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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 14, 2008

How to Build Your Own Square Foot Garden in 10 Easy Steps

By Worker Bee
69 Comments

Let’s face it: Produce is expensive and, with the economy moving the way it is, it doesn’t look like its going to get any cheaper any time soon. A simple solution? Grow your own.

Now before you quit reading thinking this isn’t the post for you and your far-from-green thumb, it really doesn’t have to be that tough to keep-up – and benefit from – a garden, especially if you start small.

So, how small are we talking? Well, if you’ve got even 4 square-feet of outdoor space, you can enter the square foot gardening game.

But before we tell you how to build your own square-foot-garden, let’s first get the who, why and what out of the way.

A square foot garden is essentially like taking a full vegetable garden and condensing it down so that it fits in a 4 foot by 4 foot box. In order to make the “box” more efficient and to allow for a greater variety of vegetables to be grown, the box is gridded into a series of smaller boxes.

Now, you’ve killed three office plants in as many months and the only foliage that has made it into your home is of the fabric variety, but essentially, anyone can square foot garden. It’s a great project for those who have little space or time to care for a full-scale garden, can be used to teach children about nature, and is great for the elderly or those who are, for whatever reason, unable to cope with the physical demands of traditional gardening.

But seriously, why do it? According to the folks over at squarefootgardening.com, the source of many of the tips below, square foot gardening is easy to do, economical, and efficient. Specifically, square foot gardening requires up to 80% less space than a traditional garden, eliminates all tilling, wedding and digging, and can harvest up to 5 times more produce than a conventional garden. In addition, you get to select what you grow and how you grow it, which means no pesticides or chemicals.

Ok, now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – how do we go about making this square foot garden?

1. Like many things in life, it’s all about location, location, location. When figuring out where to begin to build your garden, look out for an area that receives about 6-8 hours of sunlight, that is clear of trees or shrubs that might interfere, and is not prone to puddles or excess moisture. To improve convenience, meanwhile, you should try to position the garden close to your home.

2. When planning your garden, you must also consider layout. Always think in squares, and specifically, 4 foot by 4 foot squares. If you’re planning on building more than one square foot garden, be sure to plan for aisles so that you can access and tend to your garden without disrupting or destroying the other boxes.

3. To build the box frame, you can use just about any material except treated wood, which contains chemicals that can seep into the soil and, thus, the food you eat. We recommend taking a trip to your local lumber yard to scope out some 1 by 6 or 2 by 6 lumber. In most cases, the lumber yard will be able to cut the wood for you at little to no cost. Once home, layout the lumber to form boxes and secure corners with deck screws.

4. Now that you have created the box frame, it’s time to fill it with something that will nourish and fortify your garden. We recommend filling the box with a mixture of 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 course grade vermiculite. When purchasing these items, be sure to look for organic varieties that contain no fertilizers or chemicals. Alternatively, if you already make your own compost, feel free to use that to fill the boxes (although you’ll still need the peat moss and vermiculite to help retain moisture and keep the soil aerated.)

5. Now it’s time to create the grid that will form the one-foot squares within the box frame. This grid, which can be made shorter to fit inside the box or be secured on top of the box, will keep your garden organized and improve manageability. Much like the box frame, the grid can be made from just about any chemical-free material, including wood, nylon rope or plastic strips. In fact, squarefootgarden.com says that old Venetian blinds make for perfect grids! Use screws or rivets to secure the grid at each place where the strips intersect and to attach the grid to the box. The grid should be left in place all season.

6. Depending on the mature size of the plant, you’ll want to grow either 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per square foot. For example, if the seed packet recommends that the plants be spaced 12 inches apart, you’ll plant 1 per grid box. If it recommends a 6 inch spacing, you can plant 4, if it asks for 4 inch spacing, you can plant 9, and if it recommends 3 inch spacing, you can plant 16 per square foot grid.

