Fall is the Best Time of the Year to Plant a Square Foot Garden

When is the best time of year to plant a Square Foot Garden? The answer is … fall time. Does that surprise you? When do most people start their first garden? Answer… spring time. Why the difference? Remember that song from Fiddler on the Roof? It talks about tradition, folks, tradition. Think about your winters and if you are a gardener or just like yard work and growing things, in most parts of the country, you are housebound all winter long. If you’re a row gardener, you’ve forgotten all the weeds that made you so tired last summer that you actually threw down your hoe and abandoned your garden about the beginning of September. You justified that action by saying the famous White Sox cry of, “Just wait 'til next year”. Then starting right after New Years Day, all those seed catalogs start arriving. And before winter was half over, you couldn't wait until spring came so you could start gardening again. After all, that was tradition!

Of course if you are row gardening, the first step is to find all of your digging tools, which you probably find dirty and rusty laying outside somewhere. But after cleaning them up, you’re ready to start digging up your garden soil, as you must do every spring. Why? To loosen and improve your existing soil. Unfortunately, it’s still cold out and your garden soil is still wet and mucky from winter rains and snow. The result is that your boots gain twice their weight and you track muddy footprints wherever you walk. Once you have been able to dig up your soil, loosen it and mix in all that good compost and horse manure you were able to get, it’s time to lay out those rows and plant those seeds. Of course no one mentioned you’re walking all over the newly loosened soil and packing it down again.

The next thing that most people don’t understand or know is that seeds take a long time to sprout when it’s cold, and then they wonder why the seeds they planted haven’t started growing yet. All of the above descriptions and factors involved are things that I observed when I retired from my engineering company and took up gardening as a hobby, thinking it would be a fun and relaxing endeavor. Ha! ALL that work, and every year, it was the same routine. You’ve probably read that story in all of my books. I asked all the gardening experts, "Why do we do this every year?" Their answer was, "Cause that’s the way we’ve always done it.” All of those spring conditions convinced me there has to be a better way to have a backyard garden without that continual cycle of wet, mucky soil needing all that digging every spring. Then there’s the continual summer weeds overtaking the garden despite promises that "this year is going to be different." And finally, the abandonment of the big row garden way out back every fall. It was so predictable… the cycle repeated year after year.

That’s why I invented a new way to garden. Square Foot Gardening requires little work, no tools, no digging, no weeding, no fertilizer, and it's all organic and all natural.

As it turns out, all of the principles of Square Foot Gardening, when put together, solve every one of those problems and undesirable conditions. First of all, there are no weeds in SFG because we cover our existing soil with weed fabric, lay down our boxes, and fill them with Mel’s Mix which contains no weed seeds. Hence, no weeds in your growing soil. Next, the springtime advantages all evolve around that same box of perfect soil, which not only holds water for summer growing, but drains well for springtime weather. How can it do both things? Think of it just like a sponge. It holds water, yet when fully saturated, it drains out excess water…literally. The SFG boxes also allow the warming of the soil in springtime if you add a simple dome cover over each box as shown in my books, which warms up the soil much earlier and ready for planting. All of this is accomplished with no digging. Those are just some of the no work advantages of the SFG system.

Now here is the real reason I like fall gardening. Remember the length of time it takes for a seed to sprout depends mostly on the temperature of the soil. For example, in the chart in the 2nd edition of the All New SFG book on page 262, it shows if you’re going to plant carrots and the average temperature of the soil in spring might be 40 degrees. Those carrot seeds won’t sprout for almost two months! Yet when they are planted in September when the soil temperature will be between 60-70 degrees, the same carrot seeds will sprout in only one week.

Use that chart through the whole year so you know when to expect your newly planted seeds to sprout and pop up their little green heads to say hello. Another advantage to the SFG system: I want you to look on page 262 for the percentage of germination. In the cold springtime, only half of those seeds will sprout whereas in September, over 95% will sprout. Those astonishing facts are the reason I put all these different charts in my books. They are not only helpful but extremely interesting. In fact, they make good opportunities for the kids to do a scientific experiment and report for school.

