Image credit: Robert_Goodwin/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Lately there’s been a tremendous surge in interest in eating locally. There are Slow Food groups popping up all over the globe, books about eating food sourced within 100 miles from your home, and farmers markets becoming more common and trendy.

But what’s better than going to a farmers market and filling your cloth bags with your local farmer’s latest and greatest veggie? Well, how about stepping out on your porch or into your yard and picking some bright, juicy, delicious, home-grown tomatoes or some fragrant basil?

Too much work, you say? Ever heard of square-foot gardening?

Two years ago, I was introduced to square-foot Gardening at a class at my local “green living” store, IndigoGreen. We promptly went home and gathered the materials to put together our garden and several weeks later, we had our first crop!

Square foot gardening can be done anywhere you have 6 to 8 hours of sun daily — so even a fire escape with 1-square-foot will do if that’s what you’ve got to work with.

The ideal situation is a 4×4 foot space where you can place a garden box. The garden box is just 4 boards, some nails, and a barrier at the bottom to keep the weeds and grass from growing through. The quality of your soil doesn’t matter because you mix up your own with supplies from a local garden or farm and feed store.

If you compost your kitchen waste, even better: You can use this in place of the recommended cow manure compost that makes up 1/3 of the soil mixture. The other 2/3 is made of equal parts vermiculite and peat moss.

Once you divide up your 1-foot-square plots with string or other material, you are ready to start planting your very own organic garden.

Our square-foot garden has become a great family project that my 3-year-old has been involved in ever since he could grab a hand full of dirt. Now he has his own square foot to plant whatever he likes. The box design reduces work because weeding and thinning becomes unnecessary.

And it is incredibly productive. Just one 4×4 box can produce up to 5 times the produce that a traditional garden of the same size would yield, while using 90% less water and 95% fewer seeds. And the best benefit? It’s free of pesticides and fertilizers that harm sensitive environments.

Why do I, a marine biologist, care about pesticides and fertilizers? Well, putting aside the potential ill effects on human health, they also cause harm to waterways and ocean environments.

After being applied to your yard or garden, these chemicals make their way to local streams and rivers, eventually finding their way to the sea. Adding both toxins and excess nutrients (i.e., fertilizers) creates problems in the sensitive ocean environments, causing events such as red tides, which is a type of harmful algal bloom being seen more and more frequently these days.

When these algal blooms occur, oxygen gets sucked up by the tiny algae, making the water unlivable for resident sea life — thus causing massive die-offs of fish, shrimp, crabs and numerous other small creatures.

So planting your own backyard garden not only gives you food that’s as local as it gets, it also reduces your impact on the ocean.

It doesn’t matter where you live: As a famous fish cartoon character says: “all drains lead to the ocean.” So next time you start to sprinkle that fertilizer, remember where it is likely to end up.

And learn more about other ways you can green your gardening to help protect our waterways in my previous post on green lawn care.

(Image credit: Robert_Goodwin/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Awesomeness.

  2. Uses of chemical fertilisers and Pesticides should be banned worldwide. Not only this, chemical dyes and many other industrial chemical products/aerosols should be banned.

  3. I really like the idea of growing your food locally, especially its through Organic Farming. I have been practicing and promoting a similar version of agriculture called Back Yard Gardening to grow your favorite vegetables organically. In this method you require a very limited area in your back yard (or anywhere around your house)as in Square-Foot Garden. You can also successfully cultivate vegetables in bags/sacks filled with soil or soil substitutes placed in any place where you can get ample of sun shine. The advantages are many: 1) You get chemical free healthy vegetables, 2) You help the nature by avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides 3) You get your mind relaxed amidst the stressful life (Psychological impact!) 4) Your children gets a chance to learn from nature and its ways of sustaining life (Ultimately helping them to grow as person respecting mother nature and concerned for it survival)

  4. we are developing a project in Costarica based in permaculture and mariculture.Interested people of any knid please contact

  5. Square foot gardening sounds good – but peat moss is not environmentally friendly.

  6. Wow never would have guessed

  7. Are you familiar with Happy Gardener products? It used no manures, no synthetics or othr pesticides. It’s lawn care products are made from sustainable harvested ocean plants.

  8. Although I applaud the efforts to get people to grow their own, how about a soil mix that doesn’t include a non-renewable resource like peat moss (largely drawn from wetlands in Canada and other northern locales)?

  9. i will try.

