How To Garden In A Small Space: Square Foot Gardening

How To Garden In A Small Space: Square Foot Gardening

If you’re an urban homesteader like me, you don’t have acres of land for raising animals and planting gardens. You need a way to grow a lot of food in just a small amount of space! I have personally had great success using a method called Square Foot Gardening.

What It Is

Square Foot Gardening was started back in the ’80s by a man named Mel Bartholomew. You can find out more about the history and method here, but basically it is just dividing a garden into sections that are one square foot each. The number of plants you can put into each square varies by size: 9 green beans, 16 carrots, 2 cucumbers, etc. (You can find a list of plants per square here.) Many of these gardens are planted in a 4 foot by 4 foot square. I chose to keep mine just two feet wide so that it would hug the fence, preserving more lawn space for the kids to play. Square foot gardens do not need to be a total of 16 square feet, by any means; do what works for you and your space!

4x4 square foot garden
This is my old 4×4 square foot garden at our previous house

Benefits of Square Foot Gardening

The most obvious benefit of square foot gardening (SFG) is the space you save over a traditional garden. For example, I currently have two 8×2 foot raised boxes devoted to SFG. In that 32 square feet I have a whopping 82 plants growing!! That includes 14 different varieties: tomatoes, green peppers, cabbage, broccoli, marigolds (to keep bugs away), onion, garlic, green beans, cucumbers, acorn squash, zucchini, peas, potatoes, and carrots. Wow!

There are other great benefits to square foot gardening, too. In traditional gardening you place several seeds in one hole and then “thin” the seedlings. Thinning means you pull up some of the new plants that are growing. Here you have put time and energy into nurturing these tiny plants, only to pull them up when they’re starting to thrive! This tends to feel both cruel and counterproductive, and it wastes seeds. With square foot gardening, you only plant what you intend to grow. You will be surprised at how few seeds fail to sprout!

This method also offers a great sense of order and neatness. You do not have things growing willy-nilly all over the place, or large empty rows of wasted space. It’s perfect for Type A people like me who want everything to look very tidy and proper! Weeding is also much easier with SFG, because you’ll know exactly where you planted your seeds. If something grows where you didn’t place a seed, you know it’s a weed and should be pulled. It also helps those who are just getting started with gardening. You can learn to identify what young plants look like as they’re coming up!

Building A Raised Bed

I didn’t plant my garden until the first week of May this year. Every year I tell myself I will plant earlier, and every year I’m still late to the game! But the beauty in getting started late means I’ll have fresh produce well into September again, which I love. This April most of our time was devoted to getting the chickens up and running. We had two out-of-state trips as well, so planting kept getting pushed back. I also wanted to double my gardening space before I planted; I started with just one 8×2′ raised bed, and added a second right next to it.

A raised bed is simply a garden that you grow above ground level, adding your own soil rather than planting directly into the ground. Raised beds make it easy to a) plan your squares; b) start with quality dirt; and c) cut down on the amount of weeding you have to do. I’m all about making my job easier!

The easiest way to make a raised bed is to build a simple wooden frame that sits on the ground. You can put it basically anywhere you want! (Just plan for lots of sunlight and good water drainage.) You can even build it up to counter height if you’re unable to get down to the ground for any reason. When I was finally ready to build my new raised bed this year, I had my husband cut and screw together 2×8’s into a 2 foot by 8 foot frame. (I built the first raised bed myself a couple years ago, using wood I found in the garage. It turns out that those were actually fence boards! Oops. It worked, though!)

Preparing My Garden

In the place where I wanted my garden, I first mowed the grass as short as I could. Then I used a hoe to pull most of the remaining grass up. My son helped me put the wooden frame in place, and we covered the area inside with newspapers to help discourage weeds and grass from growing through. (Cardboard works as well, or you can buy landscaping cloth). I also put up a 2×8′ piece of lattice behind it, so that my climbing plants would have something to hold on to as they grow.

Raised bed square foot garden
New raised bed with newspaper and lattice

I wet the newspaper thoroughly and then added my dirt – a combination of top soil, peat moss, and a compost/manure mixture. I know a lot of people are sticklers for getting the exact right “recipe” for their garden dirt, and while I am nothing if not a rule-follower, sometimes it comes down to just getting it done. If I didn’t go ahead with imperfect methods, I would never have gotten a garden planted at all! So I mixed what I had (which did not include vermiculite, which is supposed to be a huge SFG component), and watered it well.

The dirt is in!

Next I used screws and some jute twine to mark off my garden into square feet. My perfectionist nature took over here, and I got carried away trying to make each square the perfect size. This was impossible to do, as 2×8′ boards are not ACTUALLY two inches wide, and screwing the sides on shortened my 8′ length by three inches. I know, it upsets me too. Finally I gave up trying to measure and mark each square and just eyeballed it, which turned out to be perfect.

8x2 square foot garden bed
Squares are marked out and ready to be planted!

Starting Seeds Indoors

I had spent some time in March planning out what I wanted to plant and where, and drawing a diagram. I tried my hand at starting seeds indoors for the first time this year. Again, there are a lot of rules you’re supposed to follow when starting seeds. My mother and half a dozen websites assured me that without plant food and a grow light, I would never be successful. I did it anyway using a tiny $2 plastic greenhouse. I figured I wasn’t out much if it didn’t work! Lo and behold -my seeds grew beautifully with just water and the sunlight from my dining room window!

Starting seeds indoors
Indoor seeds just starting to sprout. What a lesson in patience!
Hardening off started seeds
Tomatoes and peppers sitting outside to “harden off” before transplanting

My tiny tomatoes and green peppers were not quite ready to be transplanted yet, and we were still finishing up the chicken coop, so I didn’t actually plant anything until a week later. I used that week to let the new plants  “harden off”, which means slowly getting them used to being outside. This keeps them from dying of shock when exposed to the weather after transplanting!

I’m hoping to have success with growing potatoes this year, so I also had my husband build one end (four squares’ worth) of the old raised bed up into a potato box.  I learned that potatoes like to have more and more dirt added as they grow, so some extra height was required.

Potato box raised garden bed
Potato box built up on the end of my garden. It still needs one more level!

Watching It Grow

Within a couple weeks I had many tiny plants sprouting. I wish I had gotten more photos! But everything came up at its own time, so it was hard to know when to do a photo shoot. It was so exciting to go out every day to see if anything new had sprouted since the day before! There is so much joy and humble pride in seeing new life growing, having helped God to get it started.

I know that’s an oxymoron, ‘humble pride’. You do feel a sense of accomplishment, but you know that you’re not the One who can make a seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7 says: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow”. Growing a garden is much like watching your body blossom with a new life inside. You obviously had a hand in creating it, but you recognize that only God can orchestrate that miracle!

Square Foot Garden
My finished garden, with plant markers put in and chicken wire up to protect the new plants. You can see them starting to grow!

Give It A Try!

I hope that this encourages you to start a garden of your own if you haven’t before! Or if you have, to maybe give Square Foot Gardening a try. Your garden doesn’t need to be big or fancy. You do not need a large space – even those living in an apartment can grow plants very successfully in containers! It doesn’t need to be perfect, either. I have a wonderfully free-spirited friend who scatters seeds haphazardly and then takes delight in what ends up growing.
Even the most gardening-challenged person (that would be me) can enjoy some of God’s bounty and experience the joy of growing things, with just a little bit of space and effort! For proof and inspiration, here is my garden today, two months later:
Space saving Square Foot Garden
My space-saving Square Foot Garden, with 82 plants and 14 different varieties

What gardening method do you use, and what do you love about it? Tell me in the comments!

Like what you read? Click to follow or share:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *