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Growing it in squares

Square metre block polyveg gardening


Developed from Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening* concept, Square Metre Block Polyveg Gardening is the use of small raised beds for intensive planting of a mixture of vegetable varieties.


*The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his 1981 book of the same name in which he combines concepts from other organic approaches, including a strong focus on compost, raised beds and intensive attention to a small, defined plot. The method is well suited to gardens with poor soil,  and is easy for beginning gardeners and those with access difficulties. It fits easily into small urban spaces.


The raised bed should be accessible from all sides with a path wide enough to work from, and it can be sited on the ground, or be made with a base that includes drainage holes, and placed on a stand at table top height for easy working. The bed is divided into approximately one square foot units by slats or string to keep the units visible as plants grow.


The individual squares

Seeds or plug plants are planted in each square to give a range of produce: overplanting and wastage of seed is reduced, and there is no need to thin out seedlings. Large plants may need a square each, while medium plants can be grown 9 to a square. Small plants like carrots can be grown 16 to a square. Squash or cucumbers are grown vertically, like peas and beans, on a frame with netting for support. The frame can be fixed on the north side of the raised bed where it will not shade out other crops. If using a six inch deep raised bed, crops that need more depth can be grown in an integral 12 inch deep section with higher sides giving a higher planting surface or room for earthing up. This inner box can be placed in any suitable square.


Why a raised bed?

Raised beds avoid soil compaction and are easy to work. Additional garden compost can be added to each section when crops are harvested. The empty square can then be planted with something else appropriate to the upcoming season, giving extended cropping from just one small plot.  A blended mixture of quality soil ingredients used to fill the bed so that there are no weed seeds in it to germinate, thereby reducing maintenance. Soil fertility is optimum and remains so over time, and the state of the actual garden soil is irrelevant.  Watering is easily done by hand, and can utilize grey domestic water (washing up water is good for plants because it contains phosphates) or rain water.This is especially helpful in areas with hosepipe bans and for those on water meters.


The plot is compact and can easily be sited near the house (Zone 1 in Permaculture terms), so it will receive close attention because the gardener passes it every day and can see at a glance what tending or cropping is needed. The close proximity of plants in the squares generates a ‘living mulch’ which inhibits weed seed germination in the top layer of the compost, moderates conditions by providing shady microclimates, and helps conserve moisture so reducing water requirements.


This approach to a polyveg system is especially helpful for beginners. In Permaculture the use of micro ‘forest garden’ growing systems in polyveg beds mixes up all the various plants to resemble miniature woodland – with root rops, low growing green plants, herbs, tall plans, shade creating spreading plants and climbers – all making use of the different vertical possibilities to give intensive crops in a small space.  However, beginners may find this daunting as the method requires the gardener to identify weeds as opposed to living mulch cover crops at an early stage, to be able to judge how much of any cover crop to oversow (usually mustard or rocket), and to thin it out once it has served its purpose and before it takes over and becomes a pest.


This square metre approach, with its blocks of planting, can similarly utilise the different vertical layers available, and the intensive planting will shade and protect the surface of the soil to prevent weed growth and soil dryness. Companion plants can be placed for beneficial effect, and the beginner knows how many of everything should be in each square so can easily identify and remove interlopers early on. It is also much easier to replant squares as they fall vacant during the growing season, so maximizing productivity.


If the box is sited on reasonable garden soil, plants can reach down into it below the 6 inch compost layer. If garden soil is problematic with incursion of weeds from underground, a layer of weed barrier material to allow drainage can be laid under the box.  If the box is to go on a tabletop, it will need a marine ply bottom with drainage holes. It could be made with a frame support, with legs at one end and wheels at the other to enable it to be moved around, which could be useful to take advantage of different areas of shade and sun.




How to make a square metre raised bed




See How To sheet.


Frame for climbers

We used Bilda Balls for fixing and sturdy aluminium tube from Harrod Horticultural. You can also buy tube direct from steel stockholders - see yellow pages for firms in your area. Use 16mm dia for uprights and 12.7mm for horizontals so they fit the Bilda Balls. Steel rod spikes to go in the ground to anchor the tube to the ground can be bought from the same place or from a local blacksmith. Check it fits in the tube easily.


Wide aperture pea and bean netting (sometimes called Trellinet) is ideal to cover the frame.




Raised bed (approx)


Tubular aluminium Frame:

2 x 5ft (16mm thick gauge) = 6.65

1 x 1 metre (12.7mm thick gauge) = 2.16

corner fixings:

bildaballs 2 = 0.82

total= 9.63


plus pea & bean netting and wire ties

plus 2x 2ft iron bars to secure uprights  (£1.20 each?) (or drive tube uprights 1ft into ground and secure to frame (use 1ft longer upright tubes to allow for sinking into soil)

optional extra – 2 pipe clamps and 4 screws – to further secure the uprights to the back of the raised bed frame.



Raised bed 6 or 12 inch deep –

Note: You could buy the Wyevale easy assemble 12 inch deep model for £40



use untreated timber or interior carcassing softwood - this, if treated, should be pressure treated with Tanalith -E which is based on copper and boron, and said to be safe for plants and animals by Garden Organics. Do not use exterior tanalised timber as the chemical treatment contains an arsenic compound which can leech into soil and be taken up in plants.

Dimensions: 12 inch deep x 1 inch thick)= <15-00

+screws if used



Growing medium


A4ft square x 12 in deep bed requires = 16cu ft of growing medium.


