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Grow Your Own Food One Square Foot at a Time

  • Mary Hunt Debt-Proof Living
  • 2008 1 Sep
Grow Your Own Food One Square Foot at a Time


For years I’ve tried to grow a decent vegetable garden. It was the high cost of fresh basil—$3.50 for a few measly, wilted fresh basil leaves, ditto for a pound of somewhat reddish tomatoes—that prompted me to try. In no time I added zucchini and cucumbers to my repertoire—even corn one year.

My harvests have ranged from disappointing to mediocre. Only one year my harvest produced enough to share with others. I’m still trying to remember how I did that. So far, I’ve been unable to duplicate the results.

One thing I do quite well is weeds. I try not to take too much credit here, but I have to tell you I’ve never seen anyone else grow weeds quite as successfully as I do.

While I love the concept of a garden that’s not only nice to look at but actually produces something we can eat, I’m not 100 percent in love with the anxiety, pressure, guilt, backaches, leg cramps, and fear of needing hip replacements.

While in the past my efforts to garden have been more of a hobby than a serious endeavor, I feel that changing. The high cost of food—specifically produce—tells me it’s time to get serious. We need to become more self-sufficient, but in a cost-effective way.

While I feel that I’ve mastered weeds, I’ve failed miserably in cost effectiveness. I shudder to imagine the true cost of the pathetically tiny bounty I’ve garnered over the years. 

History lesson

During World War II, Americans were encouraged to plant gardens—Victory Gardens—to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. In addition to indirectly aiding the war effort, these gardens were also considered a civil “morale booster”—in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown. Planting Victory Gardens became a part of daily life on the home front.

I propose a similar concept. We can call ours Freedom Gardens—a way to gain freedom from the high cost of produce and break, if only in a small way, our dependence on others for our sustenance. As a bonus, this is going to be very enjoyable, and with any luck, equally cost effective.

I’m ready to change everything about the way I’ve gardened in the past, and invite you to join me.

Square foot garden

Mel Bartholomew is the genius behind the concept of “square foot gardening” and author of the new, updated All New Square Foot Gardening (Cool Springs, 2006, $19.99).

Bartholomew, a civil engineer by profession and a frustrated gardener on weekends, became convinced that gardening in single rows because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” is a waste of time, energy and money.

He condensed his garden to above-the-ground, 6-inch deep plots measuring four feet by four feet, which yielded 100 percent of the harvest in 20 percent of the space—without all the hard work and drudgery of single-row gardening.

This method is easy to understand even for beginners. A square foot garden requires 80 percent less space and can be located anywhere—even on a patio, balcony or driveway. But you can expect twice the harvest of a regular-sized garden.

A square foot garden, which can be as small as two feet square, is simple to protect from weather and pests. And, best of all, this kind of garden is very productive.

A square foot garden can be created and maintained by those with physical limitations, as the boxes  can be raised to an appropriate height.

You can start a square foot garden in any season. Planting requires no thinning, no tilling and very few seeds. And did I mention no weeds? None. Zip. Nada.

Choose a location

1. Pick an area that gets six to eight hours of sunshine daily.

2. Stay clear of trees and shrubs where roots and shade may interfere.

3. Have it close to the house for convenience.

4. Existing soil is not really important as you won’t be using it.

5. The area should not puddle after a heavy rain.

Ten basics

Layout. Arrange your garden in squares, not rows. Lay out 4 foot by 4 foot planting areas with wide walkways between them.

Boxes. Build garden box frames no wider than 4 feet, and 6 to 8 inches deep. The length is not as important, but a recommended size for your first time is one 4 foot by 4 foot frame. You can, of course, go smaller. A 2 foot by 2 foot box works great on patios and 3 foot by 3 foot box is ideal for kids.

Frames can be made from almost any material except treated wood, which has toxic chemicals that might leach into the soil. One-by-six (known as a 1x6) lumber is ideal and comes in 8-foot lengths. Most lumber yards will cut it in half at little or no cost. Exact dimensions are not critical. Deck screws work best to fasten the boards together. Rotate or alternate corners to end up with a square inside.

Aisles. If you plan to have more than one garden box, separate them by two or three feet to form walkways.

Soil. Fill frame with Mel’s Mix, something you make yourself, which is a mixture of 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 coarse vermiculite (no dirt needed).

You need a blended compost made from many ingredients to provide all the nutrients the plants require (no chemical fertilizers needed). It’s best to make your own compost because you will know what’s in it. But if you have to buy it, make sure it is truly compost. Some stores sell mulch or humus and other ground covers and call it compost.

Most commercial compost is made from one or two ingredients, so to be safe, don’t buy all of one kind but one of each kind until you have enough for your garden.

Peat moss and vermiculite help hold moisture and keep the soil loose.

When buying vermiculite, be sure to get the coarse grade, and get the more economical 4 cubic foot sized bags.

If placing frames over grass you can dig out the grass, or cover it with cardboard or landscape cloth to discourage grass and weeds from coming up through your new garden soil.

Grid. On top of each frame place a permanent grid that divides the box into one foot squares. The grid is the unique feature that makes the whole system work so well. Without it you will be tempted to plant in rows, which is a poor use of space.

Grids can be made from nearly any material: wood, plastic strips, old venetian blinds, etc. Use screws or rivets to attach them where they cross. On a 4 foot by 4 foot frame, the grid divides the frame into 16 easy-to-manage spaces, for up to 16 different crops. The grid can be cut long enough to fit across the top of the box or cut shorter to lay on the soil inside the box.

Once the grid is in place look at your 4 foot by 4 foot box with the grid on and imagine up to 16 different crops. What you see before you is a neat and attractive, and well organized garden, that will be easy to manage. Leave the grid in place all season.

Care. Since you will never walk on or depress the growing soil, don’t make the frames any wider than 4 feet (2 feet, if only one side is accessible). Any wider makes it too difficult to reach in to tend the plants.

Select. Depending on the mature size of the plant, grow 1, 4, 9, or 16 equally-spaced plants per square foot. If the seed packet recommends that plant spacing be 12 inches apart, plant one plant per square foot. If 6-inch spacing; 4 per square foot. If 4-inch spacing; 9 per square foot. If 3-inch spacing; 16 per square foot.

Plant. Plant one or two seeds in each spot by making a shallow hole with your finger. Cover, but do not pack the soil. Thinning is all but eliminated, and seeds are not wasted. Extra seeds can be stored cool and dry in the refrigerator.

Don’t over-plant. Plant only as much of any one crop as you will use. This 4 foot by 4 foot box will grow more than a conventional garden that is 8 feet by 10 feet.

Water. Water only as much as each plant needs. Water often, especially at first, and on very hot dry days. If possible, water by hand (uses a lot less water) with a cup from a sun-warmed bucket of water. Warm water helps the soil warm up in early and late season.

Harvest. Harvest continually and when a crop in one square is gone, add some new compost and plant a different crop in that square.

There you have the basics from Mel himself—directions that he has refined and improved over the years. Go to Mel’s website at and take a look at all the pictures. You will be inspired!

While it may seem that starting now is too late to catch the North American growing season, Mel says no. In fact, there is a way to square foot garden year-round—provided you add a few features to your garden. 

Check out Mary's recently released revised and expanded edition of The Financially Confident Woman (DPL Press, 2008).

Debt-Proof Living was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt. What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt. Today, "Debt-Proof Living" is read by close to 100,000 cheapskates.  Click here to subscribe. Also, you can receive Mary's free daily e-mail "Everyday Cheapskate" by signing up at