7. Now that all of the planning is done, it’s time to start doing a little planting! Since the space is so small, you’ll want to use your fingers to make a shallow hold in the soil and place one or two seeds in each spot. You should then cover the seed, but be sure not to pack the soil so that air and water can penetrate.

8. Once planted, you’ll need to water the plants regularly. Since the garden is so small, its best to water by hand and to use water that is room temperature or slightly warmer (it helps warm the soil and promote growth…especially in the early stages of the plants development).

9. Once the plants have matured, you can harvest continually. Once the crop has been removed, dig out any roots or debris, add new compost, and plant a new seed (or seeds) in that square.

And, for number 10, we present a tip:

10. If you live in a particularly arid or hot climate, you might want to set up a simple irrigation system in the early gestation period. Frugal Dad has a great – and of course, economical – way to create an irrigation system. To do, take a series of six or so water bottles and poke a small hole in each using a sewing needle or safety pin. Fill the bottles with water and use your finger to dig a small trench about the length of the bottle in each grid square. Place the bottle, pin hole down, in the soil. Over the course of the day, the water will drain from the bottles into the soil, leaving you with a well-watered garden. For best results, fill the water bottles back up each morning, which will allow the soil to dry out across the day and reduce the chance of fungus or disease developing.

Thoughts? Tips? Share ’em in the comment board!

Robert Goodwin, mlwhitt Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Urban Gardening

Staying Primal During a Recession

How to Eat Healthy and Save Money

TAGS:  cooking tips, DIY

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69 Comments on "How to Build Your Own Square Foot Garden in 10 Easy Steps"

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Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

Hahahahaha talk about perfect timing for this post! I actually called my grandmother the other day (she is an expert gardener) to ask her how i could build a small garden and what veggies I should plant! Its like you read my mind Mark. Good show good show.

Marc
7 years 11 months ago

very cool, if only winter wasnt creeping by so soon I’d get on it, maybe for next spring I guess

Tim
Tim
7 years 11 months ago

My buddies and I have been doing a version of the square foot garden for the last couple years, we call it the “roof garden.” Warning though, depending on the roof, you’ve got to make the box water tight or you’re going to get some roof damage. We used bucketloads of glue to make our garden box, methinks my veggies are full of chemicals now. Anyone know any “garden safe” glues?

Holly
Holly
7 years 11 months ago

This can also be done if you live in an apartment building or in a place with no yard! For instance, if you live in an apartment, make a window box that is 1 foot by 4 feet (you can adjust the length) and just plant one row deep. Not only do you grow your own produce, it also brightens up the side of the building!

Dave in Ohio
Dave in Ohio
7 years 11 months ago
I’ve done square foot gardening many times. Some tips: 1.) Plants often take more room than the guidelines say. I use a 18″ square and find that works better than 12″ squares, using the same number of plants as you would for a 12″ sq. Well-controlled plants like beets and carrots can be planted per the standard densities. 2.) I recommend a 3′ wide by X feet long plot instead of 4′ by X feet. It can be hard to reach over two feet for all the weeding and care. With a 3′ plot, you can more easily reach access… Read more »
Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

Tim, thinking about your issue… have you thought about lining the garden box with some plastic? I am guessing the the plastic does not lend toxins to the soil seeing as plastic dividers are recommended for dividers and plastic water bottles are recommended for irrigation.

Nancy
Nancy
7 years 11 months ago

Great idea, but I’d need to also build a 7 foot tall fence to keep the deer out!

Tim
Tim
7 years 11 months ago

True indeed, Son of Grok. Our current roof garden is lined with a plastic tarp, but around the edges we sandwiched the plastic with side boards and nail-gunned the bejesus out of the whole thing. The nails didn’t hold well, so we used wood glue, which didn’t work either. Then again, I suppose the whole ordeal wasn’t entirely necessary as we were simply trying to cover up the ugly plastic tarp around the edges. Bah, I like a little wood glue in my veggies anyway, it gives them some backbone!

