Vegetable Garden Planting

This introduction to square foot gardening, or raised bed gardening, first appeared nearly two years ago here at Frugal Dad. I’ve republished with a few updates sprinkled in. With the weather warming up here in the south I’m itching to get started planting our vegetable garden, and plan to build a much larger on-the-ground square foot garden. Look for garden updates coming soon!

I recently discovered an interesting gardening method called square foot gardening, and decided we would give it a try here in the Frugal household. The founder of the concept, Mel Bartholomew, has a fantastic resource available in the book All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!

I’ve always thought the idea of growing your own vegetables in raised beds would be a lot of fun. Even if the cost savings are not significant, there are plenty of other benefits to starting your own garden.


Our first square foot garden box built in February 2008

Gardens appeal to self-sufficient, frugal types like me. While I won’t be able to fully feed my family of four with our mini-harvest, we will surely enjoy some fresh-picked vegetables to supplement our spring and summer meals. With any excess, we may even do a little canning. Gardening is also therapeutic in that provides something to look forward to, and is a great stress-reducing hobby.

One of the major challenges to gardening is our lack of quality soil, and frankly, hand-digging a gardening can be a lot of work. While I could rent or borrow a tiller to handle the job, I prefer the square foot gardening method in raised beds. Using this method, you control the soil content, and it doesn’t require any digging prior to planting.

What is a Raised Bed Garden?

The idea behind a raised bed garden is that you can plant fruits, vegetables and flowers in raised beds, above poor soil conditions. 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 Vegetable Garden

Material costs vary depending on factors like the size of garden you plan to build. For our first tabletop garden, we opted to build a 4ft. by 2ft. configuration because it fit the table we were planning to use. Most people typically start with a 4ft. by 4ft. 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) 2×6×8 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.

Update: This year I plan to visit a nursery and pick up the specific ingredients suggested in the book. The commercial, pre-packaged bags of soil still have too many fertilizers, etc. for my liking.

(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

Total Start-up Cost: $39.17

Building a Raised Bed Garden Box

Square Foot Garden
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 2×6s down to size. Next, position the 2×6s 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.

Update: This year, instead of a tabletop design, we plan to build four 4×4 boxes to plant a variety of vegetables and flowers (for color and some marigolds to keep some insects away).

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).

Update: With an on-the-ground design we will not place a “bottom” on the boxes. However, we do plan to put down some weed barrier (cardboard) to slow weeds from popping up in the box soil.

Plan for drainage by raising the box up a couple inches. I ripped a couple scraps from the remaining 2×6s 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.

square foot gardening
You can see our vegetable garden quickly outgrew the plots on the original 2′x4′ box

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 2×6s, 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.

Update: The nylon string help up pretty well, but got dirty quickly and wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing a some more elaborate lattice systems I’ve seen.

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.

I’d love to hear about your gardening plans this year in the comments below!

Comments

  1. For the less ambitious, a little trick I learned from a friend:

    Take an empty 2L soda bottle (or pop if you’re from the midwest), and cut it around the perimeter so you have a base and a top. Invert the top and stick it in the base, so you have an upper and lower compartment; with a small hole (the top of the original bottle without a cap) connecting them. Stuff a paper towel into the hole to provide a wick from the bottom to the top, and fill the top with dirt around the wick.

    The wick will wick moisture up from the bottom reservoir, which acts as a safeguard against over-watering and/or a self-watering component. You can plant anything that doesn’t mind wet feet in here (I use it for alliums such as leeks, scallions, garlic [more for the greens than the bulbs; garlic is cheap], and shallots, but I’ve also grown tiny tim tomatoes and flax with some success). The plant’s roots will grow down into the lower compartment as the paper towel disintegrates.

    I love green onions and leeks, but they’re not cheap around here. This provides a cost-effective way to do it at home. Best of all, you don’t need seeds for alliums! Just go to the store and buy some green onions, a leek, or a bulb of garlic, cut off the greens about an inch or two over the end of the white part, and plant with the white part at soil level. Eat the greens while hte plant grows back!

