Maximize quality and space with square-foot gardens

First published on Charleston Gazette-Mail.

I was introduced to square-foot gardening by my friend, Delores. I had just built raised beds in my backyard and was excited to begin planting. I intended to plant in rows, but this concept of planting in squares was intriguing, and I had lots of questions.

That’s when she gave me a copy of “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew, published in 1981. Bartholomew was a civil engineer and a gardener who developed a more productive method of planting and thus created square-foot gardening.

The premise is simple. Take a plot of land, or in my case brand new 4-foot-by-4-foot raised beds, and create a grid of 12-inch (1 square foot) sections. Then plant within the sections. I could do that, right? Reading Bartholomew’s book, I discovered there was so much more to learn and gain from the idea of planting in squares. Plant height, sun, shade and crop rotation all play a role in the square-foot garden.

OK first, why raised beds? In my case, because I can control the quality of the soil. Secondly, they fit my space. I live in a little house on a big hill, and garden space is precious.

I can also easily plant and maintain the beds, which is something to keep in mind when planning any garden. With a 4-foot-wide garden, the middle is only 2 feet away, an easy arm reach from all sides. This means you are not stepping on and compacting the soil when working. My beds sit on the ground, but they could be built to a height that is easily accessible for each gardener.

With my garden grid of 16 squares mapped out (yes, I admit to charting it on paper that first year, and sometimes I still do), I was ready to plant. I learned not to rule out tall tomatoes or vines such as beans and cucumbers — they can have a home in the square-foot garden.

A friend helped me attach a lattice structure to the side of the bed for climbers. A bit of advice: Keep in mind the direction of the sun. You don’t want to create shade by placing tall plants such as tomatoes where they will block the sunlight for lower crops.

When sowing seeds or placing plants within the squares, resist the urge to overcrowd. The spacing is designed to create maximum growth from a limited number of plants. There is no need to dump an entire packet of seeds into a square. Be a bit stingy with your seeds, and you will have stronger, more productive plants.

As with traditional gardens, crop rotation and succession planting are important, and both will occur naturally with the square-foot method. As my early crop of spring lettuce matures, I automatically want to fill the square with new summer plants. I like green peppers. Then, as summer wanes, fall crops of winter greens will be planted.

This rotation will help keep the plants healthy. Each plant pulls different nutrients from the soil, and each leaves behind the possibility of disease. By rotating crops, the soil has a chance to rebuild and create healthier plants.

Another strategy is mixing the plantings to fend off unwanted visitors. A square of onions or garlic planted in your garden will deter deer. It won’t matter which square you pick because of the close proximity to all of the plants. So sprinkle chives and onions throughout your beds.

Trouble with aphids? Try planting nasturtiums in a square. Marigolds always add a shot of color to the garden and are natural pest repellents. Who says your garden can’t be beautiful? I love mixing vegetables, herbs and flowers within a space.

Another advantage, and something I do in my garden, is create a canopy of netting to keep creatures out. Mine is very primitive, but effective: four poles, one in each corner, and netting on top. This works for the deer and birds, but not always for rabbits and puppies.

Yes, my silly pup loves to sit in the beds, (after all, they are called garden beds). I’m guessing she enjoys them for the very same reasons the plants do — the soil warms and dries quicker in a raised bed.

As you plan your garden, consider the square-foot method and raised beds. It’s a fun, easy way to plant and maintain a garden. However, heed this warning: If you’re like me, your one raised bed will become two raised beds, and you will be dreaming of adding beds three and four.

Jane Powell is a long-time West Virginia Extension Service Master Gardener through the Kanawha County chapter. She is also the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Reach Jane at