I first heard about square foot gardening a few years ago from a friend who swore by it. Looking at his garden, I could see why: he had a bounty of chiles and tomatoes to make any salsa enthusiast drool. At the time, I was unaware that there was a book involved; I thought that it was only a fad. Turns out there’s a little more to it than that.
I picked up All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew last year towards the end of the growing season. After careful consideration, I have broken the emphasis of this book into four main points:
- They all said I was crazy.
- But I’m not crazy.
- You can be like me.
- Let me show you how!
This has been troubling for me, largely because these are the same main points found in various self-help books, most of which seem to be geared more towards selling books than helping the people that buy them. But in Mel’s defense, there does seem to be a logical reason for this.
Gardening and farming is steeped in millenia of tradition. Things have been done much the same way that they have always been done. The problem is that while technology advances, many gardeners cling to old, proven habits, unwilling to believe that something better could exist. And so when an efficiency expert shows them such improvements, he gets snubbed. The writing style in this book is clearly designed to convince people to give Mel’s methods a try, so that they can prove to themselves that it really does work.
As I read through this book, I considered the logic very carefully. The aforementioned bullet points were such red flags for me, I was certain I would find more. I have not. Once you get past the self-promotion and look at the actual details, square foot gardening seems pretty sound. The techniques seem well-thought out, and well-tested by the author. The biggest flaw, as far as I’m concerned, was that so much time was spent trying to convince the reader how much fun everything is, and how the rest of the world is crazy, but not the square foot gardener. It got annoying fast, and was the biggest reason why it took me so long to finish reading it.
Without spoiling the rest of the book for you, a few of the concepts described are:
- No More Tilling: Since you never walk on the soil that the plants grow in, it never gets compacted, and so needs no tilling.
- More Efficient Growing Area: Instructions on seed packets are designed with walking space in mind. The nature of the square foot garden changes the walkway rules, and allows for plants to be grown more closely together.
- Mel’s Mix: Even James Dyson doesn’t talk about his vacuum as much as Mel talks about this growing soil. But annoying as it is reading that over and over, it does seem like a decent mix. But I have yet to test it myself.
Once you cut out all the fluff, you are still left with valuable information. There are growing charts and detailed descriptions of common plants, and information on how to best grow them. There are building plans for the gardens, and for accessories for the gardens. Yesterday I threw out all of my old tomato cages from last year, in favor of the trellisses described in the book. Even if I did nothing else the book suggests, I will be using those.
If you are planning to put together a garden in your back yard, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book. I don’t know that you should follow every instruction to the letter, but you should at least consider it. I suspect that at the very least you will pick up some excellent tips, and perhaps you really will go all out and put together a square foot garden just like Mel says.
If you have toyed with the idea of a garden in the yard, but haven’t committed to anything yet, it is still worth a look. Go to the library and check it out, or find a friend who’s already bought a copy. Give it a read. You may not go with a full 4×4 garden, but maybe you’ll decide to put a 1×2 garden on your porch. But don’t expect it to win any writing awards. I suspect that if you took out all the fluff, the book would be somewhere around 25-50% smaller, but the remaining information does seem to be good. Give it a shot.