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mel bartholomew square foot gardening intensive planting

Square Foot Gardening: The Good Sense Garden

by Mary Jasch

Ever wonder why it’s ok to plant cucumbers 6 inches apart one way but not the other?

Mel Bartholomew did. So much so that this civil engineer/ efficiency expert spent his retirement figuring out how to plant a garden in a way that makes sense and also grows great veggies.

In 1981 he wrote the book, Square Foot Gardening, which became an explosive success in print, on TV, in person and around the world. His newest book, All New Square Foot Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2006) refines his ideas which defy the proverb “If it seems too good to be true…” Well, it is true.

The Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method is an intensive way of planting – making the best possible use of space for the sake of reducing a gardener’s labor, cost and impact on the land. It’s basically an organic method and much more healthful for the gardener and landscape.

Basic tenets:
1) 4x4, 4x8, or 4x12-foot plots designed for reachability and space needed/person
2) Perfect soil mix: peat moss, vermiculite and blended compost
3) Grid with 16 one-square foot divisions for easy planting.
4) Sow only what you want to reap
5) Replant a square as you harvest
6) Never step on the soil
7) Never till the soil
8) Plant on top of the ground in raised beds with perfect soil
9) Never fertilize. Just use compost. You can buy or make it.
10) There are more.

SFG is the largest selling garden book ever, with nearly 1.5 million books sold. It’s ideal for anyone who has started a garden and failed, would like to garden but thinks it’s too much work, room, time, or money, or thinks they’re getting too old. “For a lot of people who would like to have a small garden but aren’t handy with tools or don’t know how to go about it, the new book has all that in it,” says Mel Bartholomew, author, TV personality, and entrepreneur.

And just for fun: The method strikes fear in the hearts of die-hard single row gardeners, but old gardeners can learn knew tricks, can’t they?

Veggie harvest / box size / person:
4x4: salad every day
4x8: salad and dinner veggies every day
4x12: salad, dinner veggies, freeze and give away
In round numbers you need 50 square feet per person to cut your grocery bill in half, he says.

It all began when Bartholomew asked himself: Why do we lay out our garden in rows? Why do we tear open the top of a seed packet and plant a whole row of those seeds? If you read the back of it, it says now thin to six inches apart. Why do we plant so many?

So he counted the number of lettuce seeds in a packet – over 1,000. “I don’t care if you’re a family of rabbits, you’re not going to eat 1,000 lettuce plants,” he says. “Why plant it if you don’t eat it? That doesn’t make sense. The next thing: if the plants should be thinned to 6 inches apart in the row, why is the next row three feet away? My county ag agent told me that’s so I could get in and hoe the weeds. I don’t want to hoe weeds. That’s too much work!”

Soil is filled with weed seeds, dormant and ready to sprout every spring when they’re turned over with the soil. With SFG, there’s no digging so weed seeds aren’t exposed and there’s no need for a hoe. If a weed seed blows in, you can easily pluck it from your friable garden soil mix.
Mel’s Mix: 1/3 each vermiculite, peat moss, and compost.

Bartholomew maintains that with all water and nutrients in six inches of perfect soil, you can grow anything – even plants with tap roots. He has grown every garden plant you can think of – corn, squash, tomatoes, melons, pumpkins – all in only six inches of perfect soil.

“It’s all organic and you don’t have to add fertilizer because it’s perfect,” Bartholomew says. “The soil drains well so it doesn’t flood the roots, allowing oxygen to go through it. And all nutrients are there. Peat moss and vermiculite hold all the water that the plants need until they’re ready to take it up.”

In today’s economy, and with nebulous quality of fresh produce, more people want to raise their own vegetables. Many hesitate for lack of space, others for starting from scratch. Bartholomew says start small – just one 4x4 raised plot for each adult and one 3x3 for a child.

For those with traditional gardens wanting to convert, he says you only need 20 percent of the space to grow the same amount. He’s done the research.

For the die-hards: you can still have a large garden with SFG. Put a vertical frame on the north side of each 4x4, 4x8 or 4x12-foot box with a three-foot aisle between the boxes. In all U.S. latitudes, that’s enough free space so vertical crops won’t shade out the other boxes.

One of the beauties of SFG is growing vines vertically – like squashes, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, peas, flowers. Tomatoes grow in one square foot, pruned to a single stem. Pole beans: eight / square foot; cucumbers: two / square foot. “They grow straight up and you keep them like that so they don’t spread out. If you want to put up a long line of vertical, you would have a box in front of that vertical wall and plant the same spacing,” he says.

Protection from critters is easy. Strategically placed screens and cages will keep them out. Plus, they can be quickly converted to protect plants from frost. The book tells all.

Bartholomew grew up in California and raised his family in Maplewood, NJ, with his business in Milburn. When he retired at 42, he took up a new life and moved his family to Long Island.

“We found a nice place on the water and I thought this is so pretty out here I think I’ll take up gardening as a hobby,” he says. “We had four acres. I went to some classes and started learning the traditional single row method and began to think ‘there’s something wrong here. There’s too much work.’ And then I started a community garden in Setauket, New York, and that’s when watching other people garden I realized this is too much work. They would come all enthused in the spring just like we all get but then they’d lose interest very quickly. As soon as the weeds started growing, they’d lose interest. When summer came it was baseball and vacations. Pretty soon the gardens became over run with grass and weeds.

“I wondered if it was my teaching in the community garden so I went around and started looking in people’s back yards at their gardens. Everyone’s garden was the same – filled with weeds, over run with stuff, too much. There’s a whole row of cabbages all gone to seed. This is not what we really expect or want. That’s when I went around asking all the experts. I went from California to Maine asking all the experts I could find. Why do we garden the way we do in single rows? And I got the exact same answer from every one of them. These are people who teach college, are on television, write books. The answer was ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ like why would we want it any other way?

“I said I’m going to invent a new way to garden and they said you’re crazy. And I did it.

What I’m always hoping is that some public gardens would put in a display of Square Foot Gardening so that more people who came to look at gardens would say ‘gee, we could do that.’ That’s our battle cry: “I can do that.’”

Square Foot Gardening:
* DVD Courtesy Mel Bartholomew
** Photos courtesy Mel Bartholomew

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published February 25, 2009

Photos to enlarge

Square Foot Gardens are great for flowers and patios.

Veggie / flower deck garden. The book tells how to build deck boxes.

Mel Bartholomew in his fall garden.

A pyramidal, tiered Square Foot Garden

Mel Bartholomew and Square Foot Garden

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