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

I remember eating paste in pre-school… how bad for you can it be? lol

Geoff
Geoff
7 years 11 months ago

Neat idea! For those of us living in the great white north (or anyone with a cold, snowy winter), is there a good way to bring a garden like this indoors? Maybe near a window with plenty of sunlight, or by using UV lamps?

MizFit
7 years 11 months ago

in one step? CALL YOU AND BEG YOU TO COME OVER?

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7 years 11 months ago

[…] eat like it’s your job, ten steps to a “square foot garden” (mentioned and linked here before but not so succinctly as […]

simon fellows
simon fellows
7 years 11 months ago

I know i’m a a raving syc. for saying this but honestly sunbeam you and Senor Eades have the most eclectic of sites.Brill.

And best of all neither of you prattle on about the shining example that you are cos of yr exemplars like one certainly older gent perpetually does.

Superb.

THANKYOU

Susan
Susan
7 years 11 months ago
Mark, You sure warm the cockles of the hearts of us ‘poor’ folks. Thank you for understanding people in every income bracket would like to eat healthy. Your article is a godsend!! We have the deer problem here; also bunnys, gophers, woodchucks, voles etc. If the garden is fenced with chicken wire, put the chicken wire down to a depth of 2′ to eliminate burrorers (sp?). Nail the chicken wire loosley to the fence posts to eliminate climbers. And I was wondering, if a 7′ high chicken wire’roof’ was created, that might keep the deer out? As well as the… Read more »
Dana Kelly
Dana Kelly
7 years 11 months ago

Hi Mark and everyone! I read that vermiculite contains mercury in it, as does construction grade sand. Does anyone have the 411 on this issue? I am the mother of two children on the autism spectrum so you can understand my concern 🙂
Dana from Maryland

Am
Am
2 years 4 months ago

It also contains asbestos. Another reason to be concerned.

knoxjimbo
knoxjimbo
2 years 4 months ago

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral. It contains neither mercury nor asbestos. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermiculite

I just bought some at the garden store to start my first square foot garden after reading this. Thanks for the inspiration Mark!

knoxjimbo
knoxjimbo
2 years 4 months ago

Oh wait nevermind. I shoulda read the whole thing.

“Vermiculite ore, particularly that ore extracted from the Libby Mine in Libby, Montana, U.S.A. may contain asbestos. The U.S. EPA advises that vermiculite from the Libby Mine should be considered to be contaminated with asbestos. Since the Libby mine has been closed since 1990, currently produced ores are considered safer because they have lower asbestos content.”

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

Dana,

I have not heard of a link between Vermiculite and mercury. Vermiculite is notorious for being linked with asbestos though. Controls were placed in the early 90’s to test for this though and it is no longer considered a problem. I think that they sometimes use Vermiculite to clean up mercury because of its absorbent properties and maybe that is why you heard that? I could be wrong though.

Dana Kelly
Dana Kelly
7 years 11 months ago
Hello Son of Grok and everyone! I just googled “mercury and esbestos in vermiculite” and was horrified to find out that there is indeed both substances in vermiculite. Numerous websites came up. Check out: http://www.asbestos.org/vermiculite/, http://www.meic.org/air_quality/mercury_pollution, http://www.mineralzone.com/minerals/vermiculite.html to name a few. I am afraid to use vermiculite or sand for aeriation purposes in my organic garden. And for the record, perhaps you all might want to google the use of certain plastics in the garden because of the results in having heated plastics coming in contact with the soil [its easy to google this information]. So, what else can a… Read more »
Aaron
7 years 11 months ago
Dana – From what I have been able to gather there isn’t much to worry about regarding vermiculite and asbestos. See this quote from Wikipedia: “Pure vermiculite does not contain asbestos and is non-toxic, but it can become contaminated over long periods if there is a presence of a secondary mineral called diopside. After millions of years of weatherization, the biotite turns into vermiculite and the diopside turns into asbestos. This appears to have happened to the vermiculite deposit at the Libby, Montana mine, and numerous people were unknowingly exposed to the harmful dust of vermiculite that contained asbestos.” Buy… Read more »
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[…] garden tip How to build a square foot garden in ten easy steps from Mark’s Daily […]

