Garden in a box

Grow Your Own Food One Square Foot at a Time

For years I’d tried to grow a decent vegetable garden. It was the high cost of fresh basil—$3.50 for a few measly, wilted basil leaves, ditto for a pound of somewhat reddish tomatoes, and mostly pink strawberries—that prompted me to try.

I started with tomatoes, basil, and peppers (a salsa garden!). In no time, I added zucchini and cucumbers to my repertoire—even corn ane strawberries one year.

A bunch of different types of vegetables

But I have to be honest. My harvests ranged from disappointing to mediocre. Only that one year did my garden produce so well, we had enough to share with others. I’m still trying to remember how I did that.

Uniquely talented

One thing I do quite well is weeds. I try not to take too much credit here, but I have to tell you I’ve never seen anyone else grow weeds quite as successfully as I do. And I can take them right through the season until they actually re-seed themselves for the next season!

Oh, the effort

While I love the concept of a garden that’s not only nice to look at but actually produces the food we enjoy eating. I’m not 100% in love with the anxiety, pressure, guilt, backaches, leg cramps, and fear of needing hip replacements.

There has to be a better way

While in the past my efforts to grow a garden have been more of a hobby than a serious endeavor, I feel that changing. The high cost of food—specifically, produce—tells me it’s time to get serious. We need to become more self-sufficient, but in a cost-effective way.

True cost? Yikes!

While I feel that I’ve mastered weeds, I’ve failed miserably in cost-effectiveness. I shudder to imagine the true cost of the pathetically tiny bounty I’ve garnered over the years. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up on vegetable gardening, only that I’m ready for a new way to do it.

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The better way

Mel Bartholomew is the genius behind the concept of “square foot gardening” and author of the All-New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Edition

Square Foot Gardening is the most practical, foolproof way to grow a home garden, whether you’re growing an urban garden, or have an entire backyard. Adopting this method, you can grow vegetables anywhere!

Garden in a box

Bartholomew, a civil engineer by profession and a frustrated gardener on weekends, became convinced that gardening in single rows because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” is a waste of time, energy and money.

He condensed his garden to above-the-ground, 6-inch deep plots measuring four feet by four feet, which yielded 100% of the harvest in 20% of the space—without all the hard work and drudgery of single-row gardening. Imagine gardening one-square-foot at a time!

Twice the harvest

This method is easy to understand even for beginners. A square foot garden requires 80% less space and can be located anywhere—even on a patio, balcony, or driveway. But you can expect twice the harvest of a regular-sized garden.

A square foot garden, which can be as small as two feet square, is simple to protect from weather and pests. And, best of all, this kind of garden is very productive.

A green plant in a garden

A square foot garden can be created and maintained by those with physical limitations, as the boxes can be raised to an appropriate height.

We can start a square foot garden in any season. Planting requires no thinning, no tilling and very few seeds. And did I mention no weeds? None. Zip. Nada. 

Quick 5-Step Plan

  1. Pick an area that gets six to eight hours of sunshine daily.
  2. Stay clear of trees and shrubs where roots and shade may interfere.
  3. Have it close to the house for convenience.
  4. Existing soil is not really important as you won’t be using it.
  5. The area should not puddle after heavy rain.

If you have any interest at all in pursuing a square foot garden, I highly recommend that you invest in Bartholomew’s book. Presented simply and visually, this is a resource that will return its value hundreds of times over in home-grown bounty and I’m talking about so much, you’ll have plenty to share. And please … send pictures!

Updated 5-25-20

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  1. Kaila says:

    Planted my first square foot garden this past weekend! It’s 6ft x 4ft, I built it to last and without toxic wood (mine is cedar) and no nails or screws (I used concrete planter blocks). The hard work was leveling the garden and shlepping all that soil, compost, etc. Planting was super quick within the grid marked by twine. Now I can sit back and watch the magic!

  2. Trina says:

    I tried square foot gardening years ago. Unless you use determinate tomatoes it will not work with them. The same goes for zucchini and squash which need room to spread and breathe. Living in Colorado, I use grow bags so that I can plant my warm plants (tomatoes and peppers) early without having to wait our cold soil to warm up. The initial layout is a little expensive, but you can reuse the bags and soil (with a compost booster) every year after that. My tomatoes grow 6 feet tall. I plant my cucumbers, zucchini, and squash in the ground in my warmest soil with lots of room. Start most everything from seed beginning April 1st to save $$. Happy Gardening!

  3. crafty says:

    For me the best part about having a garden are the fresh herbs. Making salad dressing or soup is a breeze when I can just walk to my herb patch with some scissors and have parsley, rosemary, basil at a fraction of the cost of the grocery store. And my herbs are always fresh, not rotting in a plastic bag in the fridge. This year, I did a 2 foot by 8 foot herb garden with 1 tomato, 1 cucumber and the rest are herbs and flowers.

