If you haven’t heard of Square Foot Gardening, it’s a gardening technique introduced by Mel Bartholomew in his 1975 book Square Foot Gardening and has been expanded since then into an empire of books, videos, TV shows, and websites.
Square Foot Gardening annoys me. The whole endeavor is self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, and obsessed with spreading its own brand. In spite of this, I’ve read the book a couple of times and my garden is very influenced by it. So I guess I kind of love it and hate it. I’ll explain.
The Basics of Square Foot Gardening
The current flagship book in the Square Foot Gardening fleet is The All New Square Foot Gardening, 2nd Edition. Most gardening books offer a wide set of ideas about how to set up a garden and grow individual plants that the reader is free to adopt or reject based on individual circumstances. But instead of casually suggesting different options, The All New Square Foot Gardening demands you follow its instructions exactly and insists that if you don’t, you won’t get satisfactory results. In that sense, it reads more like a stuffy recipe book than a gardening book.
To summarize the whole book, Square Foot Gardening basically involves the following techniques:
- Growing vegetables in 6 inch deep bottomless boxes made of lumber.
- Laying out permanent grids to divide the boxes into square foot plots to help maximize the harvest without overplanting.
- Growing vining plants vertically on a trellis attached to the back of the box.
- Filling the boxes with a potting mix called “Mel’s Mix,” which the gardener must assemble according to this recipe:
There’s more to it than that, but those are the most important parts. All of this is innocuous enough. I don’t roll my eyes at what Bartholomew says, I roll my eyes at how he says it.
Square Foot Gardening is Full of Itself
The most flat-out annoying thing about the Square Foot Gardening books/websites/videos/everything is how self-absorbed it all is. About half of the book is dedicated to teaching the technique of Square Foot Gardening. The other half is a gush of self-praise about how great Square Foot Gardening is. Sure, every hobby book is entitled to give you a little pep talk here and there, but this is excessive.
For example, in more than one place, the book states that “if your SFG doesn’t have a grid, it is not a Square Foot Garden.” In another spot, it recommend that you ask construction workers for free lumber to build garden boxes, making sure to “tell the foreman that you are building a Square Foot Garden.” And it goes on like that throughout the book. At every turn, it seems to be more important to follow all of the Square Foot Gardening rules than to just create a successful, productive garden. I’m left wondering whether Square Foot Gardening is more concerned with gardening or branding.
In spite of all of Bartholomew’s insistence that gardeners not use the term “Square Foot Gardening” unless all of his rules are followed, a quick look around the internet shows that in practice gardeners pick and choose different aspects of Square Foot Gardening to implement and most have good results even if they don’t follow it all to a T. Many people skip the grids. After my first year, I dropped the grids too, without noticing much difference. Others keep the grids, but don’t have raised beds contained by boxes. If the gardens are productive, does it matter if they are “authentic” Square Foot Gardens?
You Didn’t Invent That
My other major beef with the Square Foot Gardening Books is Bartholomew’s insistence that before him and his innovations, all home gardeners were growing vegetables like farmers, with 30 foot rows set 3 feet apart in whatever soil they happened to have. What Bartholomew ignores is the fact that most of the techniques he “invented” had been done before.
Raised beds are old news
First of all, despite Bartholomew’s insistence that no one was using raised beds before him, the general idea of growing plants in raised beds that don’t get stepped on has been around forever. The specific idea of growing in boxes made of wooded boards is old too. I searched Google Books for the term “raised beds” in gardening books prior to 1980. One hit was a 1970 book on early American gardening which documents these type of raised beds going all the way back to 16th century England:In my experience, the raised beds are the most useful part of the Square Foot Gardening technique, but it turns out that, contrary to Bartholomew’s claims, they aren’t an innovation at all.
Mel Bartholomew basically claims credit for the idea of growing vining plants on a trellis. According to the book, back in 1976, he said to himself that a tomato plant “should be allowed to stand up straight and tall so that it can be proud of itself and a benefit and credit to the community” (p. 161) and so he went on to design at trellis for growing tomatoes vertically. But again, vertical gardening is nothing new. Anyone who has seen The Godfather, which was made 4 years before Bartholomew’s big vertical gardening innovation and takes place long before that knows that people were already growing tomatoes vertically. WARNING – SPOILERS.
There are also examples in this in Google books. One is a 1940 USDA Farmer’s Bulletin, which describes the widespread use of vertical gardening techniques for growing tomatoes.
Going back even further, in an 1834 issue of the Gardener’s Magazine, there is a letter describing how the author would grow cucumbers on a trellis.
And there are plenty of other examples for anyone with 10 minutes to look around Google books.
Mel Bartholomew claims to have invented a soil mix he (of course) calls Mel’s Mix. The recipe is one part each of peat moss, vermiculite, and a mixture of composts from different sources. However, these three items have been used as ingredients in soil mixtures for decades. Going back to Google books, I found in an 1835 Encyclopedia of Gardening a description of raised beds in the Calcutta Botanic Garden filled with rich vegetable matter (which sounds like compost to me) mixed with two thirds of small pebbles (not vermiculite, but close) and a “dense layer of moss” (maybe peat moss?).
More recently, commercial soil mixtures such as Jiffy Mix, described in a 1977 publication, contained peat and vermiculite.
Modern commercial mixes that you can buy at any store also tend to be some sort of combination of peat moss and compost, although instead of vermiculite, they usually use perlite, a related mineral. Here’s an example from a bag of potting mix at Lowes that is primarily made of peat moss, compost, and perlite:
So if these are common ingredients that everyone uses, why not just say so? Sure the specific recipe for Mel’s Mix is somewhat different than what you will buy out of a pre-mixed bag, but it’s really not a huge break from what others had done before. It’s just another example of an exaggerated innovation.
How to give credit where credit is due.
I wish that Mel Bartholomew would give more context and history to his gardening techniques. Sure, it would mean admitting that someone had done most of these techniques prior to him, but it would give credit where credit is due and add credibility to the book. In his book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, organic farming guru Elliot Coleman provides a good example of how to do this. Coleman describes a set of techniques that allow him to grow vegetables year-round even in the cold climate of Maine. But instead of casting the praise on himself, he spends a whole chapter describing how some version of his techniques had been done much earlier by 19th century Parisian farmers. The fact that Coleman shares the credit makes me respect him more and not less, and I wish Bartholomew would do the same.
Why it’s Still Worth a Read
By now, I think I’ve made my point clear: Square Foot Gardening annoys me. Still, I think it’s worth checking out, especially for beginning gardeners. Here’s why:
- For the excited but clueless, it’s a good introduction to vegetable gardening. Historically, most people gained a lot of gardening knowledge from parents, grandparents, and neighbors. For people like me who weren’t exposed to much gardening growing up but are interested in starting, Square Foot Gardening provides a good introduction. It’s a fairly quick read and provides enough knowledge to get your first vegetable garden started.
- It teaches raised bed gardening, which is great for city dwellers. Although it can work well for anyone, raised bed gardening is really great for urban gardeners for a few reasons. One is that you start with a purchased soil mix, which avoids the problem of lead contamination in urban soil. Another is that raised beds are compact and fit well on small city lots. There are lots of places where you can read about raised bed gardens, and Bartholomew’s book is one of them.
The bottom line is that The All New Square Foot Gardening can be a really good resource and if you’re interested, it is available at the local public libraries and in bookstores. Just take it with a grain of salt and don’t buy into all the branding.