Square foot gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the joy and rewards of growing their own edible garden.
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Gardening is a wonderful activity for kids and can benefit them in so many ways. Square foot gardening is a great strategy for helping kids get started on growing their own vegetables, flowers, and fruits — even if you’re not an expert gardener yourself. Working with a small and manageable space, get kids involved from the planning stage, ultimately making them even more invested in their garden and its care. And in the end, kids have an edible garden they can snack on and be proud of!
Our older son has always had a raised bed of his own. At the beginning it was used primarily for digging and playing in the dirt, but from a young age we had him involved in planning and planting his own edible garden. It’s been a source of great pride and delight! He helps draw out the plan, choose the plants, plant the seedlings or seeds, and — of course — harvest the bounty. And he loves eating his own home-grown vegetables! (Ok, he limits it to carrots, peas and tomatoes, but it’s a start!)
Gardening with Kids
So… What exactly is square foot gardening?
Square foot gardening is a method developed by Mel Bartholomew that “saves gardeners time, effort, tools, space and water”, with the goal of a larger yield in a smaller space. It aims to produce small, efficient, orderly and productive kitchen gardens.
The method involves dividing your garden plot into a grid of 1-foot squares. You then fill each of these squares with plants according to their recommended density. In general, the larger the plant, the fewer per square foot. (Tomatoes = 1 per square foot; radishes = 16 per square foot). This method works well for many vegetables and herbs, allowing you to grow quite a lot in a small space.
It involves less space, less digging, less weeding, less time, and is therefore a great entry-point for kids into the world of gardening.
The formal SFG method involves building a raised bed (which is great for kids) and filling it with a particular mix (1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 blended compost), but you can adapt it to your own needs. For the purposes of the post, I’m focusing more on the planning portion to get kids involved and invested. I give a general overview, but recommend you read Mel Bartholomew’s book — All New Square Foot Gardening — for more detailed information.
Why is square foot gardening good for kids?
Its gardens are compact and within reach.
Because it involves smaller spaces, square foot gardening is a great option for kids. Especially when using a raised bed, the garden space is easy to reach. But small doesn’t mean sparse — they can grow a lot in a small space. Within a single square foot, they can grow 16 carrots, 9 beets, 4 heads of lettuce, a tomato plant or 16 radishes!
It follows simple rules, helps kids make decisions.
Square foot gardening takes the guess work out of planning a garden, providing simple guidelines with lots of flexibility. It helps kids decide where to place each plant, and how many of each they can plant in the allotted space.
It involves simple mathematics.
Without being a formal math lesson, square foot gardening involves measuring (the size of their garden) and counting (the number of seeds/plants).
It teaches them broader scientific concepts.
Square foot gardening can introduce kids to the concept of symbiosis through companion planting — figuring out which plants make good friends and neighbors to each other (and which ones don’t).
Symbiosis: interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both [Oxford Dictionary]; any of several living arrangements between members of two different species, including mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. Both positive (beneficial) and negative (unfavourable to harmful) associations are therefore included [Encyclopedia Britannica]
Kids can help their garden thrive by learning which plants grow well in close proximity and which combinations to avoid.
[Don’t miss our free companion planting guide.]
It teaches the value of planning
In addition to making a more efficient and healthy garden, the planning stage is important to get kids invested from the onset. Our Garden Planner is especially useful in helping kids visualize and anticipate the end result. It helps get kids involved from the genesis of your plan, keeping them invested and interested.
How do we get started on square foot gardening?
1. Choose your bed/location
The first step to planning your garden is to choose its location and measure its size. Decide whether you’ll use an already-established space or build a raised bed.
Building a raised bed doesn’t have to be intimidating. You can buy a pre-made kit or build your own (instructions here and here). And don’t be daunted by the amount of soil needed — there are different options that your kids might really enjoy contributing to! (read more here or look into the Hugelkultur method)
2. Determine your bed’s size (how many square feet?)
Once you’ve determined your garden space, take its measurement to figure out how many square feet you’ll be working with. Get your kids involved in this step — it’s a great opportunity to and teach them how to use a tape measure!
3. Mark your grid
Back at your garden space, mark out your grid of one-foot squares. A few strategies include:
- lines drawn in the dirt (temporary)
- bamboo garden stakes placed on the soil
- string (attached to frame with nails or thumb tacks)
- long and straight sticks (your kids can help find them!)
- strips from an old blind
- lengths of molding
- pieces of strapping or lath
4. Sketch its template
Once you have your measurements (in feet), sketch out the bed’s general layout and draw a grid (line for each foot vertically and horizontally). Your kids can now calculate the number of square feet, either by multiplying the length by height, or by counting the number of squares.
5. Decide what you want to grow in your garden.
Talk to your kids about what they’d like to grow this season. You can:
- Go through a seed catalog together and see what sparks their interest.
- Think about fruits and vegetables that they enjoy.
- Talk about vegetables they would be willing to try.
- Consider a themed garden (pizza garden, taco garden, etc.).
- Use our Garden Planner and have the pick out the “tokens” of plants they would like to grow.
- Consider plants that are good choices for kids. (see section below)
Keep in mind that some plants can be planted straight from seed (peas, beans, carrots), others are best from established seedlings (tomatoes).
6. Decide on your garden’s layout
Once you’ve decided what to plant, or while you’re still making your decisions, draw out a plan for your garden and play around with its composition. Consider good neighbors by consulting a companion planting guide (get your copy here).
7. Get ready to plant!
(The next part may require more research on your part, unless you’re already an experienced gardener.)
Decide which ones to plant straight from a seed, and which ones to start with a seedling. Look into the right timing (e.g., peas can be planted early, others need to wait) and general planting guidelines.
Get your kids involved in the actual planting and decide together how often you will water and weed (if necessary). Talk about how long it might take for the plants to grow and what you might be able to harvest first. It will be fun for them to check on their garden’s progress!
8. Step back and watch them grow!
With occasional watering, weeding, and a big dose of love, your garden will thrive. Enjoy reaping the rewards of your hard work!
What will you grow in your garden?
Good choices for kids
You may find that some plants are easier to grow than others and can be more rewarding for kids. They may be fast growers, high producers, or easy to harvest. I recommend trying a few of the following:
- cherry tomatoes
- snap peas
- pumpkins (these require more space)
- zucchini (also requires more space)
Flowers can be pretty, edible and helpful
Consider adding a few flowers for aesthetic appeal, especially those that are beneficial to the vegetables around them. (Hello, symbiosis!) A few to consider:
- marigolds (deter pests, attract pollinators)
- nasturtiums (protect against squash bugs, act as trap crop, have edible flowers)
- zinnias, cosmos (attract pollinators and beneficial insects)
- calendula (traps pests, attracts beneficial insects)
If you need to spark interest, let’s be honest… Kids like new tools! If you want to get them even more excited about gardening, consider one of the following useful items the next time you give them a gift:
- gardening gloves (jersey) or gloves (w/ latex)
- gardening tools (rakes, hoe, shovel)
- gardening tool set (in their own tool case)
- rain boots (so cute!)
- gardening tool set (with tote)
- cultivator (for older kids)
- wheelbarrow (endless fun)
- wagon (Radio Flyer) or wagon (Green Toys)
- watering can + tools (100% recycled plastic)
- kneeling pad (feel free to borrow from them!)
And don’t miss our Garden Planner! With plant tokens and garden templates, this kit gives them a hands-on way to be involved, using the pieces to make a visual representation of your future garden.
Square foot gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the joys of an edible garden in a compact an accessible space. It involves planning, patience and pride, and may just convince them to try a new vegetable or two! What will you plant this year?