Retired engineer-turned-gardener Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” consistently tops the list of best-selling gardening books—and there’s a reason. Square Foot Gardening promises little or no weeding, consistent results, and lots of organic veggies from a tiny space.
The late Mel Bartholomew brought gardening to a whole new crowd, and it really looks like a fun way to grow. But does it work?
Let’s take a look.
What Is A Square Foot Garden?
Square Foot Gardening differs from most other gardening systems in that you don’t use your native earth. Instead, you use a perfect mix (“Mel’s Mix”) of soil created from 1 part compost, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part peat moss.
The classic Square Foot bed is a 4-foot x 4-foot square constructed of anything from lumber to bricks to cinder blocks. Bartholomew also strongly recommends putting a permanent grid over the top, dividing the bed into easily manageable 1-foot squares. This is useful for crop rotation, replanting, seeding, and spacing. This grid can be made of stretched string, PVC, 1 x 2 lumber, or whatever else you have lying around. Having a visual delineation of your plants is definitely helpful, but this part of the Square Foot design is where gardeners often diverge from the plans in Bartholomew’s book.
An “official” Square Foot Gardening bed isn’t in contact with your native soil at all. Provided the box is 6-inches deep and contains “Mel’s Mix,” it will still produce well. The only fertilizer Bartholomew recommends is compost. Keep producing that, and your gardens will keep growing for you.
That’s Square Foot Gardening in a nutshell. It’s a remarkably well-engineered, self-contained way to garden.
Benefits of Square Foot Gardening
“Mel’s Mix” is a spongy, airy, rich medium for your plants. It’s also weed-free, unless you start with homemade compost that wasn’t “cooked” enough in a hot compost pile.
(NOTE: Even if you do think your compost pile got hot enough, watch out, as lots of seeds usually manage to slip through the cracks.)
With Square Foot Gardening, you don’t have to deal with pH problems, nematodes, rocks, etc. It’s like … science gardening. Having a clean slate is great.
Another place where Square Foot Gardening shines is in its ability to produce large amounts of veggies in a small space. If you want to grow beans, cabbages, salad greens, peppers, onions, and other smaller plants, Square Foot beds are very convenient and supportive. Bartholomew also provides plans for melon and bean trellises, so you can grow vertically and get more use from the space.
Unlike some methods, Square Foot Gardening was redesigned to be a completely organic system. As you pull out spent crops, put in a handful of compost in the holes left behind and then plant again. This means you do not have to bring in anything new after the initial purchases of peat and vermiculite. All your “fertilizer” is produced by you.
With a Square Foot garden, you can drop a garden right over grass or weeds without even pulling stuff up.
Bam. Instant space.
The book recommends putting a barrier down at the bottom of the newly constructed bed. Weed block and cardboard both work. Or you can build the bed on top of concrete, believe it or not.
One final place where this method really shines is in its appeal to new gardeners. The system is simple enough for anyone to create and it produces consistently. Mel Bartholomew is really fun to read—the book is worth buying just to hear what a truly excited and enthusiastic gardener sounds like. For a person just getting started, he takes the overwhelming world of food production and cuts it into nice, neat 12-inch x 12-inch pieces that are easy enough for even a complete novice to digest. When my wife wanted to start gardening years ago, I set her up with Square Foot beds. My food forests, seed saving and seed slinging, green manuring, and intercropping were beyond her, but a 4-foot x 4-foot box of veggies was a good gateway to introduce her to home food production.
Drawbacks of Square Foot Gardening
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. If Square Foot Gardening were the end-all system, it would be recommended across the gardening community, right? Yet writers like Steve Solomon, Ruth Stout, John Jeavons, Toby Hemenway, Carol Deppe, Edward Smith, Dick Raymond, and yours truly all have different methods that work for them.
Square Foot Gardening, despite its advantages, also has some drawbacks…