What is Square Foot Gardening?


It's a grid. It's a bed. It's a box. It's square foot gardening.



For many years home vegetable garden design was determined by the ergonomics of agriculture. Long rows with open spaces between them were conducive to mass harvesting, but in the confined space of a backyard those wide gaps were wasting valuable soil. Then in the spring of 1981, Mel Bartholomew made a simple suggestion: planting in squares instead of rows would be easier and provide a greater yield. Bartholomew's book Square Foot Gardening would sell over a million copies and change the face of America's gardens.


Why square foot gardening?


After graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering, Bartholomew had been self-employed as an engineering consultant. After his retirement, he began gardening as a hobby, where his experience in engineering would inspire the concept of square foot gardening.


Bartholomew's idea was that square garden beds measuring four feet by four feet would be easier to work, take up less space, and save on water and weeding time. Best of all, as each garden box was filled with new and richer soil, more vegetables could be harvested in less space. The numbers have borne out Bartholomew's logic: square foot gardening can produce the same yield as a standard garden in just 1/5 of the space.


Bartholomew's first book is now the best-selling gardening book ever published. He has also written Ca$h from Square Foot Gardening, and early in 2006 released an updated version of his original book, titled All New Square Foot Gardening.


The phrase "square foot gardening" comes from the further division of each 4 foot by 4 foot box into 16 boxes, each approximately one square foot in size. Boxes are apportioned to particular vegetables depending on their size and space requirements. With smaller vegetables such as carrots, 16 plants can be grown in one square. Lettuce would be numbered four plants to a square, and broccoli one plant to a square.


The benefits of square foot gardening


Weeding and working the soil are two of the most time-consuming aspects of traditional vegetable gardening. Square foot gardening doesn't avoid these tasks altogether, it just makes them a lot easier.


In square foot gardens there is no longer a need to walk between rows of plants; consequently, the soil remains loose and loamy and is easier to weed. Less weeding is necessary with square foot gardening anyway, because garden boxes are filled with a mix of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite.


Accessibility is another obvious benefit of square foot gardening. Raised beds are easier for elderly or disabled people to reach, and a square foot garden won't find you tramping mud over the patio after a heavy rain.


Closed square foot garden beds retain water better than open soil, reducing water consumption and further benefiting plants. Finally, square foot gardens are both decorative and functional, providing efficient use of soil and a unique and eye-pleasing geometric pattern.


Square foot gardening and companion planting


Square foot gardening is a more concentrated form of companion planting, and some of the benefits it provides are attributable to this. Companion planting simply refers to the planting of different crops in close proximity.


Companion planting in square foot gardens reduces the need for herbicides and pesticides, because pest-repelling plants can be strategically positioned in the garden boxes. The variety of plants in a square foot garden also prevents diseases from spreading rapidly and consuming the entire crop of a particular vegetable.


The key to success with companion planting—and square foot gardens, as Bartholomew insists—is arranging gardens in a large grid, say 12 feet by 12 feet, with different vegetables planted in each one foot by one foot square. Sufficient space is left between each 4 foot by 4 foot square in the grid, and as each individual one foot square is harvested, it can be replanted with a new crop.


From above, a square foot garden should look like a disassembled and unsolved Rubik's Cube—except that square foot gardening, unlike the Rubik's Cube, is even more popular now than it was in the 1980s.


--Joshua Avram

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