Square foot gardening takes less space, time

KENNEWICK -- The secret is out.

More people are growing their own vegetables than ever before.

According to the Garden Writers Association, American gardeners will be spending more money on growing veggies than on lawn care this year. Lawn care had taken the top dollar award for several years.

While home gardeners will be growing more veggies, they probably will be looking for ways to conserve space in the garden, since the average size of yards has declined in recent years. So what can be done to make the most of both space and time?

Square foot gardening is a vegetable gardening concept that appeals to both engineers and gardeners who want to make the most of their gardening space.

Mel Bartholomew, a retired civil engineer, introduced the concept in his 1981 book, Square Foot Gardening. Instead of planting in rows, Mel divides the garden space into a grid of one foot squares.

Plants are placed based on the space they need in this square foot scheme, such as one tomato plant or eight pole beans in one square foot. Cool season crops such as spinach are planted first, harvested and then replaced later with warm season crops, like tomatoes and squash.

The concept includes raised beds that are 4-by-4 feet, 4-by-8 feet, or even 4-by-12 feet. Raised beds are supposed to eliminate the need to till every year and also make weed management easier. While it's intensive gardening, Bartholomew designed it to be efficient, both less labor and less space than traditional row crop gardening while producing more veggies per square foot of garden area.

You can find out more at or look for his newest book All New Square Foot Gardening.

You can see square foot gardening in action in the WSU Master Gardener Demonstration Garden in Kennewick. One of the raised beds in the Vegetable Theme Garden is a square-foot garden.

Another trend in vegetable gardening is "edible landscapes" or incorporating edibles among landscape and flowering ornamentals. Many vegetables can be quite ornamental and even exotic looking, such as "Bright Lights" swiss chard with dark green crinkled leaves contrasted by their bright yellow, pink and purple stems.

One particularly ornamental vegetable is rhubarb, especially the variety with red stalks. I'm growing one in my landscape just for its large dark green leaves.

Even a bush zucchini squash can look intriguing with its large green mottled leaves. Consider bush forms of veggies with colorful fruit, such as purple-podded bush beans or golden peppers, to add color to the landscape.

Herbs such as sage and rosemary also tend to be very ornamental and fit particularly well in low-water use landscapes.

Edible landscapes also can include fruit growing, such as planting a plum tree for one of your smaller flowering trees. There are also ornamental groundcover strawberries that have small edible fruit. Grapes can provide both an attractive arbor or pergola cover while also producing fruit.

So as you plant your garden this year, consider ways that you can make the most of the growing space you have available without having to plow up large areas for a labor-intensive garden.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.