Square Foot Gardening Soil

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137 Responses

  1. Emily MySFG says:

    Compost is a mixture of decomposed materials. Manure is plain manure, or manure mixed with hay, wood chips, etc. Steer manure should be avoided (they feed the cattle salt to fatten them up, and the high content of salt is bad for your garden). Garden soil is probably a mix of ingredients–possibly dirt, peat moss, compost, fertilizer, etc. If you are trying to make this mix, get PEAT MOSS, VERMICULITE, and COMPOST (as many different kinds as you can find).

  2. Mtn Bike Ken says:

    Define compost.
    I have always mixed my own getting supplies from the Home Box stores, ie Home Depot, etc. and mixed them: 1/3 manure, 1/3 garden soil, 1/3 amendment.
    Am I missing the bought by not using compost or is this a generic name for ………?



    S. Calif.

  3. Michael simmons says:

    p.p.s please do not buy “weed block” when your neighbors rake and bag up leaves for you to simply pick up. as least now where i live (gainesville fl) everyone uses thick paper bags for yard waste instead of plastic. The bad news is that we are allowing a Incinerator to be built near by for power instead of building a biochar plant and doing more solar (which we are doing a lot of, in fact every city should do as we are doing(the German system)

    so in a few years our yard waste plus added trees will be burned in this plant to make electric power.

    instead we could turn 70% of the yard waste into biochar and use the other 30% for fuel to run the plant and make a little energy.

  4. Michael simmons says:

    p.s. I’ve been making my own BIOCHAR & CHARCOAL for years now. it is the biggest 5000 year old thing to hit gardening. Look up Biochar!

    and as far as mixing soil. I use several 7-12 gallon black plastic, planting pots. I add levels of mix in (a few inches of this and then a few inches of this etc), use a small shovel to mix, flip the own thing into the next planter and mix it again. simple, easy and everything stays in the pots until i need it.

  5. Michael simmons says:

    People “buy” what some call “compost”? Amazing…………….I collect 300-400 bags of Oak leaves a year that people leave out for the garbage. Then i use grass clippings to compost them or simply use them on top as a heat and weed block (I live in a very hot area of Florida). i also dig down a couple of feet and add a layer which helps hold water and keeps other roots out. They are FREE and going to a LANDFILL, save them and use them. I also add Perlite and red clay to my mixture. I do use “raised” or square foot” gardens but i mostly make double to triple wide beds and fill the middles with leaves to decay, keep my steps from compressing the ground etc etc. till, i make a lot of them (raised gardens) for others because they do not have my tiller and I guess, the will to use a hoe like i can. Because my grandmother taught me to be country strong.

  6. Emily says:

    I think it’s best to kill the weeds (remove them) and then put down weed mat, and then put down soil. Soil 8-15″, depending on your situation.

  7. Carol says:

    Is it a good idea to leave weeds under, covered with something to kill them off, like thick plastic? How deep should the soil be?

  8. Raymond Kennie Sr. says:

    my above ground is different than yours. I have 7 boxes 18″ wide by 16 ft. long by 8″ high. In these I plant tomatoes, sweet peppers, peas, green beans, carrots, and broccoli. I also have two boxes 2 ft. sq. by 8″ deep for zucchini and another squash that I alternate each year and one more box 3 ft. by 8 ft. for cukes All this is fenced in a 22 ft. by 50 ft. garden space. This supplies me with enough veggies for three families for the summer, me for the winter, and a friends restaurant with veggies for the summer. I started 15 years ago with mels mix and now short cut using Schultz’s potting soil good for 9 months of plant nutrients. I also add Mushroom compost one year and moo poo the next. Have had wonderful success so far but my gardening days are numbered as I just passed my 75th birthday. I start my plants indoors in nothing more than peat moss pellets and peat moss containers. Last year had 98% germination with seed purchased from j.w. jung seed company. Hope this post helps others. All my friends call me pops.

  9. Renee says:

    We tried sfg last year for the first time. With the help of a book and Mels mixture, we had a great little garden. This year we expanded and tried the local mix. I have to say the money we saved was not worth it. Had problems with weeds, root rot, even tried adding more amends and soil but was a disappointing season. Lots of work and the results were no where as good as last year.

