Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Oct

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

2563192140 d7a05548b8Let’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.

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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.

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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.

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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

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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.

    Son of Grok wrote on October 14th, 2008
  2. very cool, if only winter wasnt creeping by so soon I’d get on it, maybe for next spring I guess

    Marc wrote on October 14th, 2008
  3. 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?

    Tim wrote on October 14th, 2008
  4. 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!

    Holly wrote on October 14th, 2008
  5. 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 18″ on each side. Note: I’m 5’7″, so if you’re 6’4″, the 4′ size may not be a problem.

    3.) You’ll spend a lot the first season to get started, but the seeds (stored properly) and lumber last for many seasons.

    The vegetables taste better. There’s nothing like a fresh tomato, melon, swiss chard, or lettuce you have just picked.

    Dave

    Dave in Ohio wrote on October 14th, 2008
  6. 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.

    Son of Grok wrote on October 14th, 2008
  7. Great idea, but I’d need to also build a 7 foot tall fence to keep the deer out!

    Nancy wrote on October 14th, 2008
  8. 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!

    Tim wrote on October 14th, 2008
  9. I remember eating paste in pre-school… how bad for you can it be? lol

    Son of Grok wrote on October 14th, 2008
  10. 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?

    Geoff wrote on October 14th, 2008
  11. in one step? CALL YOU AND BEG YOU TO COME OVER?

    MizFit wrote on October 14th, 2008
  12. 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

    simon fellows wrote on October 14th, 2008
  13. 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 birds?

    Susan in the Blue Ridge Mtns of Virginia
    (crawling with critters)

    Susan wrote on October 15th, 2008
  14. 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

    Dana Kelly wrote on October 16th, 2008
    • It also contains asbestos. Another reason to be concerned.

      Am wrote on May 4th, 2014
      • 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 wrote on May 8th, 2014
        • 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.”

          knoxjimbo wrote on May 8th, 2014
  15. 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.

    Son of Grok wrote on October 16th, 2008
  16. 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 gardener do to ensure a hazardous-free, truly organic garden?
    warm regards,
    Dana

    Dana Kelly wrote on October 16th, 2008
  17. 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 pure, uncontaminated vermiculite and you should be fine.

    Aaron wrote on October 16th, 2008
  18. 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.

    Son of Grok wrote on October 16th, 2008
  19. 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 if i should mention but i live in south mississippi where summers are horrible. also i am gonna do my sfg up off the ground. like i said, all tips are welcome. oh yea! you say not to use treated lumber… i have a platform that was used for a large walk-in cooler to sit on. it has been built for many years. i was going to turn it over and use it to make my garden. how long does wood stay treated.{laugh if you will and yes i am a female. no i’m not blonde lol} no offense to blonde’s either!!can i lay maybe some gardening plastic or whatever you call that stuff over to lumber?

    cindy wrote on January 20th, 2009
  20. 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. You get a twofer

    dude wrote on February 18th, 2009
  21. 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…

    Dottie wrote on April 5th, 2009
  22. 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.

    Deb wrote on April 29th, 2009
  23. Why not use Perlite instead of Vermiculite? No worries of toxins

    Andre Grandbois wrote on November 13th, 2009
  24. 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 that is some comfort for users of the rest of the vermiculite.

    The issue is that testing for asbestos is not an exact science; they put samples of the vermiculite on a grid, count the visible asbestos fibers with an electron microscope, and extrapolate the percent of asbestos that is in the vermiculite. Under 1 percent is considered “asbestos free” and over 1 percent is considered “contaminated.” The trouble is that the asbestos is not uniformly distributed in all the samples of vermiculite, so it varied from sample to sample in the same brand, mine, etc.

    I bought Therm-o-Rock vermiculite at a nursery here in Colorado, and in the study it came up with a “trace” in some detection methods and “.33%” content in the most sensitive methods. If you do the math, that means that this “asbestos-free” vermiculite could have as much as roughly 1 square inch of asbestos per 4′ x 4′ x 6″ raised bed of Mel’s mix. By contrast, the bad Zonolite vermiculite had “1.4%” content, which would be roughly 5 square inches of asbestos in the same raised bed.

    The EPA officially concludes you can’t be sure about vermiculite so don’t touch the stuff – any of it. If you read the square foot gardener’s comments they say don’t worry about the asbestos and vermiculite is essential for water retention of the mix. So what’s a gardener to do?

    My neighbor recommended a few things worth passing on. One is that a square inch of asbestos in a raised bed isn’t very much so he considered it not enough of a risk to get rid of my soil and replace it. Another is, he worked on some EPA vermiculite clean-up projects, which included sampling the air around the vermiculite while they were working to clean it up. They only detected asbestos in the air when there was visible dust present. The conclusion is: always keep it wet when you’re working with it. Wet down the raised bed before you go digging around in it. Wash your hands, gloves, and shoes when you are through working with it. The most risky time to be around the vermiculite is when you are mixing or moving large quantities of the mix. At that time you may want to wear a mask – and wear a real quality one with a HEPA filter, not just a paper mask, which won’t effectively filter out asbestos.

    I’m still going with my Mel’s mix with vermiculite this year, but I am uneasy about it. I wish there was an alternative that was acceptable for water retention but didn’t have traces of carcinogens to worry about.

    John Kaplan wrote on April 10th, 2010
  25. 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

    ad shah wrote on September 4th, 2010
  26. 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)

    DaiaRavi wrote on February 28th, 2011
  27. 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 three beds that are by-the-book mel’s mix (1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 sphagnum moss).

    We will see what results. We are also testing out various ways to handle the weeds under the boxes. I hope to blog about it….

    Bobby Kearan wrote on March 9th, 2012
  28. 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 for filler, including chopped straw,)then we filled it the rest of the way with Mel’s Mix. It settled a bit over time but we just kept filling it with more MM and it’s now stable and great for growing deep-rooted veggies such as leeks, carrots, and potatoes. Sweet potatoes would be good in it, too.

    Ander wrote on February 5th, 2013
  29. 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?

    Kt wrote on March 8th, 2013
  30. 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 with his sniffer I was expecting him to tell me that the soil or paint had lead in it since it was a old farm house. No it was the Varnish on the doors in which my son did not chew on we did not sand it and the blinds the guy was so shocked they paid to have them all replaced my sons father ex wife had purchased them from KMART and never sent in the registration so no one was aware they had been recalled for lead. So please if you are worried about eating healthy know where these come from before you use them.

    Pandora wrote on October 20th, 2013
  31. Hi, does anyone know how to prepare the land before building the box? Should I remove any weeds Thanks

    natalio wrote on April 11th, 2014
    • You will not be using the native soil, so you don’t have to do any prep. Lay a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard down and wet it good before putting your soil in, and it will take care of any existing weeds.

      Mamasan wrote on April 18th, 2014
  32. We live in a duplex and we do have a small yard, but i’m concerned with killing the grass. Is there a way to do this on top of our concrete patio? Should I put particle board for the bottom? How deep should I build the box so there is enough soil and the plants get enough nutrition to grow? If the box doesn’t drain like the roof boxes they were talking about isn’t it possible for the plants to get too much water? Thanks for any help, we are struggling to come up with the money for food right now and I would really like to eat better. Cheap food and food you get at food pantries are loaded with carbs, starches, and are processed. We can’t afford hamburger right now. Only have 30.00 a week for groceries for three people. Having our own vegetables would help alot. My dad can get us the lumber, and we can get seeds from an Amish friend, we’ll have to buy the soil mix but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

    Angela Statton-Hunt wrote on May 1st, 2014

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