    This supplied a fair bit of my fresh veggie diet during college.

  2. I manage a garden about 40′ x 40′ and used the square foor method in it last year. It was wonderful! I was able to plant a lot more than I could the old-fashioned way and it was sooooo much easier to maintain. This year I am starting a small CSA and will be using this method throughout the plot.

  3. Mine cost about $2 for nails – the rest was FREE!!!!

    Cost savers…. go to your local dump/transfer station or recycle yard for the wood…
    Cost of my wood – Zero…
    Set frame on the ground and eliminate the plywood – line with cardboard or newspapers on the bottom to keep the weeds down. Or use an old kiddie swimming pool with holes in it. I also use drawers from old dressers – found at dump or in free pile at garage sales.
    For Twine – use used baling twine from a neighbor’s farm – cost zero – I always have a bunch of it in the back of the truck.
    Cost for strawberries – FREE – get runners from a friend’s patch… Cost for other seeds: Free – saved from last year’s crop or from friends’ last year’s crop – seed saving saves a LOT year to year.
    Use part dirt and part year old composted cow manure in the boxes – free from farmer friends. Get extra dirt from a construction site – mine was left over from my remodel. Luckily I live in Moo-town (Tillamook cheese) and have access to LOTS of old cow manure, plus my own compost pile.

  4. PS – a hearty Second the Motion on the soda pop bottle waterers… I used them last year – yes, they really work . They may look funky, but they definitely work :)

  5. My wife and I are trying out square foot gardening this year. (Can’t wait to the weather turns)

    Great overview for beginners. Looking forward to your updates.

  6. Frugal Dad – You are the one who actually introduced me to the idea of square foot gardening. Since then I’ve learned a little more each year. This year I am not buying any plants from the store. I’ve started all my own seeds. I’m very excited about this. I have a great variety and I’ve grown to three 3×3 beds. Before your introduction I had one 3×3 bed at the side of my house and I would grow 2 tomato plants in it each year.
    I wanted to let you know that I’ve found a great site for people who want to know when to plant what. You can even get a newsletter with your to do list each week. It is helping me figure out a lot and hopefully my yield will be greater due to what I’ve learned. Anyway – the website is http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net – check it out, she has done a really great job!

  7. I did one of these last year and had so much fun with it. Can’t wait to do it again this year. I’ve already bought some seeds, just waiting for the warm weather. Definatly going to try the soda bottle thing….will start that soon. Such a wonderful site you have.

  8. Please don’t use treated wood! It says right on the sfg website: Frames can be made from almost any material except treated wood, which has toxic chemicals that might leach into the soil.

    I personally, break out when I even come in contact with treated lumber. IMHO it’s nasty stuff.

  9. My husband and I actually started our square foot garden this weekend! We bought pressure treated lumber (we didn’t want to risk attracting termites) and built our box. We opted to add a few extras, such as lathe board for the lattice and chicken wire for the bottom to combat the neighborhood mole problem. We also constructed a chicken wire box to put over the top in order to keep our rather curious puppy from digging everything up.

    It was a bit too wet outside yesterday to seed, but today we are going to plant swiss chard, snow peas and carrots. The master gardeners of our county have put together a nice guide for what can be planted each month in our climate. It’s a great resource.

  10. We did this for the first time last year and had great results — our tomato plants ended up 7-8′ tall and producing fruit into November! We used all organic compost and didn’t use the standard “square foot gardening” mixture and it worked out great. One thing I would recommend — if you’re placing the boxes on the ground, use 8-9 sheets of newspaper ON TOP of the soil a weed blocker, then cut holes for the seeds, seedlings or plants. This allows the root system of the plants to grown down into the rest of the soil beneath your box, plus it allows the beneficial earthworms to migrate from the yard up into your box as well. Good luck!