  10. Jeannine Nystrom says:

    Hi Emily,
    I did Mel’s mix for my vegetables. Do you recommend putting marigolds in my planter to keep away certain bugs. I have put a chicken coup structure around it to keep cats and raccoons away.

  11. Emily says:

    I think the softened water may be part of the problem, but it also sounds like it needs nutrients, especially nitrogen. Try fertilizer, either chemical or organic.

  12. Jerome Wille says:

    We have started the sqare foot gardening a year ago. Both years our tomatos, peppers, cabage and onions start to turn yellow after about 3 weeks. We water it with water supplied by the city and it also goes through the softener. Could you tell me what the problem maybe?

  13. Emily says:

    I don’t think the potting soil is a good alternative. I would probably go with the local compost.

  14. Mike says:

    So I live in a small town, no big box stores only an Ace Hardware. My question is thay sell there house brand compost with no info on whats in it. The other choice is FoxFarms Ocean Forrest potting soil. Can I substitute the potting soil for the compost?

  15. Judith says:

    Many thanks! You have been really helpful. I have enough mix from last year to replenish the beds that have settled – and then I’ll simply add a variety of compost in the successive years. Yeah!

    Again, thanks – and I’ll bet that you have also helped other second year sfg gardeners with this advice.

  16. Emily says:

    If you have Mel’s mix left over from last year, you can go ahead and use it to fill the beds for this year. You’ll want to turn the soil since it settles quite a bit, and mix it well. If you don’t have enough to completely fill the beds, just add compost. The peat moss and vermiculite should last several years or longer–you just need to replenish with compost. Try to use as many types as possible (from many sources, chicken, cow (not steer), horse, mushroom, turkey, etc.)

  17. Judith says:

    I’ll be starting my second year of sfg and have a lot of Mel’s Mix from last year. Three questions:
    1) Is the mix still OK to use after overwintering (I’m in MIchigan)?
    2) If the mix is still OK, should I put a layer of it on my raised beds or just mix in some compost for this second year?
    3) If the mix is OK, I figure that I should till it with the mix left in the beds from last year – right?

    Hope you can answer this – I have not been able to find out about this anywhere else. The book only talks about preparing and using the mix for the first year of sfg.

  18. Emily says:

    Jackie–As long as there’s a bit of a slope, I don’t think the newspaper will be a problem. However, if the garden is in the lowest spot in the yard, you may have poor drainage.

  19. Emily says:


    Compost is decomposed organic material. In the US, most compost is made of one main ingredient. So chicken compost is mainly composed of chicken manure mixed with tree bark. Because the bulk of the compost comes from one source, it provides limited nutrients to the plants. So I suggest combining as many types of compost as possible. They also sell good mixes that contain ingredients from several sources. These are ideal, but I still try to use a variety. I think of it as eating vegetables–broccoli is good for you, but if all you eat is broccoli you will not get the vitamins and minerals you need. A variety of vegetables is required.

  20. JACRAV says:

    Hello Emily
    I intend to start a square foot garden but i am a little bit confused about the different composts necessary.
    Here in France we call compost the stuff that comes from composting plants and TERREAU the different mixtures one finds in bags at special shops in which one finds compost and a lot of other different materials like see weeds horse manure worm manure etc! Now when different sorts of compost are recommended are the compost made out of different materials or do they correspond to what we call TERREAU or MIX for you,
    I will appreciate your view of my problem in understanding of what I should do.
    Thank you for your help

  21. Jackie Brown says:

    Starting my first SFG in an area with a lot ot grass & weeds. I thought I might lay down some pages of newspaper before I put down the weed block fabric to deter the weeds. My husband thinks this may affect the water drainage. Is this a good idea or not? Thanks for your help.

  22. Emily says:

    Yes, but it’s not the biggest bang for your buck. Pumpkins take up to 8 squares for one plant–compare that to growing 2 large tomato plants, or 8 squares of green beans, etc. I like having a nice area where my pumpkins can sprawl, and use my SFG beds for more compact veggies.

  23. Tess says:

    Can I grow pumpkins in SFG?