  4. Spice Weasel says:

    When I was a kid, I always wondered why we never had a vegetable garden. My mother explained that she and Dad had grown up when if you wanted veggies you grew your own, you certainly didn’t buy them from a store. That required money! So she grew them as a child, as her father was a minister and his congregation couldn’t afford to pay him very much, she grew them during the Depression and during the war. And of course she canned and she canned and she canned! I think they finished the last beet tops around 1950. What particularly galled her in my childhood in the 50s, was that after all the she’d effort she’d put in, that by the time her vegetables were ripe, she could buy them at market (from real farmers) for as she said a nickel a pound. So she just sent Dad to market to buy the veggies. Much less work and supported local farmers. I am her daughter. I can’t wait for the farmer’s market to open! 2 months and counting.

  5. sadnana says:

    There are costs associated with every worthwhile endeavor. Gardening can be expensive, but those expenses can be trimmed just as you’d trim costs for everything else. Soil health and quality is important but you don’t have to buy expensive amendments or fertilizers. We save all of our kitchen and yard waste all year round and make our own compost. It’s easy and anyone can do it. It’s also possible to simply bury your scraps in the garden. They still decompose and feed the soil and they also attract and feed earthworms (their castings contribute to soil and plant health). We collect our used coffee grounds and take free used grounds from anywhere we can get them. Then, in the Spring, we mix them directly into the soil to boost fertility. Are you going to the beach? Collect seaweed that’s washed up on the sand to take home. Just mix it into the soil for a rich source of minerals for your plants. Concerned about your water bill? Get a rain barrel and you can water your garden for free. Our community sells them at their cost. Maybe yours does too, or you can get one cheap or free from other sources. Concerned about insect pests? Plant marigolds between the rows. They repel many harmful insects. Did you know that gardening is useful in teaching your children mathematics, biology, meteorology, entomology, geology, time management, and money management? With a garden, a little imagination, a tent or two, and maybe a small wading pool, your kids will be happy to forgo summer camp and still get fresh air and exercise while saving money you would have spent on fees. Approach gardening as you would any other expense and you’ll not only enjoy delicious, healthful, fresh produce, but you’ll find many ways to do it economically.

  6. skye says:

    I grow food because it feeds the spirit as well as the body. It is the ultimate connection with the cycle of life. It is an act of independence from Big Ag, as well. Anything you plant, even a single plant, is a start and a point to learn from. And it really is a skill that requires practice and patience and planning. We are used to easy and quick results, and many people give up when they find that just plopping a plant in the ground is not enough. But even if you save no money at all at first, by and by you will, when you get a routine of planning, starting your seed, thinking through how to use proximity planting to discourage pests, how to improve your soil, and then how to preserve and store your crop. Square foot gardening, mini farming and similar techniques save a lot of headaches.i have had good luck with growing things upside down in those fabric tube gizmos, helps avoid bug problems and marauding bunnies. FarmTec and Tractore Supply have people with expertise, as well as decently priced supplies. Check out Mother Earth News, Grit, your local agriculture extension for knowhow, tips and support. I hoe, i hoe, its off to farm i go……

    • Jan New says:

      Plus, a fresh, sun- ripened tomato picked from your own garden tastes better than anything bought from the store. When I gave my 7 year old granddaughter one to try, she said, “is this what tomatoes are supposed to taste like?”.

  7. Doxie Mom says:

    Mary is right about the square foot gardening book being the best book on gardening whether you consider that to be an advertisement or not. No need to buy zucchini plants; seeds are cheap! I have ever bearing strawberries planted in a large barrel planter that I bought a few years ago and we have strawberries all summer long. My grape tomatoes also get planted in a large planter pot. No need to spend a lot of money on supplies; good soli – yes!

  8. Lauren says:

    You can also find Square Foot Gardening info online if you don’t want to buy the book (but the book is a good investment!) We’ve used this method for about 8 yrs. now, in 2 different climates. It works well, saves backs, and because it’s so easy, we find ourselves trying veggies we never tried with a ‘regular’ garden!

    • Mara Cain says:

      Look up Square Foot gardening on google or, if you want to be creative, search for ways to garden in small area. I grow some stuff in pots placed in a wagon and move the wagon to get the sunlight.

      • Ann/NC Zone 7 says:

        Ooo I like that moving the wagon! Fertilizer: bunny poo. Get it from neighbors or freecycle. Neighbor complained all her produce got eaten by deer, so I said, grow it up here (away from the forrest) Now it’s “Our garden” We dug it up with shovels and pics. in the area previously tilled. and tilled a new plot with a pic. A garden is a thing to have, a way to give back. More garden = less mowing. I disagree that it is not cost effective. I am Zone 7.Yes, red clay in some parts. Zuccini is so prolific, you have
        to drop it on someone’s door step and run like H! Or, give to the poorer. Give to the poorer. They aren’t that hard to find. I believe that you learn over time. I can grow tomatillos. Always worth a try. I think Square Foot Gardening shows you a way to companion plant and choke out weeds. Meanwhile, I just dig.. Go grow food!

