Posts Tagged ‘Mel Bartholomew’

Square Foot Gardening

At the moment, if I was asked to recommend a book for a beginning gardener, it would be Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. (I read the original not the all new ones he’s got for sale.) Like any book, I have some disagreements, but the way he outlines the whole process makes it very accessible and worth the effort. It is a thicker book, but he covers everything from plotting and preparing the soil to some basics of harvesting and storing what you grow.

The premise is that rather than working in rows, you work in beds. His twist on the bed concept is that you function on a square-foot grid. This means that you only have to think about a single square foot at a time. By thinking on such a small scale, any chores are kept at a reasonable level. He came up with this from watching people in community gardens just get overwhelmed as the summer went on by weeds or watering or even harvesting. However, once you have weeded, watered, planted, or harvested one square, you have a solid accomplishment in a short time which makes it easier to move on to another square.

He is all about continuous and reasonably sized harvests. He does discuss the logistics of planning a large, one-time harvest if you are planning on preserving food for other seasons. However, most of it is about how to plan your garden so that you can harvest what you need and plant the next round with as little fuss as possible. One square holds 16 carrots. Since you probably don’t want to harvest more than that at once, you plant one square of carrots, wait two weeks, then plant another square. This gives you a clear progression for harvesting, once you get to that point. Once the first square has had all of the carrots harvested, it is ready to be turned over with some compost and replanted with the next crop. This keeps you from being overwhelmed by needing to spend a full day planting or harvesting. It also helps even out the “boom or bust” that most garden crops have if they are planted all at once.

One of the most interesting points is how very space-efficient this is. I grew up with a row garden that most people are familiar with. It turns out that long, thin rows aren’t just since the advent of tractors. I ran across an old instruction to make your garden long and thin rather than lots of short rows because you would spend significantly less time turning your plow horse or team. On our property, we had the space and rototiller that made a sprawling row garden logical. However, if your space is limited or you just don’t want to turn over that much land, by eliminating the walking path between each crop row, you save on a lot of things. You have less bare soil to keep weeded and watered. You also have less compaction from walking so close to each plant. The plants themselves even help with weed reduction and water retention as they can grow close enough to shade most of the soil in their square. His estimate is that you can grow the same number of plants in only 20% of the space of a more conventional garden.

His covering of pest control is interesting as well. Not only is not using chemicals healthier, but it’s easier. His solution for caterpillars is to pluck them off and crush them. For cutworms, you dig in the ground around the freshly felled seedling to uncover and crush the guilty party. The reason this works is because you have such a tiny space to monitor that you will see most changes caused by pests before more extreme intervention is necessary. In later chapters he goes over other information like season-extending and setting up boxes for patios and rooftops. He even offers some recipes to help you manage your bounty. It is a very complete look at having a garden.

I do have a few points to pick at. After all, does one ever agree with everything? For one thing, raw veggies are not more digestible than cooked ones, no matter how young and fresh they are. Also, you might also only turn over the full garden once per year, but renting a shovel because you only use it once per year? I agree that you can do away with most of the fancy tools, but a shovel is just a practical thing to keep around.

Overall, it is a very practical book, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others.