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Square Foot Gardening: Learning New Tricks

by Bee Mohn

Ever wonder why it’s ok to plant cucumbers 6 inches apart one way but not the other? Or why you plant tomatoes 18 inches apart one way and three feet the other?

Mel Bartholomew did. So much so that he spent his retirement figuring out how to plant a garden in a way that makes sense and grows great veggies.

In 1981 he wrote Square Foot Gardening, an explosive success in print, on TV and around the world. It's the largest selling garden book ever, with almost 1.5 million books sold. The latest edition, All New Square Foot Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2006) refines his ideas which seem to defy the maxim “If it seems too good to be true…”

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is an intensive way of planting – making the best possible use of space to reduce workload, cost and impact on the land.

Basic tenets:
1) Raised plots designed for reachability and pre-determined amount of space needed per person
2) Perfect soil
3) A grid for easy planting
4) Sow only what you want to reap
5) Replant small spaces as you harvest
6) No soil compaction
7) No tilling
8) And more.

Bartholomew maintains that if you put all water and nutrients in the top six inches of his perfect soil (which you mix yourself), it’s all a plant, including those with tap roots, could ever want.


“It’s all organic, natural, and you don’t have to add fertilizer to your soil because it’s perfect. Existing soil has very few nutrients in it,” says Mel Bartholomew, author, TV personality, entrepreneur. “The soil drains well so it doesn’t flood the roots and it allows 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.”

He’s grown every single plant you can think of including corn, squash, tomatoes, melons, watermelons, pumpkins – all in six inches of perfect soil. But the real secret, he says, is a blended compost.

SFG strikes fear in single row gardeners, but old gardeners can learn knew tricks, can’t they? Bartholomew says for people who have started a garden and failed or those who would like to but think it’s too much work, space, time, or money, SFG is ideal.

“It sells because the system works and I’ve attracted those people that were afraid or too old to start and they love it,” he says.

In SFG, it all relates and many magical things happen if you follow the system, says this civil engineer/efficiency expert. “When you’re an efficiency expert, you’re supposed to find out what’s wrong,” he says. “So I took all the things that seemed to be wrong with single row gardening.”

He began to question: 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 the seeds? If you read the back of a packet, it says to thin seedlings to six inches apart. Why do we plant so many?

Bartholomew counted the 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 is: 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!”

That goes back to the soil, he say, all filled with weed seeds. Some, dormant for years, are buried deep. Tilling uncovers them and allows them to sprout. In SGF you don’t till – so all those wild seeds don’t germinate. The old method of single row gardening is nothing but a hand-me-down from farming.

And since you never walk on the soil, it doesn’t compact. So all you ever need are your fingers to pull out weeds that might blow in. Makes sense, eh?

Also, you can cut your food bill in half by starting a small square foot garden even if you only have a deck or balcony. Bartholomew designed an easy-to-make 1 x 8 foot deck box and it’s step-by-step in his book. This eight-square-foot box can grow a lot of food the SFG way.

Tomatoes go in one square foot, pruned to a single stem. Pole beans, eight plants per square foot; cucumbers are two per square foot. They grow straight up and are maintained to not spread. He’s done the research on yields to show that SFG has at least the same yields as row planting and you only need 20 percent of the space. In SFG, you plant only the seeds that will become the plants you want to eat.

You can grow enough veggies in a 4 x 4 for one person to have a big salad every day. A 4 x 8 will grow dinner vegetables. For extra to give away or freeze, a 4 x 12 is perfect. In round numbers 50 square feet per person will cut your grocery bill in half.

Bartholomew grew up in southern California and moved to New Jersey when he was in high school. He raised his family in Maplewood, NJ, and had his engineering business in Milburn. When he retired from the engineering business 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. “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.’ 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 quickly. 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. I did a little research and everyone’s garden in their back yards 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: 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.”

Come to think of it, growing in tight patches (or plots) is pretty much the way plants grow in nature, isn’t it?

Square Foot Gardening:
* All photos courtesy Mel Bartholomew

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published March 17, 2009

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