    • tboofy says:

      Yes, there are TONS of resources online. When I don’t want to dig my book out, I just google Square Foot Gardening and usually find what I need.

  9. gamebird says:

    #4 is the most important in my opinion. Good soil is critical! It is also generally not cheap.

    The thing I’ve found, though, and others might find differently, is that gardening costs a lot of money. Just a few days ago, I spent $3.50 per zucchini plant for two of them. The day before, I spent $1.29 at Aldis for 3 zucchini. Doing the math, you can see that each of my plants will have to produce 6 fruit before they turn a profit, and that’s without any ‘cost’ for my labor of planting them, fertilizing, giving compost, and watering. Will they manage 6 fruit each before the squash vine borers get them? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Or there’s the purchase I made earlier this week of PVC pipe, rebar, and bird netting to protect my strawberries. Last year I lost nearly all my fruit to birds. This year, I resolved, it would be different. But I still went with a cheap design, which cost a little over $100 for my 3 raised beds. I could buy a lot of strawberries for $100.

    Gardening isn’t going to save you money. You have to put a lot of value on the entertainment and aesthetics of it before it’s worthwhile. Personally, it’s worth it to me, but I try to caution people who think they can easily grow enough to supplement their food bill. If you garden, don’t do it for the money. Do it for the enjoyment.

    • Ann says:

      There are ways to garden for less money. Zucchini is one of the easier plants to grow from seed. Also, the investments you make the first year in netting, etc., should last you more than 1 year, thus spreading the cost out over time. If you have decent soil, you can amend it with homemade compost for no/low cost. In fact, homemade compost is one of the best things you can do for your garden – veggies or flowers. Another low cost tip – mulch your garden with grass clippings you collect from your lawn. (If you spray pesticides on your grass, only use it for flower gardens.) The clippings will keep the weeds down and break down into the soil over a month or so, you just add more as needed. My Mom turned red clay into beautiful black dirt using this method.

      • gamebird says:

        Thank you, Ann! I even have some zucchini seeds, but I wanted the extra 2-3 weeks that buying started plants would give me. I have a compost tumbler on the back porch that I use all the time, along with three bins out next to the garden for brushier stuff. I’ve got you beat for the mulch – our city has a greenwaste program that includes free wood chip mulch to anyone who wants it. They’ll even load it in the back of a pickup with a front end loader! I think I’ve gotten 8 loads so far this year and plan to get 2-3 more. I mulch everything and I agree – I’m seeing a slow and steady improvement in the nasty clay soil.

      • akagara says:

        I’m with you on the wood chips. last year we had a volunteer watermelon grow in a pathway I had laid using wood chips and as the summer grew hotter all my other plants suffered in the heat but the volunteer watermelon thrived and produced four medium sized watermelons. Value of the watermelons maybe $15. Cost of the wood chips $9. Well worth the investment

    • tboofy says:

      I totally agree with Ann. Growing from seed costs next to nothing. For things like tomatoes and bell peppers, I start them in my window a couple months before I can plant outside. I like to use the peat pots, which are pretty cheap, but you could use regular dirt, too. There’s almost no effort, just a little water every day, and it reminds me that spring IS coming!

      I’ve decided that strawberries are not worth it to grow (for me; others may disagree). The birds end up eating most of them, and all I get is frustrated. The time and money don’t add up in that case; it’s much easier to pick up strawberries when they’re in season and cheap.

      See if you can find a little mom-n-pop store to buy seedlings from. I’ve never paid $1.75 for a small plant before, especially not a zucchini (which are akin to weeds where I live because they’re so prolific!).

      The initial cost IS a lot to get your beds set up, but once they’re in, you only have to add a little mulch occasionally. The cost has been more than worth not having to deal with weeds. But you’re right, if it’s not something you enjoy, you may be better off not doing it.

    • Rosalie Dann says:

      Also for the better quality vegies. You KNOW what you put on your plants but not the ones in the shop. Also, for your $100 you can use and reuse those planters if you take care of them – it’s not $100 for a one time effort. So I believe it was money well spent. When it comes to tomatoes and the like you can let them self-seed and they will then cost you nothing next time and I have read that with some plants when you cut the top off and replant, they will grow again and you get even more for the one price.

    • Brenda says:

      I talk people out of buying plants every day. And I work in a greenhouse! Direct sow those seeds for a fraction of the cost!
      The only thing you will need to buy is tomatoes and peppers, and even those are seed startable with heat and light.

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