Square Foot Gardening

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Robert Pavlis

The idea of square foot gardening has become popular over the last few years and some of the underlying concepts of the this gardening technique make sense.

I was at an industry gardening show recently and spotted a plastic box for square foot gardening. I just started to laugh. What a silly idea!!!

square foot gardening
Square foot gardening box

Square Foot Gardening

To indulge in square foot gardening, all you need to do is divide your gardening bed into ‘imaginary’ 1 foot squares. You then plant the correct number of seeds or plants into each square foot area. You don’t need a square box. You don’t need little plastic strips to divide the surface into precise square foot sections.

It will probably surprise the manufacturers of this product that plant roots will just grow under their little plastic strips!

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

You don’t need a ‘plastic’ box for this type of gardening. If you want a raised bed, just bang some 2 x 8 wood boards together.

What is really sad about this product is that the gardener is probably growing vegetables because they believe in fresh produce and in organically grown food. Then the manufacturer asks them to create an environmental problem by producing a plastic box. Plastic is not good for the environment, it does not compost, and most plastic leaches chemicals into the surrounding area ie your vegetables.

Don’t buy a product that you don’t need, and more importantly, don’t buy a plastic version of it!


1) Photo Source: Everyday food Storage

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

8 thoughts on “Square Foot Gardening”

  1. Hi, Robert;

    I discovered your site recently and love your articles. Very logical and yet common sensical without hysteria.

    Having said that, I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion about these plastic square foot gardens. I believe in certain cases, it would be useful if not most cases.

    For example, my sister recently expressed a wish to make a garden at her house. Her backyard slopes downward into a creek. Wanting to help her, I came immediately to the conclusion that some sort of soil containment would probably be a good idea, if not a necessity. I priced out 2×4 lumber in the area(I live in Florida) and it was $4.50 for a 8 foot piece. Traditionally, ofc, 2 by 4 lumber has almost always been the best value for buck. Well, economy changes. Ofc, it’s not a true 4 inches. It’s 3.5 inches. To get to a height of 9 inches or so, I would require at least 2 and a half pieces per side. Total cost would be $45 per 4’x4′ bed at 10″ high just for lumber, not including an extra piece you would require for corners, glue(because I would want it glued), stainless screws or even cheap exterior deck screws still costing something extra on top, gas for pick up from the hardware store, time and labor to pick it up. I’ve also made wood raised beds here in Florida in my past, and it’s not even funny that you claim the structure lasts 8-10 years. Perhaps where you live it certainly does. ALL my pine/white wood beds were half gone from termites and carpenter ants by the FIRST YEAR, and rotten on the bottom where it met the soil line come the spring after I made it. If I had a house nearby I would have definitely been in panic mode. Luckily there were no wooden structures nearby. At best the untreated wood beds would have lasted 2 years. Necessitating me to buy more what? More untreated wood to build more? This is not including the cost to the environment in terms of the forest area designated to grow this lumber, transportation, lumbering equipment etc., which in economic terms I believe is almost always and generally reflected in the $4.50 per piece price tag. Not to mention the minimum wage $10 per hour and probably 4 hours or so minimum required for me to assemble such a project. Even if I do it myself for free which ofc I would, I am still using those productive hours of mine that I could be using for other purposes. I could work let’s say and that would be minimum worth $10 or so per hour – $40. Would that $40 not be better served just donating to an environmental cause? My point is – everything has a price. In the end, you can’t squeeze water from stone as they say.

    On the other hand, I see a 3 pack of these plastic raised beds on Amazon for $136.94.

    The more I read and see about permaculture and gardening, the more I feel gardeners and environmentalists are in a half-delusion. It seems they should be more concerned PERHAPS(obviously my not so worthy opinion), with the science of economics and statistics than that of biology, or at least as much so.

    Brown paper grocery bags seem like they would be better for the environment but the world has gone to plastic grocery bags. I do not know why, but seems obvious there must be reasons. I can’t say the change means it’s all doom and gloom. Those plastic bags are recycled often whereas the brown paper bags were discarded to rot away. I can’t say which is better. What I do know is that, the 2×4 lumber is near worthless a commodity before it is taken from the pine tree. But the cost of taking the lumber out of the pine tree and transporting it, etc. etc. is usually reflected in the price and all those activities can not be good for the environment since they all require machines and petroleum. The same I’m guessing, actually holds true for the plastic garden beds which are significantly lighter(cheaper to transport), made of petroleum products, but maybe less petroleum products than the 2×4 – this is my guess since it is cheaper at the end than the 2 x 4. The economy of the thing tells me, more than likely the 2 x 4 is probably more environmentally safer and economically less harmful to my pocketbook. I admit this is just my guess. AT LEAST, in MY case.

    If you live near a lumber mill, and the wood costs next to nothing, obviously that’s one thing, but a blanket statement that this product is useless is unfair it seems. Not to mention, at least where I live, I think the plastic beds would raise the value of the home where a termite infested wood weathered garden, probably not so. Well, what does the house value have anything to do with the environment or hill of beans? It’s still money and a resource that could be used for proactive things if desired. It’s not nothing. More people where I am prefer the pvc fencing over the cedar – happily or sadly, I am not judging. Just stating how it is.

