A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

How to garden basics: Start with Square Foot Gardening

Gardeners with flowers - Square foot gardening

Marshfield, Wis., community members tend to their SFG community gardens, provided by Healthy Lifestyles – Marshfield Area Coalition.

“My yard is too small.”

“I don’t have time for all that weeding.”

“It just sounds expensive.”

Have you used these excuses to avoid gardening? Laura Zelenak, Marshfield Clinic Healthy Lifestyles health educator, says you’re not alone.

“Traditional row gardens can overwhelm beginners,” Zelenak said. “Square foot gardening takes out all the fuss. If you want to try gardening without going overboard, it’s a great place to start.”

What is square foot gardening (SFG)?

SFG is a small-scale, intensive, lower maintenance, highly productive gardening method, said Zelenak.

It can be used and built almost anywhere, and it’s ideal for anyone, even children or people with physical disabilities.

Advantages of SFG

“In square foot gardening, you can grow much of the same produce as row gardens with less upkeep,” she said.

Additional advantages include:

  • Less weeding, water, space and cost
  • Less time maintaining the garden
  • No heavy shoveling or rototilling
  • More efficient seed use
  • Can be made temporary or movable
  • More location opportunity

What can I grow in my square foot garden?

“I typically tell gardeners to grow their favorite vegetables or flowers. There are plenty of resources to help you plan the squares in your garden, but you can also just start planting and learn as you go,” Zelenak said.

SFG guidelines help determine best crop choices and recommend you:

  • Avoid invasive plants like mint or strawberries. They will take over square foot gardens.
  • Avoid corn because it grows best in masses due to pollination. It doesn’t thrive in square foot gardens.
  • Avoid tall plants like sunflowers and corn. Tall plants shade neighbor plants, which then struggle to grow. If you want to test out a taller plant, place it on the north end of your garden.

5 basic steps to SFG

1. Find or build your SFG space

The cookie-cutter square foot garden is built 4-feet long by 4-feet wide and six to eight inches deep. Experts say you can increase length, but to keep width at four feet. When building more than a one square foot garden, put three feet of space between as your walkway.

“You never set foot into your garden using this method,” Zelenak said. “All gardening is done from outside the planting space.” 

Choose a space that gets six to eight hours of sunlight.

If your garden is over natural ground, use weed cloth or cardboard on bottom. If it is more portable, like set on a table, use cardboard or plywood on bottom.

Some stores offer ready-to-assemble square foot gardening kits. 

2. Prepare your soil.

Mel’s Mix is the staple SFG soil: Equal parts (volume not weight) coarse vermiculite, peat moss and blended compost. However, you could dig out a space in your natural ground or mix your own compost.

Do your research if you choose natural soil: What kind of soil do you have? Is it mostly clay? Sand? Identify your soil and add compost as needed.

3. Grid your garden.

The grid of a square foot garden is essential. Groupings of 12-inch square spaces allow you to maximize planting. 

4. Plant and maintain your garden.

Select your crop.

Determine how many seeds go into a square space: one, four, nine or 16.

“Seed packet specifications help you determine this number,” she said. “For example, tomato seeds need to be 12 inches apart, so you only put one per square. But if a plant needs three inches of spacing, you can fit 16 seeds per square.”

Regularly water each plant at its root with sun-warmed water.

Weed as needed.

5. Harvest your crop.

“Once you’ve harvested a square, you can reuse the space. Just add more compost,” Zelenak said.

Download square foot gardening instructions

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