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
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.
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!