4. Square Foot Gardening vs. Traditional Gardening

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Just as soon as the ground thaws and it is able to be worked, it’s time to start preparing your garden! There are many different gardening methods, and for every method there are differing opinions about which one is best. 

Here I will explain some of the pros and cons of Square Foot Gardening and Traditional Gardening, so that you can choose which one is best for You.


Square Foot Gardening Pros:


If you are new to this, you may be asking “What is Square Foot Gardening?”

Square Foot Gardening is a method of raised bed gardening. It was developed by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970’s as a more efficient way to garden. The beds (Mel suggests 4ft x 4ft) can actually be any length. They are filled with “Mel’s Mix”, a blend of equal parts peatmoss, vermiculite and compost. Beds are marked off into 1 sq ft sections, and the size of the mature plant defines how many seeds or seedlings are planted in each 1 foot square. For example, smaller plants such as carrots, radishes, parsnips and onions may be planted 16 or more per square, where larger plants such as broccoli, cabbage, squash, peppers and tomatoes have only one plant per square or may even use multiple squares for one plant.

SFG (Square Foot Gardening) incorporates raised beds or boxes. If you don’t have a lot of available space, square foot gardening is a great choice. You can build raised beds and place them in the sunniest areas in your yard, or build planter boxes that can be placed on your back porch or balcony. If your lawn area is very shady or otherwise not usable, a raised bed can even be placed over concrete, and if built with a bottom, holes drilled for drainage, and raised up by even an inch or two, it can be placed over asphalt!

Typically, raised beds and boxes for SFG are two to four feet wide and can be almost any length. All of mine are either 4×8 or 3×8, so that I can reach into the center without stepping on the soil. They can be a minimum of 6 inches deep, or 2 feet deep, depending on the root requirements of what you want to grow and your personal preference. The taller raised beds and boxes that are used for SFG are great for anyone who has knee or back problems, may be in a wheelchair or is otherwise disabled.

  • Raised gardening beds drain much more efficiently than ground gardens.
  • There is little to no runoff of water and soil.
  • There is some protection from insects.
  • Once built, they require less time and effort.
  • Few to no weeds to pull and any that show up are easily removed.
  • Intensive planting requires less water as the ground is more shaded.
  • The soil does not become compacted, allowing for good root development.
  • Good alternative if you have very poor or rocky soil.

Square Foot Gardening Cons:


The biggest issue is the cost. You have to either build and fill them yourself, or buy pre-made kits and soil mix which can be quite expensive. (On a positive note, this is the initial cost of building, with just small additions after that.) You can also use bricks, cinder blocks, or other materials to frame it in. The recommended soil used to fill them is a blend of equal parts peatmoss, vermiculite and compost. This can become pricey if you are filling many or taller beds. If you fill them with topsoil it will contain weed seeds, it is usually too dense and will naturally compact over time. I used a garden blend mix of topsoil, sand and compost for the bottom half and locally sourced compost for the top half. I had great results and will just top-dress them annually with an inch or two of fresh compost.

  • Initial building and filling can be expensive.
  • Over the years, you will have to replace some boards.
  • The soil needs to be topped off or replenished yearly.


Traditional Gardening Pros:


Man (and Woman) have toiled in the soil since they first discovered that seeds grew into plants.

If you have a lot of space available to use, traditional, in ground gardening will allow you to grow larger quantities of food. Large gardens can produce vast quantities of tomatoes, corn, sprawling squash and pumpkin vines. There are no restrictions or limitations other than your climate. That is not to say that you can’t have a small garden. Half a dozen tomato plants, a row of green beans, sweet peppers, again, anything you want that will fit in the space you allot to your garden.

The backbreaking work of digging, turning over the soil or rototilling can be avoided by using a layering technique. After marking out the perimeter of the garden, mow it, cover it with newspaper (at least 4 layers deep), cover that with 4-6 inches of good topsoil/compost mix and then cover that with a few inches of mulch. Push back the mulch and plant in the amended topsoil.

Straight rows or small patches can look very nice and weeding can be done with a hoe instead of pulling by hand. It is pretty simple to install drip irrigation for rows, which will help to conserve water. Being able to use a wheelbarrow between rows makes maintaining and harvesting easier.

Traditional Gardening Cons:

Not everyone who gardens has the land available to have a permanent garden plot. Homeowners may have trees that block the sun, possibly requiring additional small gardens in the sunny spots to be able to grow what they want.

Gardening in the ground can require more time and labor investment. Those with physical disabilities or restrictions may have a more difficult time planting and maintaining the garden.

A traditional garden can easily become the neighborhood all-you-can-eat buffet to local wildlife. Large patches or long stretches of a single variety of vegetable can result in more insect damage and the spread of disease.

  • Due to foot traffic, soil can become compacted, affecting root development and water absorption.
  • Soil should be tested annually, amending when necessary.
  • Exposed soil can “bake” hard in the summer, and be muddy during rainy periods, making it less enjoyable to maintain the garden.
  • Layered garden beds need to have additional layers of mulch added when the older mulch breaks down.
  • Weeds can easily take over any in-ground garden.

So, what it boils down to is that gardening styles are a personal preference. Not everyone likes the same things and opinions differ. If you are new to gardening, consider your time, physical abilities, the amount of monetary investment you can make and think about what you want to grow. For me, after many years of the traditional method, my body convinced me to try raised beds. I think they’re great! You can see a bit of the how and why I built raised beds by clicking the home button or clicking here.


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