What is so special about square foot gardening? Here is why I now have a square foot garden after nearly 30 years of using other gardening methods:
1. Square foot garden beds can produce a lot of food in a very small area.
A small garden is a joy to work in. You never feel overwhelmed with the amount of work needed to take care of it, and you don’t have to get hot, sweaty, and tired. I have often puttered in my square foot garden while wearing my office clothes. Square foot gardening is so easy that I consider it more play than work.
These gardens can also fit into the smallest yards. You can grow large plants vertically up trellises. Even if you want to grow most of the vegetables you eat year-round, just 9 small 4′ x 4′ beds can easily produce over 300 pounds of food – several servings a day.
2. Square foot garden beds are attractive and easy to care for.
You can and should place these small raised garden beds close to your home. They are attractive enough for your front yard. Because they are so easy to take care of, they never get out of control and buried in tall weeds.
Garden beds that are close to your home receive a lot more attention and care than those that are even 50 feet away. You won’t think twice about frequently wandering outside and spending an easy 10 or 15 minutes in your garden.
3. It is simple to focus on growing only as much food as you really need.
With large gardens, too many people grow far more crops than they really need. I’ve seen neighbors grow 50 tomato plants when just 4 plants could have given them all the tomatoes they needed. The extra fruit often rotted or was given away. Why plant a 20 foot row of lettuce when you only eat 1 small head every few days? With square foot gardening, it’s very easy to plant just a few square feet every couple of weeks to harvest all the salad crops you need throughout the year.
In addition, it is very easy to add inexpensive cold frames on top of your garden beds to harvest fresh food all winter long. With mini fruit gardens, you won’t end up with too many bushels of fruit from a single tree. Miniature trees produce smaller harvests. You can also spread your harvest of fresh fruit over several weeks or months.
4. You only need small hand tools, and you never have to till your garden again.
Get rid of your garden tiller! Square foot garden beds are always ready to be planted, and you can start your garden in the spring weeks before your neighbors. Because these raised beds drain very well, rainy weather won’t prevent you from weeding or planting in your garden. You never have to walk in muddy soil, as the beds are surrounded by grass lawn, mulched paths, or even brick or paving stones.
5. These small gardens need very little fertilizer, compost, or mulch.
You don’t need to build large fancy compost piles, or use a pickup truck to haul material to keep up your garden. Many people’s kitchens and yards can supply most or all the mulch or compost that your square foot garden needs.
Using small garden beds also makes it easier to protect your garden plants from insect and animal pests, and from bad weather.
6. Square foot garden beds and containers are easier to use for people with disabilities.
In 2009, my life completely changed. I went from being a person who built her own house with her own two hands, cut her own firewood, took long walks and danced every week, and enjoyed taking care of a very large garden by hand – to someone who has major physical limitations that prevent her from doing many activities.
My gardens have been my passion for most of my life. They have brought me much joy and satisfaction over the years, and I can’t imagine life without them. To suddenly have difficulty even holding a garden hose to water my plants made me determined to find a way to continue gardening, despite my new disabilities. Although I still need help with my gardens and in my kitchen, square foot and container gardening has made it possible for me to continue enjoying what I love doing most. You can, too.
What are the disadvantages of square foot gardening?
- Although it doesn’t have to cost a lot to create your square foot garden, you can easily spend a large amount of money to get the garden established. You can choose between using cheap wood raised bed frames versus expensive plastic ones, or using nearly free real soil in your beds versus the more expensive Mel’s Mix – an artificial mix of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. There is a lot of flexibility on how to create successful square foot gardens.
- A few crops are more difficult to harvest in small raised beds. Sweet potatoes grown in ridges in a row garden are fairly easy to pop out of the ground with a spading fork. It can take a lot more effort to carefully dig up large deep sweet potatoes that are grown close together in small raised beds. Carrots are easy to harvest, and white potatoes are not too bad, but I found it more difficult to harvest sweet potatoes.
- If you are gardening in the maritime Northwest, you will probably have problems with symphylans – small arthropods that live in the soil and eat organic matter and plant roots. Permanent irrigated gardens can become so badly infested that most vegetables are badly stunted. Read regional gardening books specific to your region to learn more about how to successfully garden with this issue.
- The single biggest disadvantage with square foot gardens (and any type of intensive raised garden beds) is the need for regular and thorough irrigation. Plants can sometimes be severely damaged by missing just one or two days of watering. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to regularly and thoroughly irrigate your square foot garden, I encourage you to choose another gardening method.
- If you are gardening in a dry climate and using regular irrigation with surface or ground water, you may have problems with salt build-up in your soil – the more you irrigate, the faster your soil can be destroyed. Rain water is safe to irrigate with in that climate, but if you can’t collect and store enough rainwater for most of your irrigation needs, you might want to try an old-fashioned row garden instead. Spacing plants far apart greatly reduces their irrigation needs, as will using mulch and focusing on varieties of plants that need less water. I’m not familiar with gardening in dry climates, and I recommend that you read regional gardening books specific to your area.
Although I follow most of the basic principles of square foot gardening, I do not believe that it is a “perfect” method suitable for all gardeners. I also do not follow several of Mel Bartholomew’s “official” requirements for square foot garden beds. I use organic fertilizers as well as compost, I don’t have permanent grids on my beds, I often space my plants further apart, and I usually use real soil in the raised beds instead of an artificial soil mix (potting soil).
If you would like to learn more about my experiences with using other methods of gardening, read about My Journey Towards Square Foot Gardening.
Using square foot gardens has increased my pleasure in gardening, even as my disability has made my life much more challenging. I encourage you to explore what square foot gardening may have to offer you.
Next Page: Photos of Gardens