  11. My family & I used square foot gardening about 15 yrs ago for many yrs. It doesn’t take up much space and you get alot of veggies out of it. We made raised beds because our soil was very rocky where we lived. I highly recommend it. Also, raised beds are great because if you can’t bend down due to back, leg problems or being a senior you can have one made that’s easy to reach based on your height.

  12. I am attempting this for the first time this year also. I have started my seedlings and they are doing great! I can’t wait to get them planted. My niece and nephews are excited to help too.

  13. I was thinking about trying to grow vegetables in plastic buckets, but I’m a little worried about the root touching the plastics sides, and some of the plastic chemical residue being absorbed by the roots…

    A wooden structure like you have above is a much better solution. Perhaps I’ll create something similar, but on an even smaller scale (I have a small yard)…

    Kudos to you for getting involved with such a great product with your kids!

  14. This above ground garden is a super idea. It simplifies the whole process for everyone. And for people with temperamental backs, putting the garden at table-top level means they can tend their plots with ease.

    It’s also a plausible farming method for city dwellers with terraces (myself included). Unfortunately I live on the fourth floor of a brownstone built in the days before elevators. So hauling all those materials up four flights would be a heck of a schlep. But it’s a nice project to contemplate.

  15. Another gardening idea that I do that requires space, but not necessarily in the ground or outdoors, is growing mushrooms. If you have easy access to coffee grounds, hard wood chips/stumps, or (if you’re willing to put more work in) straw, you can grow a variety of delicious mushrooms. I love mushrooms, but the gourmet kind are pricier than I’m willing to pay in the grocery story.

    One variety that works well is oyster mushrooms. They can grow on almost anything including coffee grounds (which have the advantage of being pre-sterilized). Nearly any starbucks will give you a bag of spent coffee grounds for free if you ask nicely during the spring. You don’t even have to buy anything.

    Stick in some spawn, poke a few holes, and put it somewhere dark [optional]. Once it’s completely colonized, put it out in the light and mushrooms will poke out of holes you cut.

    The whole process is a bit more detailed than that, but those are the main steps. You can buy a ready-made kit such as http://www2.mailordercentral.com/fungi/Prodinfo.ASP?NUMBER=LKPOE&VARIATION=&AITEM=1&MITEM=1, or obtain culture a cheaper way and do the same thing yourself. (I got tissue samples from a friend). For more information on cultivating gourmet mushrooms, fungi perfecti is a good resource for information [mostly] and products: http://www.fungi.com/

  16. We’ve been doing this method (and French intensive gardening) for year and really love it.
    This year we are going to splurge (using recycled materials like flagstone and old brick) and make permanent raised beds. We are laying down a foundation of crushed limestone with the stone beds on top. Something we saw in southern France 20 years ago and I’ve dreamt about ever since :)

  17. I need to do a raised garden, but don’t have a table to put it on. Is there any reason I can’t just buy some 2×4′s and nail them to the bottom? Quick & dirty legs directly attached to the plywood base… this should work right?

    How many holes for drainage? Eight; one for each plot?

  18. Last question (maybe): you don’t use any liner of any kind, right? Soil dumped straight on top of plywood bottom? Lowes was trying to sell us on some plastic sheeting or something but we just passed.

  19. What a wonderful idea! I’ve done a variation of this using containers in my screened-in patio. It kept all the nasty bugs off of my tomatoes, beans, and green peppers–at least until the gnats came out, but by then our first Florida growing season was about done.

    I’ve been working on moving my veggie garden outdoors though using lasagna gardening, but I’m having issues with weeds and grass even though I’ve used cardboard and newspaper. So I like how you put the box on a tabletop instead of right on the ground. I may try a variation of that myself! Thanks for the ideas!

  20. Try lining old plastic milk crates; half fill with mulch/compostable stuff; top with improved soil – about 4 to 6 inches is enough, leaving enough room for a thin layer of good finr mulch. These lend themselves to light trellises. I keep mine on an old bench.

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