In the 1980s, a retired engineer named Mel Bartholomew revolutionized vegetable gardening with his idea for “square foot gardening.” It’s a system based on planting in 4’x 4′ plots, fitting as many plants as possible into each square (rather than spreading them out over long rows). And while Bartholomew and those who follow his system often string many of the 4′ x 4′ gardens into large plots, a single four-square-foot area turns out to be an ideal starting place for the beginner vegetable gardener. It takes little space, it’s easy to fill with plants available at most garden centers, and it can grow a surprising amount of vegetables for the family table.
If you have always wanted to grow vegetables but have been too intimidated by the thought of the work and expertise involved in a large plot, a simple four-square-foot garden may be for you. Here are four tips to get you started:
1. Find a Sunny Spot
Almost all vegetables prefer full sun, at least six to eight hours a day, so locate a place near your tool shed or house that gets that sort of light. You also may want to place your plot in a fenced area to keep out digging pets, hungry rabbits and destructive deer.
2. Near a Water Source
Most vegetable plants need a minimum of one inch of rain a week to stay healthy and growing, so you want to be in a spot to which you can easily run out a hose with a sprinkler. Also invest in a cheap rain gauge to check exactly how much water your plants are receiving.
3. Make Your Bed
Either dig a good garden soil, that is, one enriched with high quality compost, into a 4′ x 4′ area (it helps if you can carve this out of an existing garden bed, perhaps one no longer used for flowers) or build yourself a 4′ x 4′ raised bed.
4. Do a Little Research
It helps to know what sort of vegetables grow best in your region, something you can find out lots about in our Plant Library. Your local garden center should also be able to help you figure out what grows well where you live.
Ready to Plant
Now that you’re ready to plant, you can use stakes and string to lay out the different configurations of squares. Following is a list of specific vegetables that would work well in a 4′ x 4′ plot. We’ve given suggestions for both the hot summer months and the cooler spring and fall. You could plant three rotations of crops in one year. Start with cool weather-loving plants in spring, as soon as they start to fade, replace with heat-loving summer crops, then return to cool-season plants again for fall.
Vegetable or Herb
# Plants per 1′ square
|Leaf Lettuce||Spring, Fall||6-9|
|Swiss Chard||Spring, Fall||1-2|
|Peas (Bush)||Spring, Fall||1|
|Brussels Sprouts||Spring, Fall||1|
|Green Bean (bush type)||Summer||1|
Some vegetables require an entire 4′ x 4′ square
There are some vegetable favorites, most notably larger tomato varieties, that do not do well if crowded. A healthy tomato plant needs a full 4′ x 4′ of space to ensure there’s good circulation around its leaves, and it doesn’t fall prey to the mildew diseases to which the plant is particularly susceptible.
You could plant three summer squashes in the center of a 4′ x 4′ space. They’ll quickly spread out to take up all the room so they don’t allow space for any other plantings.
Winter squashes and melons will spread even further than that, making them unsuitable for a compact garden.
Keep any eye on your garden, and as soon as one crop is done, replace it with another appropriate for the season. You’ll be amazed at how much food you can produce in these tiny spaces, and just how easy it is. With the confidence you gain from growing your 4′ x 4′ garden, you can consider adding onto your initial building block in the years to come.
Don’t know what to do with all the produce coming out of your 4′ x 4′ garden? Throw a party to celebrate your harvest!