Square foot gardening

The road to self-reliance begins with baby steps.

It requires lots of experimentation and trial and error to determine what works for you and what doesn’t.

Take growing your own food. I’m all goofy gray thumbs when it comes to actually growing stuff out of the ground. Growing up as a city boy, the whole concept of farming was utterly foreign to me until the past few years.

Fruits, vegetables, meats… These were all things that just magically appeared in a grocery store, stacked, unblemished and spit-shiny. The only reminder to where food actually came from was the occasional small withered leaf still attached to an apple stem overlooked by apple pickers and processors thousands of miles away.

But through lots of reading (I highly recommend any of Joel Salatin’s excellent books), experimentation, and trial and error, I’m starting to see just the faintest highlights of green splotches sprout on my thumbs.

Square foot gardening is one relatively easy and affordable way to green up your thumbs and learn how to begin the process of gaining a better appreciation of where food actually comes from and what it takes to grow it.

Square foot gardening is the concept of planning and creating small but intensively planted vegetable beds. It includes a strong focus on compost, densely planted raised beds and biointensive attention to small, clearly defined areas (square foot plots).

It’s a great way for beginners to learn organic farming methods because it’s well-suited to areas with poor soil, is easy to weed, and because it’s done in raised, easily-accessible beds, which bring the soil and plant levels closer to the gardener.

Here’s a quick primer on a square foot gardening project we recently started at the kids’ school. It’s still very early as you’ll see from the photos, but so far it shows a lot of promise… Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos of the construction process, but you’ll get the picture.

Tools/materials you’ll need:

  • Two 10 foot, 2×8 boards (non-treated)
  • Two 3 foot, 2×8 boards (non-treated)
  • Four, 4×4’s – 12 inches in length
  • Hammer & 8 inch nails
  • Wheelbarrow, Shovel, hand spade, post-hole digger
  • Topsoil (We used about a half a yard. You can find a good topsoil calculator here)
  • Mulch or compost
  • Exacto knife
  • Plastic cups
  • String or twine
  • Tape measurer
  • Tacks
  • Seeds (For this project, we’re trying lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, basil, mustard, arugula, onions, green peppers and a few other vegetables)


  • Find a relatively flat area to build the beds
  • Measure and stake an area 10 feet long x 3 feet wide
  • Secure the four, 4×4 posts to your two, 3 foot, 2×8 boards with 8 inch nails
  • Use post hole digger to dig four holes approximately 4 to 6 inches deep and insert the 4×4’s into the holes
  • Now fasten your 10 foot boards to the 4×4’s
  • Fill beds with about a half a yard of topsoil and level, leaving a 2-3 inch space between the top of the soil and the top of the bed.
  • Next, using your tape measurer, string and tacks divide the bed into 12 square inch plots.
  • Once you have your bed divided into 12 inch plots, break out your seeds, your trusty Exacto knife, plastic cups and mulch or compost.
  • In the center of each 12 inch plot stick your thumb into the soil knuckle deep, drop a few seeds into the hole and cover with loose soil
  • Next, cut the top 3 or 4 inches off of one of your plastic cups using your Exacto knife and place the cup around the seeds you just planted
  • Spread a generous layer of mulch or compost around the outside of the plastic cup to a depth of 2-3 inches
Quick sidebar: Covering the soil with mulch or compost is really important. To give you an idea of how important… We’re in the middle of the dry season in Panama. It’s very windy, hot and extremely dry. When we first planted the seeds, we only mulched to a layer about an inch deep. The seeds sprouted, but the soil was exposed in areas and the wind blew away most of our mulch. As a result, we were watering the beds 2-3 times a day, the soil was still bone dry and the plants all looked like they’d been on a 48-hour bender — pale, withered, and nursing a wicked hangover.
We actually added a deep level of compost from a “hot” compost pile after the fact, and within a couple days the veggies were green, lush and rocketing upwards. We now only have to water every other day because the compost acts as a time-release sponge, retaining water and slowly releasing it into the soil around the plants. I’m also assuming that the nutrient rich compost gave the haggard little plants a much-needed nutritional jolt.
Your finished beds should look like this:

The upshot of Square Foot Gardening is that it’s easy… Easy to construct, easy to plant, and easy to maintain. You can also plant a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. In the older beds we planted last year, we even have a few healthy pineapples in between the tomatoes and green peppers.

Once planted, the key is to keep a thick level of mulch or compost around the plants to protect the soil from harsh direct sunlight while retaining water and slowly releasing it to the plants.  Weeding is also a snap because the mulch keeps them under control.

Now, will I be able to feed my hungry family with the overflowing cornucopia of produce from a few square foot beds? Not a chance… But remember, these are still baby steps and an education process (learn by doing). More importantly, it’s a skill that, once mastered, could scale very easily to something much larger that could provide lots of vittles for the family while dramatically cutting food costs.

I’ll update periodically on how things are going and growing… And for any green thumbs out there, please feel free to school us on other tips, tricks and secrets we’re overlooking.


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5 Responses to "Square foot gardening"

  1. Nice, Coley! Did Curt help orchestrate this with the kiddos?

  2. Thom Foolery says:

    Coley, I am so glad you posted this. I dived into gardening last year and used square foot gardening as my model. The potatoes blew my mind! This year we’re building a second 4’x4′ plot for my wife and daughter to garden in!

  3. Guest says:

    This is great guys! This is an easily replicated project that anyone who’s determined can do. As an extension to the sq ft garden, I’m doing mushroom gardening both indoors and out. In researching this I’ve found what seems to be an effective CHEAP, or FREE, method of getting spawn started. As soon as my computer is back up, I can email some pix, and a write up on process if you’re interested.
    In addition to Joel’s books I’ve been reading Bill Mollison, Paul Stametz, whom I hope to meet soon he’s not far from my neck of the woods, and Sepp Holzer. Those are ones I’ve been able to get my hands on. There’s many others, but in terms of breaking down permaculture, practices, and methods, of which sq ft gardening is a derivitive, these guys do it best I think.
    Keep putting out the good stuff.


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