  10. Lots of research has been done into peat free growing mediums, by the RHS and many others, with successful outcomes, and they are easily available in the UK- don’t know about the US. It is really rather surprising that the use of peat is still being recommended 🙁

  11. I think the algae increase rapidly in numbers and then they are short lived and the die-off and resulting decomposition processes are actually what result in the depletion of oxygen for other organisms…including fish.

  12. I am always interested in natural gardening this would be a good start for me.

  13. The most important aspect of square-foot gardening, namely,
    the number of vegetable plants per square foot was OMITTED from this article.

    1. Joyce, why don’t you help us out and give us some guidelines?

  14. Joyce – you are right that I didn’t include all the details about square foot gardening – I was hoping people would check out the link to the SFG site, and go straight to the source – because there is so much more to it. Also – the comments on peat moss are noted and although it is the recommended option for square foot gardening – I agree that it is not the most sustainable choice. Would love to hear suggestions on better alternatives and perhaps I can include in a future blog. Thanks for all of your comments!

  15. not only garden juts put tree near in our home this is important,,,i have here in house all kind of natural medicine plant and vegetable, its a long time to think hope all people love a nature planting any kind of tree and plant food

  16. please don’t use chemicals this is not good for health use natural

  17. Sweet. I think I will do this with my 5 year old nephew!

  18. I have been farming by the square-foot/raised bed method, and even do the Three Sisters Garden (q.v.). I refer to my garden as Self-Sufficient, as my aim is self-sufficiency. Good crop rotation, mulching, seed saving, and companion planting are also important to the development of a self-regenerating soil and garden or farm.

    But let me respond to the commenters who say things like “ban all pesticides”: at current states of knowledge and population, that is nothing less than a prescription for mass murder. Period. The current world cannot be sustained by the type of growing practices that we employ, no matter what your Utopian wants and desires may be. Also, to those who worry about “chemicals”: any given fruit or root contains on the order of ~3000 separate chemical substances, so “chemical-free” food does not exist. Again: Period. And nature does not know the difference between “natural” and “man-made” chemicals: the endogenous (“natural”)pesticides in foods can be just as odious as the “man-made” varieties. As I am NEITHER a creationist NOR a believer in “Intelligent Design”, I have to accept that humans and all our products are “natural”. If anyone thinks natural products are all “cool”, consider cobra venom; further, the cytochrome P450 family of liver enzymes that protect us from exogenous chemical insults have evolved to protect us, as well as fish, etc., from a broad range of substances. Therefore, nature has never been “pristine”; if it was, we would not have the defenses we do; I hate to burst everyone’s bubble here, but as someone dedicated to science, I am forced to present the view that low concentrations of man-made pesticides in natural waters CANNOT represent unique insults. Garden as a means toward freedom; not a means toward tyranny.

  19. I have tried the square foot gardening method and it didn’t work as well as I would have hoped. Maybe I needed better compost. That’s all I can figure. The crops were pretty pathetic.

    This year I am making a more traditional garden. I have spent most of my time and money building a big fence to keep the deer out this year. Making good organic soil is my biggest challenge.

    I think if we can make good soil then the garden will grow wonderfully. I plan to use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

  20. I love my square foot gardening. I have been doing this type of gardening for the past 4 years and I am expanding every year.

  21. I like your vantage point. My research has shown your ideas to be true, but I have also heard the opposite from other sites like this one. Do you have any thoughts for locating more quality information on gardening or related topics? I would most appreciate it!

  22. As I was reading what I thought was going to be a great article on gardening, I was struck with a slap in the face regarding being “GREEN”.

    Your article said to use peat moss! Peat is not a sustainable source. With our world peatlands disappearing, how could you even suggest peat? For Petes sake don’t use peat, use cor.

    Cor, also spelt coir is a 100% organic medium for assisting growth and blossom development. Cor prevents plants from dying and withering by retaing air and moisture and allowing better drainage.

    What is cor? Cor comes from coconut husks and is a waste product of the coco fiber industry. Coirís structure is similar to that of peat, but its pH is higher (5.5-6.0). It holds up to nine times its weight in water.

    So I recomment that as a “GREEN” writer, you would suggest using this product, for it is sustainable.

    Sonia Nazar

  23. Using organic compost is one of the best way to promote green living and helps to protect the environment. Square foot gardening can uses home made compost from organic kitchen waste.Regards, composter

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