7 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening Mistakes – our favorite method of managing a garden in a small suburban landscape. But we did make a few mistakes along the way. Learn from our mistakes before you tackle your garden!

What is the Square Foot Gardening Method?

The premise is to build a gardening box (in square or rectangle), put down a barrier, build a box, fill it with ‘dirt’, and plant. It’s based on a grid formula that gives you a square foot of planting space in each grid. Whether you build a rectangle or square, you’re using most of the gardening space for your planting (as opposed to creating a large row-driven garden which isn’t really feasible in small spaces).

Note: While we love this method of planting, we don’t love Mel’s soil mixture as we don’t support the use of peat moss. Firstly, because of how it’s mined, and secondly because it’s actually antimicrobial and can kill off the beneficial microbes that you’ve worked so hard to maintain. We use coconut coir, instead.

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Our #1 rule is to feed the soil. Healthy soil brings healthy gardens and plants.

Here’s Mel Bartholomew, the creator of the Square Foot Gardening Method, with an introduction:

All New Square Foot Gardening II: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More...
  • Mel Bartholomew (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 01/01/2013 (Publication Date) - Cool Springs Press (Publisher)

Our First Square Foot Gardening Bed

When we first began gardening, we were already going in the direction of square foot gardening in our thinking, we just didn’t know it. We knew we couldn’t plant rows and rows of space without taking up our entire yard. But this will you to be informed and reminded of what to avoid so you can utilize every space of your garden. These informative ideas will be a huge help.

We weren’t interested, back then, in planting corn and wheat and other row crops, and we certainly weren’t going to be harvesting with large equipment, nor were we going to have teams of planters and pickers to help. So, we wanted a small garden space to grow what was basically going to be a lasagna garden for us: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, green beans, and a few more things.

But because we hadn’t discovered that there might be a better way of doing what we really were looking for, we made a few mistakes along the way and wanted you to learn them before you tackled this project yourself. By making these mistakes, I was not able to use my entire garden to its fullest potential. Although I was still able to harvest crops from it, I did not realize that I could have harvested more. Prepare to learn from this project.

Mistake #1 in Square Foot Gardening

We didn’t build up our square foot gardening area. We went down. (Imagine this space without the wood on the edge. I never took a photo of the original area, but this is the same space, 2 years later, we were celebrating a version of National Naked Gardening Day and rebuilding our bed.

We took our garden soil, mixed it with new amendments, and had more great soil to add in. There’s just a problem doing this. It’s hard. And unnecessary. And if you have grass that creeps as we do, you spend so much time just keeping the grass out of the bed because there’s no barrier. Go up.

Mistake #1 in Square Foot Gardening

Mistake #2-4 in Square Foot Gardening

#2. We put our square foot gardening area too close to the fence. We couldn’t use the Weedeater in this space, hand pulling was fine when a child did it, but it was hard for me to get in there and do it. Once the crops got tall enough, it was next to impossible to maintain the growing weeds, the invasive vine all over our property, and keep it all from growing into the bed.

#3. We also ran the bed parallel to the fence. In hindsight, we should’ve done a vertical bed, and had room for a 2nd bed in not much more space than it takes up now. There would also be twice the space in this area to plant. While this size bed is great for square foot gardening, sometimes harvesting from the back was not the easiest, though not impossible. It just could have been positioned much better.

#4. We didn’t put down a weed barrier outside of the bed. It would have been better had we done some kind of formal weed/grass barrier behind it, with weed cloth and mulch or other covering. It would have saved us a ton of time and effort to keep that stuff cut.

Dewitt 4-Foot by 50-Foot 12-Year Weed Barrier Fabric 12YR450, Black
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  • Dewitt landscape fabric minimizes light penetration to suppress weed growth

square foot gardening area too close to the fence

Mistake #5

Granted, we did this with the least amount of money we could possibly do with. We also had some old 2x4s in the garage, we used those to create the frame for the bed. They just don’t last. This is the biggest reason why we dug the bed up from the first photo – the frame had rotted away in a couple of places after just two years and was useless.

Use cedar. It’s not that expensive if you follow the next advice on how to get cheap cedar. There are other materials you can get, but cedar helps repel some bugs!

*(And because people will ask – the white stuff is sugar. We didn’t have any dry molasses, and sugar is a good substitute if you don’t. The idea is that sugar helps feed the good microbes in the soil. They multiply and create all sorts of organic matter, and are good to keep the area healthy, and when they die, they become good organic matter. This all creates awesome soil and feeds the plants. But as you’ll see further down, we made another mistake that made this virtually useless for the first two years or so.)

Mistake #6

Again, because we were trying to do this cheaply, we didn’t want to go the weed cloth route. One because we’d read that it may not help that much, especially with the invasive vine we deal with. And because we were trying to keep this as low a cost as we could, we opted to go with the cardboard box route. We still use it when building new beds. We like it.

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The only problem comes when you use cardboard that is layered too thick or has been printed on one side fully, like many of the product boxes you can buy in the store. You want plain cardboard with very little coating on it. Why? Because you’re preventing water from draining properly, so you end up with a wet and soggy mess that doesn’t drain.

This invites disease and bugs and leaves you with a garden that may not produce well. Maybe in a drought-ridden area that might be a good thing to help keep moisture in longer, but for the most part, it just causes your roots to rot, your plants to turn yellow and sickly and not produce, and the bugs to invade.

cardboard that is layered too thick

In our case, we used too much cardboard hoping to keep out the vine. And it worked. But it almost ruined our garden in the process. Sometimes less really is more.

Read more – Release the Ladybugs for Aphid Control

Mistake #7

We live in an area that has been on drought alert for years. So watering our garden always felt like we were doing something horribly wrong, even though we hadn’t quite reached the level of “do not water your garden.”