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

Dana,
Thank you for the links… I have read through them. The vermiculite in question was from the Libby mine which I believe has been shut down. This mine is one of the sole reasons that vermiculite has such a poor name in the history books! As always though, if you aren’t comfortable with something, don’t force yourself to do it! I am planting a garden next year (for the fist time with my green green thumb!) and most likely will rely only on compost and peat.

trackback
7 years 10 months ago

[…] make good jerky). —Watch out for those liquid calorie bombs (including Jagerbombs). —Guides to square-foot gardening and […]

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[…] How to Build Your Own Square Foot Garden in 10 Easy Steps […]

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[…] grow much of your own produce, visit your local farmers’ markets for the foods that you can’t grow yourself and have […]

cindy
7 years 8 months ago
i am very interested in doing this square foot garden thing. i love to watch things grow and also love to eat my own veggies. it’s kinda self rewarding to be able to run to the garden to get supper rather than the dreadful store.!! it is already mid jan. and i was wondering if i have waited too late to get my seeds in to the soil? i have never done a square foot garden and have never had too much success in a traditional garden so all of your tips and feedback would be great. i’m not sure… Read more »
dude
dude
7 years 7 months ago
The guy who wants to know about glues. Any epoxy or acrylic are perfectly safe. Water containers are made out of them, just be sure the solvents have evaporated since they can be carcinogenic. All the glues made for children are non-toxic. All white furniture glue is non toxic but for outdoor use get that expensive epoxy can of paint or a few tubes of epoxy glue. If you paint your grow box with epoxy paint (at about 100 dollars per gallon) it will outlast you. Don’t worry about glue if you use epoxy paint. Epoxy is also a glue.… Read more »
Dottie
Dottie
7 years 5 months ago

If you are truly interested in this method I highly recommend buying the Book “All New Square Foot Gardening”. It gives detailed instructions and pictures. There is even a simple way to build a “cage” to eliminate the animal issues and a “hoop house” to use in cold climates….definitely worth the $ if you have the garden itch…

Deb
Deb
7 years 4 months ago

Here is the EPA’s Garden Product Report on Vermiculite. Pretty scary, if you ask me.
Go to: http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/verm.html
Scroll down to the bottom and click on the Garden Product Report Link.

trackback

[…] on MDA, and I’ve urged readers to produce their own food if possible – either by hunting or gardening. There was even that sauerkraut guide last week. But until today, I haven’t tackled the age-old […]

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[…] free-range foods, butchering or hunting our own meat, buying food directly from local farmers, growing our own produce, etc. But in our zest for attempting to perfectly emulate the quality of food Grok might have […]

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[…] How to Build Your Own Square Foot Garden in 10 Easy Steps – Oct. 14 […]

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[…] Build your own garden and grow your own […]

Andre Grandbois
6 years 10 months ago

Why not use Perlite instead of Vermiculite? No worries of toxins

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[…] grow much of your own produce, visit your local farmers’ markets for the foods that you can’t grow yourself and have even […]

John Kaplan
John Kaplan
6 years 5 months ago
I am concerned about the asbestos in vermiculite too, and did some research. My neighbor is in the EPA and we had a talk about it last week. One thing is important to understand about this: most vermiculite has traces of asbestos, so the thing about the Libby Montana mine being the only one to worry about is not entirely true. Vermiculite from that mine is marketed as Zonolite, and not only does it contain the highest asbestos content, but in a separate EPA study it was the only one that seemed to release detectable asbestos into the air, so… Read more »
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[…] did. Unlike Grok, few of us built the homes we live in. Few of us till large tracts of land for planting. We generally don’t spend our days scrubbing, hauling or foraging. But it doesn’t matter, […]

ad shah
ad shah
6 years 21 days ago

Dear sir
Due to lack of ground ,Is it possible to grow on roof top , it is concret .
If yes thick we should put soil.
please help
akrur

