Gardening by the Foot

Square Foot Gardens cost less, are more efficient, and require much less work than the traditional vegetable garden.

By Natalie Ortiz and Jessica Lesefka with Nature’s Wellspring. Photos by Kara Thorpe

Want fresh vegetables this summer, but don’t have a lot of time? Don’t like the hours in the hot sun weeding and caring for plants? Mel Bartholomew, backyard gardener, engineer, and efficiency expert, invented the Square Foot Gardening method which might interest you. Here in Warrenton, we have certified Square Foot Gardening experts James and Nichole Brown of Nature’s Wellspring, a company dedicated to providing seeds, produce, custom grown plants, and homeopathy products for the community.

Square Foot Gardening is the practice of creating small, orderly, and highly productive gardens by dividing the growing area into small sections, typically in 12” squares. Seeds or seedlings of each kind of vegetable are planted in one or more of the one-foot squares, at a density based on plant size. The square foot gardening method is estimated to cost 50 percent less, use 20 percent less space, use 10 percent less water, and require only 2 percent of the work compared to single row gardening. Additional benefits are that the density of the crops prevents weed growth, and no digging, tilling, or heavy tools are necessary.

Steps to Square Foot Gardening:

  1. Select the location of your garden. Is there enough sunlight (at least 6-8 hours per day)? Is the soil well drained? Is it in a spot that has easy access for daily maintenance and harvesting? Is it close enough to a water supply?
  2. Choose a size for your garden, in proportion to how much space you have, how much you want to plant, how much you can realistically take care of. Typical Square Foot Garden sizes might be 4’ x 4’ or 4’ x 8’
  3. Build your bed. Use untreated cedar, pine, or fir, brick, cement blocks, or other materials to form your border
  4. Fill with soil. First, get your soil tested to find out what nutrients are needed for preparing your soil for growing.  The Fauquier Extension office/Master Gardening program can help package your soil samples that are sent to Virginia Tech for analysis. Square Foot Gardener experts recommend “Mel’s Mix,” consisting of ⅓ coarse grade Vermiculite, ⅓ Sphagnum Peat Moss or Coconut Coir, and ⅓  Blended Organic Compost.
  5. Add a grid. Divide your bed into 12” squares using pieces from Venetian blinds or wood lath. The grid is one of the most important features of a SFG, since it helps you see clearly and properly space your seeds or plants. If you are starting from seed, get a Seeding Square which will help you achieve the most efficient layout.
  6. Select your seeds or plants, and start growing! The last frost date for our area tends to be in late April to early May.  We use Mother’s Day as the safe date for planting seedlings outside.Ready to go? See the chart to plan how to space your seedlings or seeds.

Varieties that we suggest are listed below. We recommend these for their consistent production and delicious flavor.
Herbs-Basil, Chives, Oregano, Parsley, Mints (mint spreads)
Cucumbers-Boston Pickling, Tendergreen Burpless, Marketmore
Potatoes- Red Norland
Peppers- Red Belgian, Cal Wonder, Bullnose, Banana Peppers, Poblano
Tomatoes-Sungold, Sunrise BumbleBee, Minnibel, Yellow Pear, Rutgers, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Bonny Best, Betalux, and Romas
Squash- Fordhook, Straightneck
Carrots- Chantenay Red Core, Danvers
Lettuce- Triumpheter, Little Gem, Butter King, Merlot

Raised beds work very well for SFG and have many benefits. They look very nice in the yard, and the height of the bed can be tailored to the needs of the gardener, thus allowing those with physical limitations to still enjoy and be successful at gardening. Raised beds also create a barrier that aids in weed control and small animal prevention in your garden. The pitfall of the raised bed is that it will initially require more soil prep and amendments than the traditional method.

Crop Companions
Another thing that is important for beginners to understand is companion planting because some plants support each other and others sabotage each other. The SFG method helps guide you on which plants work well together. Here are some recommendations from Nature’s Wellspring:

Asparagus Tomato, Parsley, Basil  
Beans Most Vegetables & Herbs  
Beans, Bush Irish Potato, Cucumber, Strawberry, Celery, Summer Savory
Beans, Pole Summer Savory, Radish
Cabbage Family Aromatic Herbs, Celery, Beets, Onion Family, Chamomile, Spinach, Chard
Carrots English Pea, Lettuce, Onion Family, Sage, Tomato
Celery Onion & Cabbage Families, Tomato, Bush Beans, Nasturtium  
Cucumber Beans, English Pea, Sunflowers, Radish
Eggplant Beans, Marigold  
Lettuce Carrot, Radish, Strawberry, Cucumber  
Allium Family (Garlic/Onion) Beets, Carrot, Lettuce, Cabbage Family, Summer Savory
Parsley Tomato, Asparagus  
Pea, English Carrots, Radish, Turnip, Cucumber, Corn, Beans
Potato, Irish Beans, Cabbage Family, Marigolds
Radish English Pea, Nasturtium, Lettuce, Cucumber
Spinach Strawberry  
Squash Nasturtium, Marigold
Tomato Onion Family, Nasturtium, Marigold, Asparagus, Carrot, Parsley, Cucumber
Turnip English Pea

NEED HELP? James is a certified square foot gardener instructor, and provides consulting and workshops, assisted by Nichole, a certified teacher, for those starting out. Specializing in soil preparation, they work with clients to plan their gardens and offer advice on implementation. They offer custom grown starter plants for local delivery or pickup, which is a convenience for those who don’t want to start the seeds themselves. 540-935-0546,

About Staff/Contributed 510 Articles
Piedmont Lifestyles Publications welcome contributions from any and all members of the community. Email news and photos to or call us at (540) 349-2951.

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