So we have just seen some of the very favorable events that will happen when you compare a fall garden to a spring garden. Let’s fast forward both of those times of year for the same crop. Let’s pick lettuce this time. As the plants finally grow to maturity in the springtime and it’s getting close to summer, it gets warmer and warmer until it is hot. The lettuce doesn’t like this heat and it tells itself, "my days are limited and I have to produce some seeds -- that is my mission in life." So all of the energy goes away from making tasty leaves and they become bitter with that lack of nutrients. Then the plant pushes up a central stalk with pretty flowers, which turn into seeds for next year’s crop. What good is a garden if you can’t eat from it? Some of you might say, "But I can grow my own seeds and save a lot of money." I say that might make an interesting experiment for the kids, but why waste that garden space and grow 50 seeds when you know a packet of perfect seeds grown by the professionals contain about 1,200 seeds! Remember in SFG, we plant only a pinch in each spaced hole. Not an entire packet along a long single row. Your garden space is better used for growing edible vegetables and herbs during that same time period.

Fast forward to fall time. You plant a few squares of that same lettuce in September and the seeds will sprout in, believe it or not, three days instead of two weeks in spring. But as the plant grows and matures, what happens to the outside temperature? As fall continues, it gets cooler and cooler and the plant slows down but never goes to seed. So you can continue harvesting lettuce leaves right up until the plant is killed by the first freeze.

But wait there’s more, as they say in those irritating infomercials, you bring out that spring dome structure, cover your box with clear plastic to protect the plants from the evening frost, and even the colder freezes with a blanket cover at night. The plant just keeps growing slower but is still very edible. In most parts of America, you can harvest a Thanksgiving salad for everyone right from your Square Foot Garden right outside the dining room windows. Talk about a gourmet meal with a pretty view! You'll become the toast of the town.

If that’s not everything you need to convince you that you must have a fall garden, think of the working weather conditions if you are going to build new boxes, mix your Mel’s Mix, and start planting in early spring. It’s cold, wet, miserable and sometimes even nasty out. Your fingers get frozen and you wonder, "why am I doing this?" Your best consolation in early spring is to look over your fence at your crazy neighbor who’s still digging up his big huge garden and at least you don’t have to do that anymore. Which reminds me, I didn’t even mention, your SFG is only 1/5 or 20% of the size of your neighbor’s mammoth-sized row garden, yet you both produce about equal amounts of harvest. Of course, your much smaller garden doesn’t have to be way out back anymore, it can be up close to your house where it is more visible, enjoyable, and easily protected.

Again fast forward from springtime installation to an addition to your SFG in the fall. It’s beautiful weather, warm, sunny and pleasant. Aside from raking leaves and chopping them up for your compost pile, there’s not that much to do. There’s no hard work. So it’s a pleasure to put together a couple of boxes, mix together Mel’s Mix, and start a fall garden.

I know the numbers are sometimes complicated for making your own Mel's Mix and that’s why we sell the Mel’s Mix already bagged and ready for shipping from our online store, or with free pickup from our Columbia, South Carolina headquarters if you're near that area.

What are you going to plant in the fall? Guess what, the same thing you planted in the springtime. They are called "cool weather plants," and they include most of the leaf and root types of vegetables, as shown on page 269 of All New Square Foot Gardening. How are they different from the summer crops? Guess what summer crops are called? "Warm weather vegetables" and they include mostly the fruit crops. Botanically speaking, fruits are anything that produces its own seed inside itself, such as tomatoes, peppers and melons. See how easy I’ve made gardening for you?


OK last comparison, there are four quarters of the year, and most row gardeners do a spring and summer garden. Now, how’s your math? Ask the kids! That’s 50% or one-half of the year. With SFG, now you can and should plant an additional fall crop so you utilize three quarters or 75 % of the year. If you are thrifty like me, and good at math like all engineers are, that’s a 50% increase in your garden production compared to a two-season planting. And if you live in the southern states, adding that same simple dome I mentioned previously, you can continue to grow many of those same cool weather crops all winter long.

You can achieve all this in the fall, at no more cost and with very little effort at the most pleasant time of the year. There is no rush, no other big house and cleaning chores to do. Try It. I guarantee you will love fall gardening as much as I do. It really is the best time of year to plant a garden.