How to Build a Square Foot Garden

I recently stumbled upon a book (All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space! by Mel Bartholomew) with an interesting gardening method called square foot gardening, and decided we would give it a try. I’ve always thought the idea of having a vegetable garden would be a lot of fun. Walking out to your square foot garden and picking a fresh tomato for tonight’s dinner appeals to the self-sufficient nature of most frugal individuals.

I know just enough about gardening to know that I am not very good at it, and that it is a lot of work.  My kids have always been fascinated with the idea of growing things, but our soil and our dog make planting anything in the yard impossible.  Enter square foot gardening.

What is Square Foot Gardening?

The idea behind square foot gardening is that you can plant fruits, vegetables and flowers in raised beds, above infertile soil and even out of the reach of pets. Seeds are planted in 1X1 square foot plots, and when harvested a new plant is installed in the square. Raised beds can sit directly on the ground, or include a bottom layer and be placed on patios, decks or porches. Because of a bad back, and a dog with a propensity to dig up our new plants, we decided to build a 4×2 foot table-top design.

Materials Needed to Set Up a Square Foot Garden

Material costs are variable, depending on the size of garden you plan to build. I personally opted for a 4′ by 2′ configuration because it fit the table we were planning to use. Most people typically start with a 4′ by 4′ design for their first square foot garden. I’ll share with you what materials I used, but keep in mind the pricing could be higher or lower depending on your local costs of lumber, soil, etc.

(1) Sheet untreated plywood – $0.00 (leftover scrap from a previous home improvement project)

(2) 2x6x8 pieces of untreated lumber – $7.38
Don’t get treated lumber because treatments can seep into the soil and contaminate your planting area.

(8) #8 x 3″ Wood Screws (or deck screws) – $2.94
Use these longer screws to connect the corners of the 2×6′s after cutting to the desired length.

(8) #6 x 1″ Wood Screws – $0.98
These were used to anchor the nylon line to create a grid system for the 1×1 planting plots. I also used a few to fasten the sheet of plywood to the 2×6′s to create a bottom to my container.

(1) Pack of Twisted Nylon Line – $4.43
I used this and the smaller screws to create a grid system on top of the container, in 1×1 square foot patterns.

(2) 2cu ft. bags of Miracle Grow Garden Soil (for flowers and vegetables) – $13.54
There were more frugal recipes here for soil, such as 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite. However, I could not find the ingredients packaged locally and the individual ingredients bought separately at the larger home improvement stores were more expensive the bags of Miracle Grow.  If you have some compost to mix, such as soil generated from a Mantis ComposT-Twin composter, it would really help your soil.

(10-pack) Strawberry plants – $3.98
(1) Burpee Seed Pack Super Sugar Snap Peas – $1.57
(1) Burpee Seed Pack Tomato, Early & Often Hybrid – $2.47
(1) Burpee Seed Pack Cucumber, Burpless Beauty – $1.88
(1) Burpee Ambrosia Cantaloupe – $1.57
(1) Burpee Danvers Half-Long Carrots – $1.28

I buy our seeds from Burpee Seed Company.

Total Start-up Cost: $42.02

Building a Square Foot Gardening Box

It was my daughter’s idea to use popsicle sticks to mark the type of fruit or veggie planted. We will fill in the remaining squares after we eat another round of popsicles!

Since we decided to go with raised beds on a table top I checked the dimensions of the table and came up with a suitable size for our square foot gardening container. Four feet by two feet would allow for eight square foot plots for planting. First, cut the 8ft. long 2x6s down to size. Next, position the 2x6s on the table in a rectangular pattern, alternating corners to make the “inside box” dimensions four feet by two feet (I chose not to alternate corners because the table I was working with was only 45 inches wide, so I needed it to be a little narrower). Fasten the sides using the #8×3″ wood screws. If you have trouble with the wood trying to split you may want to first drill pilot holes.

With the sides now fastened it is time to attach a bottom to the container, unless you are planning to put the raised bed directly on the ground. If this is the case, use some cardboard or weed blocking fabric to discourage grass and weeds from coming up through the soil. In my case, the container will be placed on a table top so I needed to attach a bottom to hold the soil in place. Fortunately, I had some untreated plywood I ripped to size. The bottom doesn’t have to be thick, so 1/4″, 3/8″ or 1/2″ plywood would do just fine. Fasten the bottom to the container using the #6×1″ wood screws (assuming you didn’t use 1″ plywood).

Plan for drainage by raising the box up a couple inches. I ripped a couple scraps from the remaining 2x6s and used them to attach four 2″ feet for each corner of the box. I also drilled a few 1/8″ thick drainage holes in the bottom of the box to allow standing water to flow out the bottom.

Create a grid system on top of the square foot gardening container using nylon line and #6×1″ screws, spaced a foot apart across the width and length of the container. Drill the screws about half way into the top of the 2x6s, leaving enough room to tie a knot of nylon line around the screw. If the end of the nylon line frays after cutting (as mine did), use a lighter to gently melt the ends to prevent further fraying.

Irrigating a Square Foot Garden

*Unless you already have a drip line and timer prepared for your garden, you’ll have to water manually early on to improve seed germination. If the air is particularly dry, or hot, you will need to constantly keep the soil moist until seeds have sprouted and taken root. One economical way to do this is to fill used water bottles and poke a small hole or two in one side of the bottle using a safety pin. Use your finger to dig a 1/2″ deep trench the length of the bottle and lay the bottle on its side, pin-prick side down, over the trench. The water will slowly drip into the trench, keeping the soil moist for several hours. Obviously when sprouts begin to appear above the surface you want to be sure not to position a bottle directly on top of the struggling plant.