    Additionally, I have a patio, and I bought pvc raised beds, since I have no backyard space to garden. I found at least here in Florida, it takes a fraction of the water that the wood required to water it. I’ve had the bed for only a month, and adjusting my watering so can’t say for sure, but I feel I will more than likely water my bed for less than 5 minutes a week during growing seasons here. Can’t say for sure it’s because it’s pvc. But I’m guessing it does effect it. In contrast the wood beds dried out in a few hours after hurricane monsoons here. Albeit the wood beds were outside and my patio is screened in, and other factors, hence, I state guessing. Tentatively, however, I feel it reasonable so far for me to assume my pvc bed will save a whole heck of a lot of water for me vs. wood.

    Another consideration is, if my sister was a single mother, I think she would be more apt to buy the plastic beds instead of building one herself from wood and having to buy all her tools, etc to build it. A decent circular saw alone costs what? And wouldn’t you want to encourage a woman like that to try to garden?

    As I stated, I really appreciate your website and insights and agree with most if not all – haven’t read all yet, so can’t say. Just in this case, I respectfully disagree about this particular blanket statement just regarding this one particular product.

    I haven’t decided what to do about my sister’s backyard yet, but the plastic beds, so far, seem like the best option – at least to ME.


    • You make some valid comments about price. Around here wide boards are actually cheaper than 2 x 4 when you look at total wood. Regular pine also lasts much longer than 2 years. I easily get 5 years out of it, but only if I buy better quality wood. Home Depot sells junk.

      Plastic may last longer, but environmentally it is less desirable.

      Why not just use flat ground? Even on a slope, you can make flat beds – like rice paddies on a hill side. If you are only raising the bed a few inches, raised beds add no real value except aesthetics and a bit less bending. You might be interested in this post Raised Beds – Pros and Cons.

    • 2 x 4 x 8′ cost $3.20 here in Indiana. Drops to $2.80 for 92″ length, which might do as well. This saves $1.30 – $1.70 per bed. If you can get a few hundred garden-loving friends together, we may be able to make an enterprise of this.

      But on a serious note, there are two things I have tried to mitigate the cost and lengthen the life of my raised beds. One is to use plywood for the sides. A full sheet of 5/8 costs $22 here, which means a 4′ x4′ x 9″ bed would only cost $8.80. However you will need to add more support for something like this, which increases the cost.

      Also, I spend the summer watching for construction sites that often throw away ridiculous amounts of perfectly good materials because they are charging it off to people who are to dumb to realize what they are paying for. I have found long boards in good shape that were merely used for cement forms before being tossed in the dumpster. Always ask, of course.

    • upFlorida- Frugality is also an excellent thing for gardening! Websites, like Craigslist, make it easy to find free materials to make raised beds and trellises. Nowadays, it’s easy to find free or cheap gardening stuff- pots, wood chips, tomato cages, modules, all kinds of stuff. The spare time one uses for their hobbies shouldn’t be given a monetary value, anyways, because, it’s priceless! I’m tickled and proud that 95% of the materials in my garden were free! A lot of my love and recycled materials is where it’s at. Some of us would rather bake a cake for someone, than to buy one. Happy gardening!

  2. Dear Mr.Pavlis,

    I appreciate your science based gardening/horticultural information that you share.Thank you.
    The above information on the plastic square foot,raised planting box had me thinking,how about a column “Don’t buy this literature”.I and i suspect a great many others have been grossly mislead on gardening techniques and practices via “books” that have been published aimed at the home gardener,For a person to publish gardening literature that grossly misleads so many people is unjust,selfish,and just plain wrong.I love to learn and i have no problems with learning from mistakes.Having to learn the “hard way” ie,wasted money,time,effort,and productivity due to the influence of reading such books gets my temperature to rise.Speaking for myself,square foot gardening is a complete waste period and for most others for that matter.

    Everybody is entitled to have and express their own opinions,but not their own facts.That is why science is so awesome,because it is still the truth,even when people refuse to believe it.

    • Many gardening books are full of incorrect information. I think that in many cases the author is a writer, and not a gardener. so they copy a lot of material from other places.

      I like your last paragraph – very true.

  3. Hi Robert, I just stumbled on your site doing some research for our vegetable gardens. I have been an advocate of vegetable gardening for 20 years and doing raised beds for the past 9. I find the raised beds to be much easier to maintain. I initially build mind because I was having some back issues at the time, so I built mine tall and installed a rail I could sit on while weeding and harvesting. I basically stacked two 2x10s on top of eachother for the sides and made them 4’x8′. I also used compost, most of which I made myself for the soil.

    I totally agree that one does not need to buy a product like this to have good raised beds. I am curious about your statement about plastic leaching chemicals into plants. I did a quick search and the www seems to have conflicting reports on that. Do you have a source you can provide that explains how this happens?

    Also, when I built my beds 9 years ago, I was actually concerned about the lumber I was using. I wound up using pressure treated lumber but was concerned about that leaching chemicals into plants as well. Is there concern over that? What would you recommend using to construct a raised bed?

    • All plastics leach chemicals – that is well known. Even the plastic water bottles people buy do this.

      Do plants absorb the chemicals? That I am less sure about. Most chemicals will not be absorbed.

      The pressure treated wood produced in North America is now safe for vegetables gardens. low levels of leaching and any leaching that does happen does not travel far. I would use untreated wood. Lasts 8-10 years and can then be replaced.


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