My Love/Hate Relationship With Square Foot Gardening

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SFG Book -clipped

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 is overhyped.  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 own backyard garden is very influenced by it.  As I’ll explain, I’ve grown to both love and hate it.

 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 (non-affiliate link).  The book differs greatly from most gardening books, which 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.  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 strict recipe book than a standard gardening book.

One of my original Square Foot Garden boxes.

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, but the information is presented in a way that puts promotion of the Square Foot Gardening brand ahead of all other considerations.

Square Foot Gardening is Full of Itself

Why should I care whether it's an "authentic" Square Foot Garden?

If it’s a successful garden, why should I care whether it’s an “authentic” Square Foot Garden?

The most irritating 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 the ratio of information to hype here 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 recommends 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.  Is the point of the book to promote gardening or to promote a particular brand?

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 all the prescribed rules to the letter.  For example, while the hallmark of an “authentic” Square Foot Garden is the grid system, if you look around at what people call Square Foot Gardens, many people skip the grids entirely.  After my first year of using the Square Foot Gardening technique, I dropped the grids too, without noticing much difference.  It turns out that people just revert to raised beds without a grid, which are not unique to Square Foot Gardening.  Others keep the grids, but don’t have raised beds contained by boxes.  If the gardens are productive, does it really matter if they are “authentic” Square Foot Gardens?

You Didn’t Invent That

The other big problem 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.

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 8.18.05 PM

From Early American Gardens “For Meate of Medicine” by Anne Leighton (1970).

Raised beds are old news – really old news.

First of all, despite Bartholomew’s insistence that he developed the idea of raised bed gardening, 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:Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 8.16.39 PMIn 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.

Vertical Gardening

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.

Although Mel Bartholomew says _______, the idea of growing vining vegetables vertically on a trellis is not novel either, as seen in this exceprt from a 1940 USDA Farmer's Bulletin.

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.

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 10.21.06 PM

And there are plenty of other examples for anyone with 10 minutes to look around Google books.

Mel’s Mix

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?).

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 8.25.46 PM

From An Encyclopedia of Gardening by J.C. Loudon (1835).

More recently, commercial soil mixtures such as Jiffy Mix, described in a 1977 publication, contained peat and vermiculite.

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 8.39.24 PM

From USDA Forest Service Research Note SE – 242 (1977).

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:

Garden pro mix

It turns out that Mel’s Mix is roughly the same thing as most commercial potting mixes, so why not just say so?  It’s just another example of an exaggerated innovation.

How to give credit where credit is due.

Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening books would be much more clear and useful if they gave 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 (non-affiliate link), 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 and shows that this has all been done before just adds to the credibility of his techniques.  Bartholomew should do the same.

Why it’s Still Worth a Read

By now, I think I’ve made my point clear: Square Foot Gardening is overhyped.  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 those of us 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 hype.favicon(1)

UPDATECheck out the discussion of this post on Reddit here and here.

Mr. B.G.

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