Perform this routine first thing in the morning so soil gradually soaks and then dries throughout the day, and is driest overnight. This reduces the chance of fungus or diseases developing. This is even more important when the plants begin to develop leaves – avoid wetting leaves at all costs as it encourages disease.

*I’ve since improved on this irrigation system as I became more aware of the dangers of heated plastic leeching bad things into the soil

I’m not sure what to expect from this effort in terms of food yields, but just the process of building the box, filling it with dirt and planting seeds with my kids was worth the $40. If the small garden yields a few fruits and veggies during the spring and summer then all the better. Who knows, if we can cultivate a good crop we may build more boxes next summer and section off an area of the yard so the dog does not eat our produce.

I think over time it will help my kids understand the true value of things. Those strawberries don’t just wind up in the produce section of our local grocery stores. As I pointed out to my daughter today someone has to plant the seeds, water the plants, harvest the crops, clean the strawberries, package them, and transport them to a distributor.

Money Lessons Learned By Square Foot Gardening

#1 – Create a conducive environment for growth. The most important step in gardening is to prepare a bed of fertile soil for your plants to grow.

Money lesson: Similarly, investments require an environment where they can thrive. Faithfully contributing money to bad investments, or a bad brokerage, will do nothing but increase losses over time. Take some time to investigate the various brokerage houses and fund managers before deciding where to invest.

#2 – Select the right mix for optimal growth. Some plants tend to do better when surrounded by other certain types of plants. Some plant varieties are good are warding off insects (such as marigolds). Carefully selecting the right combination of plants could improve the entire garden.

Money lesson: Selecting the right types of investments makes for a more balanced, well-diversified portfolio. With my own finances, I have a blend of tax-free and tax-deferred retirement accounts from both my employer, and things I have opened on my own. I also have a couple cash accounts for short-term savings goals, and conservatively invested taxable funds for longer term goals short of retirement.

#3 – Tend to your square foot garden often, but don’t over-do it. Plants need two basic things to grow – water and sunlight. However, many new gardeners with good intentions kill crops by over watering, or watering too frequently. These overactive gardeners would see improved results if they backed off a bit. Deep watering plants every few days encourages a deeper root system as plants dig down through the soil in search of water.

Money lesson: Overactive investors who constantly make changes to their accounts likely see diminished returns when compared to those who buy and hold for the long term. A few active traders can beat average market returns, but keeping up with single investments requires a lot of homework. If you are like me we have other things competing for our time, so a healthy dose of long-term investments set on auto-pilot lowers the hassle factor.

#4 – Be patient – results don’t come overnight. It took nearly two weeks of faithfully watering and tending to my square foot garden before I began to see green sprouts poking through the soil. It would be unrealistic to expect juicy, plump tomatoes to magically appear two days after planting the seeds.

Money lessonIt is also unrealistic to expect double-digit returns on investments in only a couple months. Select a strong portfolio, contribute to them often and check up on them every few days, but don’t obsess over the results in the short term.

#5 – Keep invaders out. The biggest threat to a square foot garden is from outside invaders, namely insects. Aphids, moths and slugs can wreak havoc to a vegetable garden, chewing away on leaves and fruits.

Money lesson: “The Tax Man” can take chunks out of your profits by eating away at your returns. Be careful when selecting investment vehicles to be sure you are not overly exposed to taxes. Taxes are a part of investment life, but some careful planning can reduce the amount of “fruit” you have to share!

#6 – Don’t be afraid to harvest profits. When fruits are ripe for the picking you must be ready to harvest them. Nothing spoils a garden faster than over-ripened, spoiled fruits and vegetables hanging from the vine. You’ve worked hard to produce these crops, now enjoy the fruit of your labor.

Money lessonWhen investments, particularly those outside of retirement accounts, produce a sizable return you need to ring the register and take those profits. It is tempting to let the investments sit to try and earn even more, but this plan usually fails when the investment begins to make a declining correction.

#7 – Prune back overachieving crops. In one of the garden squares (top right) I planted sugar snap peas. They took off! So much so they soon were crowding out my tomato plants. I pruned them back a bit, but they came back with a vengeance. I realized that they were probably not the best crop to plant in a square foot garden, so I transplanted them and planted squash in the empty square.

Money Lesson: It is a good idea to rebalance your portfolio at least once a year, particularly if one of your funds has grown significantly. For instance, when the real estate sector was booming a few years ago many investors saw the value of REITs, or similar real estate related investments, increase considerably. These investments quickly represented their largest fund asset. To rebalance their portfolios many fund owners sold off a portion of REITs, investing in other funds to bring individual fund balances back in line with their desired asset allocation mix.

#8 – Get rid of poor performing crops. Poor performing crops take up space and provide low yield. My strawberry plants were not producing, while other crops were taking off. I ultimately made the decision to cut my losses and remove all but two strawberry plants (lower left square), making room for new investments in a variety of peppers.

Money lesson: Many times investors hold on to poor performing investments for too long, either because they don’t want to record the loss officially, or because they hope the investment will regain some value and lessen the financial hit. When you are stuck holding an investment you no longer believe in, cut your losses. Use the loss to offset some gains you registered from another investment. Use the proceeds to fund a new investment you have researched and feel confident will be a winner over the long term.