  20. Pam May 26th, 2012

    I live in FL where having anything in the ground is a ton of work. I use Earth Boxes … yes, the initial expense is there, but soil is reused, no chemical run off, plants only take the water they need, so no waste and best of all NO WEEDING! Plants grow so quickly, that pests are not a problem. You can even move the boxes to mow or relocate if it’s too sunny. I’ve also used these for a classroom garden! Google EarthBox!!

  21. jim September 2nd, 2012

    This looks like nothing more than a combination of raised bed gardening with traditional single row practices. From what I see you’re wasting a lot of space in your garden. Your 4 reasons to plant in rows demonstrate that you don’t understand the reason why SFGers use grids. As an example: “some plants do better in rows”-like radishes. Really? I don’t know where you learned that. If you wanted to grow a row of 25 radishes in your garden your going to take up 6.25 feet(they’re thinned to every 3″). I’m going to grow those same 25 radishes in just 1 square foot-and they will do just as well as your row garden. Don’t know who told you that things do better in rows, but that’s not accurate. For those things that need more space than 1 square foot, you just space it differently. Things like the bigger squash are planted 1 per 2 feet-which is plenty of room. The other huge reason for the grid is to keep things organized. Take a look at your gardens and then look at a reasonably well kept SFG. You’ll see a tremendous difference. I don’t get it. First you can’t say enough about the SFG system and then you go against the major things that make it great. Hmmmmm

  22. Jim March 31st, 2013

    Raised bed gardening works very well for some plants. This is a great example of how it can be used effectively. Great work, and very helpful post. I am getting ready for the gardening season!

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