A Quick Guide To Square Foot Gardening

You may have heard of square foot gardening but haven’t had the time to dig into it and see what it’s all about. It can also be a little intimidating, as there is a lot of information out there about the practice. 

Mel Bartholomew – a retired engineer and efficiency expert – invented the concept of square foot gardening four decades ago, and in 1981, published a book introducing his new-fangled idea to the world. 

square foot gardening

Needless to say, “Square Foot Gardening” was a massive hit and the start of a movement in the gardening community. And while you might want to go out and read the book, allow me to get you started with this quick guide to square foot gardening.

The Basics

Instead of the classic row garden that most are familiar with, the square foot garden utilizes a square shape. Many squares, in fact. It’s wonderfully simple. 

All you need is a raised garden bed four feet square (4 feet on all sides). Now, you divide that square into 16 individual squares of 1ftx1ft. And there you have it—your square foot garden with 16 little squares to plant your herbs, veggies, etc.

You can purchase raised bed containers or quickly build them yourself. But if you already have a garden and soil set up, you can form a 4×4 in-ground garden bed. 

As for marking off the 1×1 squares, lots of people use string or thin pieces of wood. But they also sell grids that you can place right over your 4×4 garden if you’re not up for doing it DIY.


Given that Mr. Bartholomew was an efficiency expert, it should come as no surprise that the concept of square foot gardening came about from a desire to get the most garden out of the least amount of space.

Not having to build beds and rows and having everything right there in a 4×4 square means faster setup time and using less space. Think of how much space a row garden with 16 different plants would take up. Not everyone has that kind of room.

square foot gardening

Not only is it efficient in its footprint, but a square foot garden is also practical for you, the person tending to it. You won’t be stepping over plants (or on them by accident). With a 4×4 square garden, you can move around the bed and reach every plant with ease – making tending and harvesting much more, say it with me, efficient! 

And with the square foot system, you are using every inch for gardening and growing – meaning you are maximizing your yield and minimizing your waste. You are also maximizing your time given that, generally, square-foot gardens require less maintenance.

A Few Pro Tips

If you read Bartholomew’s book, you will see that he recommends that your 4×4 square walls be 6 inches high. This height is probably not a problem if you have your square foot garden on soil into which the plant roots can dig if they are longer than 6 inches (which is the case with many plants). 

However, should you place your garden on a wood, pavement, or another non-soil surface, it is recommended to go 12 inches high to accommodate the roots.

When it comes to the soil you use for planting, the traditional mixture, referred to as “Mel’s Mix” consists of 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 peat. However, peat is not a sustainable material. If you would like to be a little more eco-friendly, I did read about a mixture made up of 50% peat-free compost, 25% potting grit or fine gravel, and the final 25% fine chipped wood bark, which aides with drainage.

Whatever you use, my best advice is to use a soilless mix, which is a big help with minimizing weed growth.

The benefit of these gardens is their size. You can garden on your deck, on a patio, pretty much anywhere you can fit a 4×4 box. 

If you are placing your beds on an area of your lawn, a neat little trick is to use cardboard. Place the cardboard on the mowed grass and place your 4×4 boxes on the cardboard. This will kill the grass underneath, and during the summer months, it will decompose under the soil, which will also help fight any possible weed growth in the beds going forward. 

It’s better than using weed-blocking fabric because it will also block the plant roots from pushing down and into the soil below.

Check back for Jesse’s upcoming post on which plants thrive in a square foot garden!

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Jesse grew up obsessed with movies and so it only makes sense that he graduated from McGill University with a degree in Political Science. He then put that degree to good use with a job at a video store. After that he spent months backpacking around Europe - a continent that he has been back to visit many times since. Jesse is super curious and loves to learn and explore new subjects. For the last 15+ years he has been writing online for a number of different sites and publications covering everything from film and television to website reviews, dating and culture, history, news and sports. He’s worn many hats - which is ironic because he actually loves wearing hats and he has many different ones.