Square Foot Gardening
By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic.
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May 11, 2021
Some of you may remember a PBS television program that was popular in the 1980’s called Square Foot Gardening. The host was Mel Batholomew, a retired engineer and enthusiastic gardener. In addition to his TV show, he wrote books on the subject including All New Square Foot Gardening (3rd Edition, Cool Springs Press, 2018). The basic idea of Square Foot Gardening entirely changes the way you plan and plant your garden.
Most of us tend to make our gardens look like farmers’ fields, with long single rows and walkways between each row or bed. Although this setup makes sense for farmers, there might be a better way for gardeners using hand tools to plant that will save space and produce more vegetables per square foot – hence the name.
Farmers set up their fields with long rows because they need to pull equipment with tractors up and down rows. They need to mechanically cultivate between rows to control weeds and perform other tasks. Driving a cultivator through a field is a lot quicker and easier if you are working with a long, straight row, minimizing how often you need to turn around.
But in your garden, it’s a different story. Let’s say you have a 10-foot long bed and it’s three feet wide and you will be planting carrots. Copying a farmer, you could plant a single row of carrots, spaced 3-inches apart within the row. You could get as many as 40 carrots from that row. If you planted a double row on the bed, you might harvest 80 roots.
Square Foot Gardening tries to maximize production by organizing your garden by each square foot instead of by rows. To space carrots properly, you’d divide each square foot into a 3 x 3 tick-tack-toe grid and plant a seed in the center of each square.
If you lined up ten of those 1-foot-square, 3 x 3 grids down your 10-foot long bed, you could harvest 90 carrots.
Now deploy those grids three-abreast across the 3-foot-wide bed, and now you’ve got the potential to harvest 270 carrots – nearly 7 times more carrots than planting carrots in a single row.