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Square Foot Vegetable Garden

Intensive planted lettuce1
Intensive planted lettuce
Four plants per square foot

Square foot vegetable gardening gets its name from the number of seeds, transplants, or plants that grow in one square foot of garden space. For example, one square foot of garden will grow one pepper plant or four heads of leaf lettuce eight beets or sixteen radishes. A tomato plant might require 4 or even more square feet of a garden bed.

The square foot gardening method offers an easy way to plan a vegetable garden. Here are the steps to take to plan a square foot vegetable garden:

  1. Determine what crops you want to grow.
  2. Determine how many square feet each individual plant requires at maturity.
  3. Plan each garden bed according to the square feet required for each plant.

Square foot garden beds can be any size but are commonly four feet across or less, about an arm’s reach distance from each side of the bed to the center of the bed (that way you never have to step into the garden to take care of your vegetables). The length of the planting bed can vary from 4 feet (a square) to 8 or 16 feet more or less—but usually no longer than is comfortable to walk around.

Square foot gardening is a form of intensive gardening—meaning crops are not planted in narrow farm-like rows but plants are evenly spaced across the planting bed allowing the maximum plants per square foot. The outer leaves of intensively planted crops touch or slightly overlap at maturity. (Intensive vegetable gardening has been practiced for centuries—in the nineteenth century, the French intensive garden method became widely popular in urban areas beginning in Paris. The French method is now practiced around the world.)

Advantages of the square foot or intensive garden method:

  • Intensive planting allows maximum use of garden space. You will get a larger harvest from a small space than if you planted in conventional rows.
  • Planting is easy to plan and accomplish. Once you know how much space a plant requires at maturity, you can easily plan your garden on gridded paper and follow your plan in the garden.
  • Crop rotation and succession planting is easily determined. When a crop is harvested you can replace it with a plant of equal size. Plant families are easily rotated to and from determined planting spaces.
  • Intensive beds are smaller than conventional rows. You save space, water, fertilizer, and effort. All of your resources and effort are concentrated.
  • Intensively planted crops grow close shading the soil; there is less evaporation of soil moisture and weeds are shaded out by growing crops.

Planting suggestions for square foot gardens:

  • Plant tall crops on the north side of the garden and plant other crops in descending order of size toward the south side to avoid shading smaller crops.
  • Thin seedlings as they emerge so that crops are properly spaced on all sides; leaves should just touch when plants mature.
  • If the plot is too wide to reach to the center for care and harvest, then block the crops allowing for a path.
  • Subdivide the garden sections for root crops (such as carrots and beets) and leafy crops (such as lettuce and spinach) into thirds or fourths; sow or plant each subdivided section a week to 10 days apart. When one subsection has finished harvest, another will begin.
  • Train vineing crops up on poles, cages, or trellises; growing vertical will increase your yield per square foot.
  • Interplant smaller, quick crops between larger (at maturity), slower growing crops. This is called intercropping and will allow you to grow more crops in a small space.

Suggested number of vegetable plants per square foot:

Beans 8 (on a pole or tripod); Beets 9; Broccoli 1; Cabbage 1; Carrots 16; Cauliflower 1; Chard 4; Corn 1; Cucumbers 2; Eggplant 1; Lettuce 4; Muskmelons 1; Onions 16; Peas 8 (on a trellis); Pepper 1; Radishes 16; Spinach 9; Summer Squash 1 plant per 3’ x 3’; Tomato 1 vining (on a pole).

 

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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