Most weekend gardeners would probably say they had neither the time nor the space for growing vegetables. Modern gardens are much smaller than they were even 20 years ago and, if you were to suggest that some of that precious space was given over to growing vegetables, then you would probably get the cold shoulder. But there is a way of growing a good selection of food crops in even the smallest of gardens.
Square foot gardening allows you to grow vegetables in a limited space. The basic plot is a raised bed just 1.2m (4ft) square. This is subdivided into 16 square beds of 30 x 30cm (1 x 1ft), with a different crop in each.
This method has many advantages: the bed fits easily into small areas, it does not require much preparation and little time is needed to maintain it. It is an easy way to begin vegetable growing because if you do make a mistake, it will only be a small one.
Most of all, though, it is fun and a great way to get children interested in gardening. Such a small area will not feed a family of four for a year, but you will have the satisfaction of growing your own food.
The only tools and equipment you will need are a spade and fork to dig the bed. The rest of the work requires nothing more than a trowel and a dibber. You will, of course, require some seeds but you will only need to use a few at a time. The surplus should last a long time and can be used the following season if stored in a cool, dry place.
Use the station-sowing method when sowing directly. To do this, make a hole at the required depth for the seed, spacing the holes correctly in each 30cm (1ft) square. For instance, with radishes make 16 equally spaced holes. Drop two or three seeds into each hole, but four or five for carrots and parsnips, as germination can be irregular. If all the seeds grow, snip off the weakest using scissors. Add a label or keep a record of what is planted in each square.
What you can grow Here is an example of the crops you can try and the amounts that can be grown in each square
1 – Mangetout peas x 12
2 – Mangetout peas x 12
3 – Vine-type tomatoes x 1
4 – Vine-type tomatoes x 1
5 – Leeks x 16
6 – Dwarf French beans x 4
7 – Perpetual spinach x 4
8 – Herb plants x 4
9 – Lettuces x 4
10 – Carrots x 16
11 – Lettuces x 4
12 – Mini-cabbages x 4
13 – Pot marigolds x 4
14 – Beetroots x 16
15 – Spring onions x 16
16 – Nasturtiums x 4
Choose a spot that gets plenty of sun; one that ideally faces south. Mark out the bed and dig the area to break up the ground and improve the drainage. Add manure or other organic matter; use home-made compost or a commercial soil improver.
Edge the bed with timber or any other suitable material. Do not use pressure-treated timber and instead apply a non-toxic preservative. The edging should be 10-15cm (4-6in) deep, but you can use a higher surround if required.
Mark out 16 squares in the plot, using string attached to the edging boards or pegged into the soil.
The basic planting rule is that tall crops should be on the north edge of the bed with progressively smaller crops placed in the remaining squares. That way, the small plants aren’t shaded by taller ones.
Check seed packets for the heights of full-grown plants. As a rough guide, tomatoes, climbing beans, broad beans and peas are likely to be the tallest, and lettuce the shortest. Do not follow the spacing instructions on the seed packet. Instead, see the spacing guide below.
Plants such as lettuce, cabbage and mini-sweet corn can be started off in pots and planted out when they are a good size.
There is no need to use the mini-vegetable varieties or patio plants. Ordinary varieties at close spacing will be smaller but perfectly edible. One of the exceptions is a small variety of Savoy cabbage called ‘Fl Protovoy’, which works very well at four per square foot.
Growing so many crops in a . small space means that the ground needs to be fertile. Adding manure at the start of the season helps, but some heavy feeders might need supplements. Pelleted chicken manure is ideal, or use a liquid feed. At the end of summer, clear the bed and either plant winter vegetables or cover with a good mulch.
My favourite varities
MANGETOUTS ‘Oregon’ is the only mangetout worth growing in my opinion. It’s a wonderful performer, easy to grow, crops heavily and the pods are so sweet.
NASTURTIUMS Tom Thumb’ needs to be kept small and well pruned, otherwise it will start to take over the entire plot.
ONIONS FROM SEED I grow Fl ‘Hygro’, ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ and ‘Ailsa Craig’ from seed planted in modules in the greenhouse in January. I have used all three varieties they outperformed other varieties grown from sets.
PARSNIPS I’ve had consistent results from ‘Avon resistor’ over a number of years.
RADISHES ‘Sparkler’ should be planted 5cm (2in) apart. It has a nice flavour and is easy to grow.
RUNNER BEANS I don’t grow many runner beans, as I prefer climbing French beans. ‘Desiree’ works well enough but needs to be kept tidy when grown in the square foot bed.
PERPETUAL SPINACH This is much better than Swiss chard. A couple of plants can provide greens well into winter.
SPRING ONIONS ‘Paris Silverskin’, ‘Purplette’ and ‘White Lisbon’ have all worked at close spacing.
TOMATOES On the whole, I prefer growing tomatoes in the greenhouse, as it’s easier to get good crops and they can be grown more intensively than in the square toot bed. However, I have found that the variety ‘Alicante’ produces satisfactory crops that can be used.
Spacing guide (See the notes below)
Aubergines 1 per sqft
Basil 1 per sqft
Beans (broad) 4 per sqft
Beans (French) 4 per sqft
Beans (runner) 8 per sqft
Beetroots 16 per soft
Broccoli 1 per sqft
Cabbages 1 per sqft
Mini-cabbages 4 par sqft
Carrots 16 per soft 1 per sqft
Celery 4 per sqft
Chard (Swiss) 4 per sqft
Courgettes (bush) 1 per3sqft
Garlic 9 per sqft
Leeks 16 persqft
Lettuces 4 per sqft
Marjoram 4 per sqft
Onions 16 per sqft
Oregano 4 per sqft
Parsley 4 persqft
Peas 12 persqft
Peppers 1 per sqft
Potatoes 1 per sqft
Radishes 16 per sqft
Spring onions 16 per sqft
Spinach 9 per sqft
Perpetual spinach 4 per sqft
Sweet corn 1 per sqft
Squash (climber) 3 per 4sqt
Thyme (and herbs) 4 per sqft
Tomatoes (bush) 1 per 2sqft
Tomatoes (vine-type) 1 per sqft
- Courgettes: Plant bush varieties in a corner square and train towards a path. Use the same spacing for bush marrows and squashes.
- Climbing squashes, including marrows: Grow three plants 40cm (1 Bin) apart over four squares on the north side of the plot. Train them up supports.
- Peas: Use a double row, 5cm (2in) apart, across two squares, spacing the peas 5cm (2in) apart. This will give 12 peas per row. Train up supports.
Updated April 2020. Some of the varieties mentioned above are no longer available. As we now prefer 1m square beds with a single crop in each bed we have not researched suitable alternatives. See this page for more information about starting a square metre bed garden.