Square Foot Gardening 101 – Investing In Your Health

Don’t have a green thumb?

Are you a novice gardener?

Don’t have lots of space for a garden but still want one?

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) might be for you.

Developed by Mel Bartholomew in the mid-1970s, Mel invented Square Foot Gardening (SFG) because he thought it would be a great concept for expert gardeners.  His method is not only precise, but very simple and easy to understand.  SFG eliminates the waste and inefficient practices of traditional single-row gardening.  Over time, SFG has become the choice for many novice gardeners, including My Own Advisor this spring.  Square Foot Gardening is an easy way to harvest a diverse collection of fresh produce from the smallest of yards.  The SFG can be confined to one or as many raised beds as your yard can accommodate.  One SFG will create enough fresh produce for one adult throughout the growing season.

The basic SFG unit is a shallow, 6″ deep box measuring 4’ x 4’ (feet) that rests on top of the ground.  You can have beds larger than 4′ x 4′ if you want.  Filled with “Mel’s Mix”, the bed is then divided into one-foot squares, each one planted with a single type of vegetable or herb.

After examining our backyard last year, our first full year in this home, we decided on our SFG location this spring – close to our backyard deck, a few steps from the kitchen.   With the location set, we embarked on building our SFG a few weeks ago with natural stone.  Mel’s guide to building a SFG suggests a visit to your local hardware store to gather supplies for a wooden raised bed, or use of scrap lumber for the same, but we wanted to use stone similar to our existing garden wall laid around our house.  The natural stone certainly cost more than wood materials but I think it looks so much nicer.  Besides, we don’t have to worry about building the SFG ever again, stone doesn’t rot.  More on what this SFG  cost us to date later in my post.

Here’s a primer on how to create your raised SFG bed:

  • Because most vegetables and herbs grow best in sun, find a spot that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.  Ideally, choose a location handy to the kitchen, close to a water source.
  • Build your wooden bed frame or construct your stone frame.
    • If using wood, the easiest frame to make is to cut four 4’ lengths of 2” x 6” cedar or pressure-treated lumber.  Screw the planks together to form a box.  Why only 6” tall wood?  Based on decades of experience, Mel says for many vegetables and herbs, there’s simply no reason to have a garden any deeper than 6 inches.  With no reason to go deeper, you save time and money on materials, soil mix and effort.
    • If using stone for your raised bed, stack stones in a box or rectangular-shape that’s at least 6” high and in a shape that will fit your square foot grid inside.  My Own Advisor ended up with a 5′ x 3′ stone garden bed.
  • Spread landscape cloth in the bed to help suppress weeds and hold-in Mel’s Mix.
  • Create Mel’s Mix.  That’s 1/3 Peat Moss + 1/3 Vermiculite + 1/3 Blended Compost.  All of these ingredients are natural and not manufactured.  Mix evenly.  We found the easiest way to create our Mel’s Mix was to add all ingredients on a large tarp, and lift the tarp many times to mix everything together.  Don’t kid yourself…8 cubic feet of soil weighs a few hundred pounds!
  • Fill your raised bed with Mel’s Mix by shovelling the mix into the bed.  Take your time with this, since you want to water each layer of mix you add to the bed.
  • Once your bed has Mel’s Mix in it, use wood lath or similar 1” x 1” strips of wood to create your grid inside the bed.  Use small finishing nails or screws to hold the grid together, dividing your raised bed into many one-foot sections.  This is an example of what I mean by the grid:

  • Plant one type of vegetable or herb in each square of the grid, putting tall ones at the north side so they don’t block the sun.  Plant seeds as per packet instructions.  Use transplants accordingly.
  • Water bed frequently, especially early on.  Don’t bother with fertilizer!  Why?  Mel’s Mix has all the nutrients, minerals and organic matter you’ll need all season long.  Mel says you don’t need to buy fertilizer, you don’t even have to think about it.

What can you harvest from a SFG?

Lots!  In just one 4 foot x 4 foot  by 6″ deep SFG you could yield at least:

  • 1 head of cabbage AND brocolli AND cauliflower
  • At least 4 heads of romaine lettuce AND 4 heads of red lettuce AND 4 heads of leaf lettuce
  • 5 pounds of sugar peas
  • 8 bunches of Swiss chard
  • 9 bunches of Spinach
  • 32 carrots
  • 16 beets
  • 32 radishes

What were our start up costs?

Because my wife and I decided to use natural stone, our start up costs were a bit more expensive than many small gardens.  To date, this is what our SFG cost:

  • Natural stone, almost 1 ton:  $250.
  • Heavy-duty landscaping fabric:  $10.
  • Wood lath material for square foot grid and screws:  free from nearby lumber yard.
  • Mel’s Mix:  $60  (Vermiculite was the most expensive part, cost was $30 for 4 cubic feet).
  • Time:  about 1 full workday, most of that attributed to transporting stone and lifting it into place.

For just over $300 spent, and some time and muscle to stack the stones, our Square Foot Garden is done and ready to go.  We’re in the process of buying our seeds and transplants for the SFG and we hope to get that completed within the week.  Signs of garden life, we hope, should follow in another couple of weeks.

Investing for our future is important to My Own Advisor, I wouldn’t have started this journey to be a subject matter expert on personal finance and investing if it wasn’t important to me.  However, investing in our health is more important.  We have no future to enjoy if our health doesn’t come first.   🙂

I hope you enjoyed my Square Foot Gardening 101 post.  I’ll try and keep you updated on the progress of our SFG throughout the year.  Wish us luck!

What about you?  Have you heard of Square Foot Gardening?  Are you using the SFG process in your own backyard? Got your own gardening story to tell?

My name is Mark Seed - the founder, editor and owner of My Own Advisor. As my own DIY financial advisor, I'm looking to start semi-retirement soon, sooner than most. Find out how, what I did, and what you can learn to tailor your own financial independence path. Join the newsletter read by thousands each day, always FREE.

10 Responses to "Square Foot Gardening 101 – Investing In Your Health"

  1. Looks great and neat! One question, I don’t understand how the box method is better than a tradition allocated section of one’s yard? Is the box doing something? Myself, my allocated section I’ve had for years (about 12-14′ x 6-8′) where I plant most of my vegetables has worked fine for years and then this allows me to place metal poles as the higher growing vegetation eventually grows to tie off off to assist the plants from not toppling over. I get it if you live in a building as its keeping everything boxed in, but in a standard yard, I don’t see how it may be better. Love your posts btw!

    1. Thanks Moneyhelp 🙂

      It’s not that’s better per se but it simply optimizes the space. It was really born out of optimizing volume of soil and space for a variety of foods to grow.

  2. I have been square foot gardening (sans the fancy little wood slats) for several years. This year one of my two 8×4 ft beds was infested with bermuda grass (the bane of central CA) so it is sitting idle while the other garden flourishes. It will be back in production this fall. Love my gardens! I’m finding one key to success is to become a student of your area, learn what grows well and stick with the proven winners. I don’t grow “heirloom” variety tomatoes, for instance, because they don’t produce for me like the early girls and celebrity varieties that are pretty standard in my area. Nothing tastes better than fresh garden produce!

  3. Steve@Thelooniebin · Edit

    Nice work on the garden. I’ve spent the last week working on our garden and it’s finally finished so now I have time to blog again lol.

    I’ll post some pictures of it in a future post update, you’ll have to stop by and check out it out!


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