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[…] How to Build a Square Foot Garden in 10 Easy Steps […]

DaiaRavi
5 years 6 months ago

HOW NEOLITHIC! AGRICULTURE – AAAAHHHH

but seriously, thanks for the attention this – we’ve got raised beds in our small organic growing operation greenhouse and it is amazing what good dirt, good buggies and good water will grown in a small space – we’ve got articles and pics over at Daiasolgaia about all this – come look-see – (click on daiaravi)

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[…] city folk or any folk with an ardor for urban and square foot gardening, here’s a fun story covering the trial and error of pantry […]

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5 years 6 months ago

[…] Steps to create your very own garden box! […]

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5 years 1 month ago

[…] to tomatoes, local is usually the first thing to look for (and the best example of local is a vine in your own backyard).  Organic is always good. And dry-farmed is too, which means water is withheld while the […]

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[…] comes to tomatoes, local is usually the first thing to look for (and the best example of local is a vine in your own backyard).  Organic is always good. And dry-farmed is too, which means water is withheld while the tomatoes […]

Bobby Kearan
4 years 6 months ago
We are starting our Square Foot Garden here in Mississippi and… Ad Shah – 6′ of soil is all SFQ says is required for growing veggies. You can build a 1’x1′ square to add more soil to grow long carrots if you want. Just put the 1×1 into the square and add soil. Build up, not down. I was looking to not use the kind of expensive additives in mel’s mix, so instead of peat/sphagnum I decided to try Cypress Mulch mixed into the soil of one or two of our beds. We are going to have one out of… Read more »
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[…] Square Foot Gardening: Whether you’re building one 4×4 bed or expanding it to multiple 4×16 beds, square foot gardening makes the most of the space you have. This pin breaks the process down into 10 easy steps! DIY Citrus Cleanser: This powerful household cleaner could easily replace toxic chemicals in your home. It’s easy to make and has a strong cleaning power. Homemade Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar has a long list of uses. This recipe lets you use scraps to make your own. Homemade American Cheese: Cheese making is a fun homesteading skill. You might think you… Read more »
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[…] original ones have died out. They get enough terrarium experience under their belt and starting a real garden shouldn’t be much of a stretch. “Teach a man to […]

Ander
Ander
3 years 7 months ago
This is our fourth year of square-foot gardening and I can pass along a few tips. If you live in an area of hot summers, peat can really dry out. Be sure and hydrate it well when first filling the box, and don’t let it dry out over the summer. We have a rice mill in our area which gives away rice hulls and we are experimenting with replacing most of the peat moss with those in our mix. Also, we made a 4’x4′ box 12″ deep and filled it half full of rice hulls, (any cheap material would do… Read more »
Kt
Kt
3 years 6 months ago

Bobby Kearan, it’s been a year, I was wondering how the produce between your beds compared. What’s your verdict,Cypress Mulch or Mel’s Mix?

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[…] Work on Garden Plans: Would you like to have a garden that’s manageable? This You tube video explains the concept of square foot gardening. If this appeals to you, here’s a post that will help you create a 4 x 4 garden in 10 steps. […]

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[…] is a time for planting and growing, so don't miss the opportunity to do some square-foot gardening, or utilize a handy windowsill to plant some radishes, or begin some corn and beans. So many […]

Pandora
Pandora
2 years 11 months ago
I would not use the vinician (SP) that were manufactured in the 80 and 90’s unless you know for sure they were not made in China or Indonesia many of these contain lead. My youngest son is living proof you can get lead poisoning from them he would stand in the window watching for me to get home from work and chew on them when he was teething or get his walker by them before he could walk at 11 months he was tested he had a high level of lead in his system. The county lead inspector came in… Read more »
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