The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Beds and aisles in square foot gardening

Mel Bartholemew with his gardenThe meat of square foot gardening is permanent beds, but Mel Bartholomew didn't invent the concept.  Alternative gardeners have been using permanent beds for a long time --- for example, camellones have been used in Central America for centuriesMy own garden is completely made up of permanent raised beds, both because our soil tends to get waterlogged and because I want to concentrate the topsoil and prevent soil compaction.

I've experimented with a lot of permanent bed sizes and shapes over the past few years, and the four by four square advocated by square foot gardening is one of my least favorite formats.  I like to be able to weed and plant and harvest sitting down, but I can't reach the center of a four foot bed without either leaning on the bed or standing up and bending over --- hard on the back.  My favorite beds are three feet wide but quite long.  In fact, the best bed shape for me seems to be a long row that I can work my way down it, never turning a corner, pushing the wheelbarrow ahead of me as I go.

Square foot garden with arborWhich brings me to the next flaw in Mel Bartholomew's garden design --- the aisles.  In order to fit his garden into 20% of the space used by a traditional garden, Bartholomew lays down 12 inch lumber and walks on this one foot wide path.  I started out with aisles that are two feet wide, and I can barely fit my wheelbarrow down them, often harm plants on the ends of beds when turning corners, and can't get the lawnmower through some of the aisles at all.  As with permanent bed widths, three feet seems to be the magic number that keeps me from feeling cramped, with four or five foot aisles along main thoroughfares allowing for easier hauling.  Granted, my method uses more space than Bartholomew's, but I suspect it saves time since I don't have to prop back up the plants I break when I lose my balance and fall into the bed.

Small square foot gardenDespite being very critical of square foot gardening, I do think it has a place.  If you live in a city and have only a tiny bit of space out front but the neighbors would yell if you put in a traditional vegetable garden, the formal lines of square foot gardening might fit the bill.  If you work forty hours a week and always plant a huge rambling garden, only to see it disappear into weeds in July when you run out of time, it might be best to scale back to a smaller garden like Bartholomew's (but, perhaps, laid out in a more ergonomic fashion.)  On the other hand, if you're a homesteader with lots of land and a wish to grow most of your own food, square foot gardening probably doesn't have much for you.

(All of the images on this page are official square foot gardens from the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.  I'm actually a bit shocked that these are the best images they have to offer.)

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This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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is it just me or do the plants both look sickly and cramped? I also think 4ft is a bad design, but that is probably because I usually plant along fences, I hate to mow along fences and I need open lawn for the dog so the edges of the yard are the best place for planting. in that format, I like 2-3ft x ~30ft (3 garden ties long).

Comment by Anonymous Tue Apr 20 14:33:23 2010
I am currently turning my large garden (30'x60') into a raised bed garden following Mel's book. I have 12 beds that are 4'x16' and are 11" high. Because I can pack more into the beds, I am only using the one garden this year. I can grow things like potatoes in half the space of the traditional layout. Yes, it's expensive to convert to square foot gardening, but I am so optimistic that I have started a CSA this year and am offering 4 half-shares. I will also have enough vegetables for us to put up. I think it's worth it!
Comment by Tracy Tue Apr 20 15:42:38 2010

I love hearing both pros and cons --- I was hoping people would come out of the woodwork with their own experiences.

Tracy, I'm so impressed by your CSA! You'll have to let me know how it goes (and how you like the square foot beds). We ran a small CSA one year, but then decided that we'd rather have the extra food in our freezer that winter rather than the cash in our wallet. But I could easily have seen us go the other way.

Anonymous --- I agree that the plants look really sad. If you go to the site, you'll notice that I picked the best pictures there, not the worst. I'd love to see other people send me to some square foot gardening pictures that look a bit better. Your bed layout sounds perfect --- I actually feel like three feet is too wide sometimes.

Comment by anna Tue Apr 20 16:43:03 2010
Great post. I have 8 beds in which I do sq. foot gardening ... they're 3x3 feet each. Like 'em, but don't love. Also have some plain ol' rows. I'm still new to this, but it's been nice to have both options to help me figure out what plants do best where.
Comment by Emily on the Southern Prairie Tue Apr 20 19:27:03 2010
I'm curious what you found to be the pros and cons of the square foot garden versus the traditional row garden. Which plants preferred which spot?
Comment by anna Tue Apr 20 19:47:18 2010


Send me you email address and I'll send some you better square foot garden pictures


btw: love your blog

Comment by Ron Wed Apr 21 17:03:52 2010

I've worked in my garden and a community garden for a few years. I tried the square foot method but I've come to the same conclusions you've come to.

It is hard to work deeply inside the 4x4 squares if you're sitting down. It's also hard to bring in materials to the area once it's established.

If the farmers are working in a very constrained space it certainly makes sense, but I would rather dig my walking rows as you've described than spend so much money making paths from wooden planks, mulch or pavers. I tried using brick as rows and that ended up with me weeding the rows more than the garden beds. Large pavers worked okay when I could get them for free, but they are expensive once you start a large garden intended to provide the majority of your food sources.

In some senses it's a shame as I liked the sort of OCD attention to every single square of plants but as I scaled up I've realized it's just not practical. Thank you for the precise measurements(and the easier way of measuring by shovel handle size) as I'll be using this as a guide on my planting this year. At least then I'll be able to mow the rows and transport items in and out of the garden more readily.

I'll also be glad to just mark one section as a section of corn rather than keeping track of every single square.

Glad to know I'm not alone.

Comment by Diggity Dog Thu May 19 20:56:25 2011
I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes to garden sitting down. :-) I know what you mean about the OCD attention to each square --- I think I tend to get into that mindset when I weed even in my huge garden.
Comment by anna Fri May 20 06:50:45 2011
I have been SFGing now for 12 years. I think your assessment of the SFG is way off. These pictures dont even beging to do any justice to what a SFG is capable of, and there are a lot more pictures-very good pictures-of what a typical SFG looks like on the site than what you have posted. If you would like to see a real SFG in action, let me know and I will direct you to what I do with about 200 pictures of proof. The single row traditional method is a think of the past-for home gardeners that is. For farmers, its great. There is simply too much waste of land, water, and other resources to have one of those old gardens. And, I have never met anyone who loves to weed.
Comment by snibb Thu Oct 20 09:59:52 2011

I really didn't cherry pick bad images for this post --- the ones I included were the best I could find on that website at the time. I'd be glad to see some better images. You might be interested in the square foot gardening rebuttal by one of our readers.

If you read further on our blog, you'll find that I'm not advocating typical row gardening and that I think intensive gardening has a lot of advantages in the home garden. However, square foot gardening also has a lot of disadvantages that can be overcome by less trendy types of intensive gardening.

Comment by anna Thu Oct 20 10:17:31 2011
well...i guessed I missed it then. Thats one of the bad things about the internet sometimes. Its very easy to miss things when your not talking to someone face to face and instead talk to them through blog posts and all of that stuff....the pictures from NY were, thats a SFG!
Comment by snibb Sat Oct 22 11:24:53 2011
There's always a lot to read! :-)
Comment by anna Sat Oct 22 18:20:47 2011

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