You will need:

3 large bags compost for 12 inch deep bed. £15

(or equivalent compost material)

(optional – replace 1 bag compost with  Irish moss peat and




Our own 12 deep square metre raised bed was filled with:


1 bag of Cwm Harry soil improver

1.75 bags multi purpose compost

1 bag Irish moss peat

2.5 L horticultural vermiculite

6 scoops rock dust

6 scoops lime (because we used Peat Moss – so regulating any acidity)

1 scoop mycelium granules

6 scoops seaweed meal


* I used a top dressing of plain compost for the 2 inch surface layer so the mix would not be too rich for new seedlings as they germinate.


Planting your raised square metre bed


Square metre polyveg planting guide

(square meter divided into 9 squares of approx 11cm)


in any 30cm/12inch square plant:

(seeds or plug plants)


16 carrot, spring onion, radish, peas


9 beetroot, leek, garlic, calendula, onion sets, chives, coriander, rocket


4 swiss chard, spinach, pak choi, lettuce, parsley, dwarf French bean


2 runner bean, broad bean, cucumber


1 broccoli, cabbage, kale, sweetcorn, squash


In each square metre:

1 marrow, courgette,


My 24 favourites


Broad beans, dwarf French beans, climbing French beans, peas, carrots, red beetroot, white beetroot, celery leaf, lettuce, courgette, flat parsley, onions, cucumber, corn, squash, marigolds, leeks, swiss chard, salad potatoes, rocket, Bucklet leaf sorrel, nasturtium, Chinese broccoli, flat kale


If I had to choose 12 favourites:

White beetroot - gives edible spinach-like leaves plus roots

Chinese broccoli – gives leaves, edible flower sprouts and stems

Rocket - keeps going and makes good pesto as well as a salad luxury

Parsley – great in walnut pesto, salads and cooked dishes – grow in a pot

Carrots  - eg ‘Ideal’ which you can plant very close and eat as they grow leaving 16 to grow on. Happy in only 6 inches of compost.

Onion sets

Dwarf French beans

Cut and come lettuce esp. red and green oakleaf varieties

Leeks –something for the winter

Dwarf peas – when you’ve had all the peas, replant with more and enjoy fresh pea shoots in salads all season

Calendula – grow in a pot nearby. Edible flowers and pest deterrent

This takes only a small space in a suburban garden or even a patio using a square metre raised bed and 2 medium large pots.

Background reading:

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew


Note: this upbeat volume has a lot of great information and encouragement for beginning gardeners. However, it is written for the US market, and almost all the materials and construction methods recommended will cause a problem to the UK aspirant, both in translating measurements and in the availability and cost differentials of materials on either side of the Atlantic. The use of Peat Moss may also a controversial issue in the UK.



The Square Foot Gardening Foundation is a non profit foundation dedicated to ending world hunger. In developing countries they just use home produced compost, recycled materials and nothing fancy. It has parallels with Keyhole Gardening. All New Square Foot Gardening (9781591862024 ... All New Square Foot Gardening (9781591862024): Mel Bartholomew: Books.





The ideas for square foot gardening came from a variety of sources, including:


French intensive gardening: a method of gardening in which man works with nature to foster healthy, vibrant plants with smaller space and less water than more traditional gardening. A very detail oriented method means more time will be spent than on an average type of garden. French intensive gardening started in the 1890s on two acres of land just outside of Paris. The crops were planted in 18 inches of horse manure, a readily available fertilizer, and planted so close together that the mature leaves touched their neighbours.  The method was introduced to the United States master organic and biodynamic gardener Alan Chadwick, a student of Rudolf Steiner.


Alan Chadwich demonstrated the techniques of biodynamic/French intensive gardening on a barren four-acre clay hillside at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. This method is also used by John Jeavons. The theories of biodynamic gardening were originally developed by Rudolf Steiner.


The similarity ends here as the original method advised double digging and beds 6 feet in width. Optimal spacing is achieved when the mature plants have their leaves barely brushing each other. This creates as a kind of mulch, keeping unwanted weeds at bay. Companion planting is often employed to improve growth and protect from pests.


Proponents claim to produce up to four times the produce  and use half the water of traditional farming techniques.


Companion planting

Different grown in close proximity affect each other in a number of ways, including physical compatibility , eg. a slow-growing variety shouldn't be planted where it will be overshadowed by a rapidly growing plant. Some vegetables, flowers, and herbs are helpful when grown together, eliminating pests and enhancing growth.


To make more use of space, biodynamic and French Intensive methods also employ succession planting - a form of intensive crop rotation whereby "heavy feeders" are alternated with "heavy givers" to return more nutrition to the soil than has been taken out.

Read more:


John Jeavons gives a complete plan for a sample 100-square-foot bed - a plot only 5 feet wide by 20 feet long - enough space for an accomplished gardener to produce a full year's supply of vegetables for one person.


Read more:


How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1979), $5.95. This is the book on the practical application of the biodynamic/French intensive method.

Success With Small Food Gardens Using Special Intensive Methods by Louise Riotte (Garden Way, Charlotte, Vermont, 1977), $5.95. A very good source of information. Ms. Riotte also stresses the idea of landscaping your garden with shaped intensive beds.

The Postage Stamp Garden Book by Duane Newcomb (J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, California, 1975), $4.95. Mr. Newcomb presents a number of techniques borrowed from biodynamic/French intensive gardening and other organic growing methods. The book includes a detailed, alphabetical, plant-by-plant information guide.

Intensive Culture of Vegetables by P. Aquatias (Solar Survival Press, Harrisville, New Hampshire), $5.95. This reprint of a 1913 volume on the original French system is by Leandre and Gretchen Poisson.

Helpful resources:


Companion planting list


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