Hand-watering is fine, but at dawn or at dusk, I wasn’t a fan of standing out in the yard as a tasty meal for the mosquitoes while I watered. And while we used those cute little circle watering devices, they didn’t always reach the whole area of the garden and did NOT water the grass/weeds/vine behind it that we didn’t want to water.

The good thing about it is that it was easy to move and took up very little space, and we could turn it on low and it worked almost like a drip sprinkler, though only in a smaller area.

Built-in drip irrigation with a soaker hose (like this one we use now) OR one of those cool PVC frames would’ve been a great addition to the garden the first year.

Gilmour 870751-1001 Hose Flat Soaker, 75'
  • Snake through rows of new seedlings or under mature plantings for efficient, deep watering season after season
  • Create an easy DIY watering system by burying the hose under mulch. Hook it up to a timer and enjoy healthy, vibrant...
  • Made of 100% environmentally-friendly recycled vinyl

  • Even all these years later, we still haven’t done it. This tutorial by Rick from Stoney Acres is a great walkthrough on how to build your own PVC watering system, which works really well for those of you with larger garden spaces, and you can configure it any way you need to.
  • And remember, a timer is really helpful in not overwatering your yard. A lot of times people forget to turn the water off because they couldn’t hear it in the house because it’s not running full blast as with traditional watering.
  • Or even better Rick has made a 1 1/2-hour video course giving you step-by-step instructions on how to build a PVC drip system.

Mistakes Recap

  1. Create smaller beds that are easier to maintain in tight spaces. The next beds going up will be perpendicular to the fence line so we can get more plants in.
  2. Build UP! We have fixed that problem, and are even coming up with a new version this year that we want to test out (more on that later).
  3. Use the cardboard method we tried, but just use less of it! You want it to be gone after a while to help us with that good soil you’ve created underneath, too.
  4. If you’re not going to dig up the whole area, use some sort of mulch to line the spaces between your beds. You’ll thank me for it later, I promise! We use cardboard and mulch.
  5. Read everything you can about Square Foot Gardening so that you can do a better job next time.

What have been some of your greatest gardening blunders or lessons learned?

Get even more gardening ideas here:

Square Foot Gardening Mistakes
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Katy Willis is a writer, lifelong homesteader, and master herbalist, master gardener, and canine nutritionist. Katy is a preparedness expert and modern homesteader practicing everyday preparedness, sustainability, and a holistic lifestyle.

She knows how important it is to be prepared for whatever life throws at you, because you just never know what's coming. And preparedness helps you give your family the best chance to thrive in any situation.

Katy is passionate about living naturally, growing food, keeping livestock, foraging, and making and using herbal remedies. Katy is an experienced herbalist and a member of the CMA (Complementary Medical Association).

Her preparedness skills go beyond just being "ready", she's ready to survive the initial disaster, and thrive afterward, too. She grows 100% organic food on roughly 15 acres and raises goats, chickens, and ducks. She also lovingly tends her orchard, where she grows many different fruit trees. And, because she likes to know exactly what she's feeding her family, she's a seasoned from-scratch cook and gluten-free baker.

Katy teaches foraging and environmental education classes, too, including self-sufficient living, modern homesteading, seed saving, and organic vegetable gardening.

Katy helps others learn forgotten skills, including basic survival skills and self-reliance.

She's been published on sites such as MSN, Angi, Home Advisor, Family Handyman, Wealth of Geeks, Readers Digest, and more.

Last update on 2024-02-26 at 09:25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

4 thoughts on “7 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Square Foot Gardening”

  1. You were saying “go up” but you are still at ground level? Did you just mean “add to the top of the yard” instead of digging down {like rototilling}?

    Personally, if I had any land/yard/etc. , I would put legs on the raised bed. Build a box as deep as you need for what you plan to grow {carrots, anyone?} then put strong legs on it so you don’t get back problems along with your harvest. I don’t have land, so I’m stuck with “indoor gardening”.

    Grow Strong! Grow Well!

    Reply
  2. I’m starting my first sq ft garden. I agree with your about using coir – especially as peat moss is not a renewable resource in the short term. Do you use vermiculite? It’s really very expensive! I have 3 beds that are 6′ x 3′ x 2′ – if I fill it all with coir, compost, and vermiculite – that’s 36 cu ft of vermiculite at $50 for 4 cu ft on Amazon. It’s even more expensive at the neighboring garden centers and home supply stores. So I may be using only half as much as called for in Mel’s mix. How much cardboard is too much? We have clean moving boxes (all tape will be removed). I was planning on at least four layers of cardboard in the bottom of each bed. Then six inches of sticks and leaves and shredded paper, then the soil mix. Does this seem reasonable? Thanks for your response!

    Reply
  3. We didn’t use 4′ x 4′ squares, but rather 3′ x 9′ squares. Secondly, we used cinder blocks for the perimeters and filled the cinder block holes with soil to grow flowers in for a better visual look and to attract bees. Thirdly, we only grew main crops such as beans, beets, carrots, (these three for canning as well) parsnips, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, zuccini, lettuce, spinach and herbs (we stayed away from broccoli, cauliflower, squash, pumpkin, corn, watermelon, etc., as they took up too much space or didn’t grow well). Fourthly, we made good use of drip hoses in all squares to conserve water. Fifthly, we planted one vegetables per plot or sometimes used companion planting. Lastly, we composted as required. Works well for our usage. Would appreciate everyone else’s input.

    Reply
  4. I built my beds in non-standard sizes, greater than eight feet and less than twelve, to maximize the rough cut wood I was using. When I wanted to cover the beds to extend the season I had to buy longer lumber for the framing. When making a trellis with concrète reinforcing mesh I had the same problem. M’y « square feet » are also not 12*12 inches.

    Reply

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