  24. Brooks says:

    Emily, thank you so much for all of this information! I’m starting my first SFG and was beginning to panic bc I had no idea what to do about the soil…I am headed out now to by the mixing ingredients and can’t wait! I am building just a 4x4x12″ bed, and have actually raised it up and set it on a wooden bottom, (as a renter and a digging-dog owner, I felt this was the best way to start,) but I wanted to ask how you felt about this type of bed…should I drill the bottom for drainage?

    Thanks again!

  25. Emily says:

    Doug–Each plant has different watering needs, and Mel’s Mix doesn’t guarantee you’ll meet that need, but can’t drown a plant like you can with regular soil.

  26. doug hicken says:

    do you still believe you can’t overwater with mel’s mix?

  27. Emily says:

    Miracle grow contains fertilizer, so that explains the increased growth.

  28. Emily says:

    I would add some mulch or compost + peat moss. Apply as thick as you can, considering the plant. If it’s one per square, you can even leave a little “well” by the stalk to water it. And if you have the means, you could build an irrigation system to water it more evenly.

  29. Heather says:

    Hi Emily,
    I wish I’d found your site before putting my sfg together, but, oh well. I followed Mel’s Mix as strictly as possible and things are coming up nicely except that I can’t seem to water gently enough. The soil is SO friable it washes around when I water. I’ve used a cup and watering can, same thing for both. I am finding veggies growing in the wrong squares because the seeds washed away upon watering. This is annoying, to say the least. How can I make my soil more stable now that I have seedlings and small plants? Thank you!

  30. Emily says:

    I would test the soil to see what’s wrong. Normally you don’t need to test, but before you throw it all away, find out what is wrong and fix it.

  31. Anne says:

    Last year, I set up my first “square foot garden” following your recipe for Mel’s mix, and I had a successful growing season. This year, I decided to create another 4×4 sf garden, and I thought I followed the recipe fairly closely, although I used a different mix of compost. Almost all of the vegetables that I planted in the new garden have died. Any suggestions?

  32. Emily says:

    In Utah you can buy it pre-made, but it’s EXPENSIVE (like $10 for 1 cubic foot, I think). But many garden centers sell some sort of garden soil mix, which might be worth a try, for simplicity sake.

  33. Stacey says:

    Hi there,
    I’m just getting into SFG and super excited to try it out this year. I’m struggling with where to put the garden because we mostly get shade but we’ll start small and see how we do.

    Can you buy “Mel’s Mix” already pre-made? Or would that be just too easy? I’m just wondering for convenience sake and for buying in bulk whether any of these materials come already mixed together?


  34. Emily says:

    Becky–I would ask the people who run the composting facility if it’s safe or not. I know we have local bulk sources like this, and some say it’s safe while others say it’s black gold and they garden in straight compost. I think you have a shot–the other MUST haves are seeds and transplants (for things like tomatoes and peppers that need more time than the season allows).

  35. Becky says:

    Thank you so much for your detailed website. I need all the help I can get since I have a black thumb.
    I am hoping to get my first ever garden set up this weekend here in WI. I know that I’m already a little late in starting. I’m also trying to spend the least $$ possible. I can buy 1 yard screened yardwast compost from the county for $5. Is this safe to use? If so what else is a MUST to add to have a successful garden?
    My bed needs to go on a hill since that is the only sunny spot in the yard. Any other advice?
    Thanks Again

  36. Emily says:

    Kim–I just prefer to cut the cost a bit by using more compost. Those 4 types will be fine–I don’t know if cattle manure is the same as steer? Steer are fed a high salt diet, and the salt in the manure is not good for gardens. Ask if the same is true for cattle.

    I find it nearly impossible to find 5 different types, I just do my best and count it good. 🙂

  37. kim says:

    I recently purchased Mel’s book and it says to use 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost. You seem to be suggesting to others here to use 1/4 peat moss, 1/4 vermiculite and 1/2 compost. What should I be doing? My next question is about compost. The only compost I can find so far is mushroom compost, shrimp compost, sheep compost, and cattle manure compost. I can’t seem to find a 5th type as suggested in the book. Do I really need a 5th? Are any of the ones I’ve found not good for a vegetable garden? Please advise.

    Thank you!