Create a Square-Foot, High-Yield Vegetable Garden

Would you like to grow abundant fresh vegetables in a small space with less weeding, no tilling, no heavy digging, and less work? If so, I recommend you try square foot gardening.

Mel Bartholomew created this method of intensive gardening forty years ago and today gardeners all around the world practice his successful system. Typically, you use a four-foot by four-foot planting box, fill it with soil and place a square foot grid on top. Simply plant seeds and/or bedding plants in the squares created by the grid.

Here is the detailed four-step procedure:

  1. Build a Box
    You can use rot-resistant cedar boards or synthetic wood, both popular options, or any non-treated six-inch wide lumber. Six inches will be deep enough as almost all roots on vegetables grow in the top six inches of soil. Do not use treated lumber because the chemicals may leach into the garden soil. Have the boards cut into four-foot lengths at the lumberyard. Designs can differ; for example, my boxes are eight-foot long by four-foot wide. While the length is really not important, do not make your box more than four-foot wide or you won’t be able to reach the middle. Drill holes in the ends of the boards and screw them together with three-inch screws. You can paint the boards with outdoor house paint and they will last many years.

    When locating your square foot garden remember that vegetables will be most productive in full sun, therefore they should receive six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Locate the garden near a water source and if possible near the kitchen door. If you place your square foot garden on the grass or on a weedy area, put four layers of newspaper, some corrugated cardboard or weed-block fabric on the bottom to discourage grass and weeds from growing up. Do not use plastic because it does not allow water to soak through. When utilizing more than one box, place them three to four feet apart to make a walkway and enough room to push a wheelbarrow between them.
  2. Fill the Box with Potting Soil
    Bartholomew advises you use one-third blended compost, one-third peat moss and one-third vermiculite. This creates a well-drained soil that will hold enough moisture and nutrients for plant growth. Blended compost means compost of different types. I use mushroom compost, aged horse manure and my homemade compost. If you would like to know how to make your own compost contact your county extension office. You can also compare ingredients on bags of compost at garden centers and purchase a variety. Find peat moss and vermiculite at the big box stores or your farm store. Peat moss may come in a big bale that you break apart and fluff up. Moisten the potting soil before planting: you should be able to squish a handful and it stays together but no water will drip out of your fingers.
  3. Add a Grid
    The grid is the unique feature that makes this system work; without the grid, it is not square foot gardening. Make a grid from strips of wood, plastic strips, old venetian blinds, etc. Use screws to attach them where they cross. The grid should divide the box into one-foot by one-foot squares for a total of sixteen squares in a four-foot by four-foot planting box.
  4. Start Planting
    The square foot gardening method is less wasteful of seeds as there will be little thinning required. Read the seed packet to determine what spacing your plant needs. If the plant requires 12 inches of space, put one seed in each square; for example one tomato, one pepper, one eggplant, one broccoli, one cabbage or one corn. For six-inch spacing plant four seeds in each square; for example four lettuce, four chard or four marigolds. With four-inch spacing you may plant nine onions, beets, bush beans, garlic or spinach. If the plants need only three-inch spacing then plant, for example, 16 carrots or radishes. In two square feet plant one squash, cucumber or melon. Place trellises on the north side of your planting box to grow vining plants such as beans or peas. On the north side they won’t shade other vegetables. As you can see, there is no wasted space in a square foot garden and production is much higher. As each crop finishes in a square foot, you install a new one, first adding a shovel full of new compost.

Plant each seed by making a shallow hole with your finger. Cover the seeds lightly without packing the soil. When using bedding plants, make a shallow, saucer-shaped depression where you will place the plant. This will help direct water to the root system. I install soaker hoses for easy irrigation. Mulching your garden will help retain soil moisture and suppress weeds.

I extend the season with row covers, a fabric that is easily available by the roll. You can make your own supports with bent wire hangers to cover a single square or the whole garden.

This alternative to traditional row gardens has many advantages:

  • You will harvest more vegetables because you are planting in blocks instead of rows.
  • You will have less weeding because every square foot is dedicated to vegetables.
  • Your existing poor, Pocono soil doesn’t matter.
  • The soil stays friable, not compacted, because you never walk on the squares.
  • You don’t need to till.
  • These gardens warm faster and drain better than traditional gardens.
  • You don’t waste water.
  • You can grow vegetables in any sunny spot, even an office parking lot.
  • Raised beds will spare your back. They allow seniors and the disabled to enjoy gardening.
  • The cost of building the box and buying the soil is probably less than starting a new garden in the back yard.

Whether you are an experienced gardener or a beginner, try this easily managed, low maintenance type of raised bed gardening that uses less space than the traditional row gardens. You will be thrilled with your success!

*I would like to make a correction to my March 21 article (New Plant Picks For 2016). The correct name for the AAS 2016 tomato winner is Candyland Red.*

Contact Information:

724 Phillips St Suite 201, Stroudsburg PA 18360 • 570-421-6430 • email

Pamela T. Hubbard, Penn State Master Gardener of Monroe County