Square-Foot Gardening

Featured Article, Heroes, In Season, Recipes, Spring
on May 1, 2010

There’s a spark in the eyes of square-foot gardeners when they explain how much food they harvest, what they plan to grow next year and how easy it is to start. The chief zealot is Mel Bartholomew, whose passion for the idea he developed 30 years ago is inspiring a new generation of backyard gardeners.

“With my engineering and efficiency training, I started making a list,” he recalls. “Why do we plant in single rows? Why is the next row three feet away? Why do we plant a whole pack of seeds? We will never eat that much. And if you plant everything at once, it comes to harvest all at once.”

A failed community garden first inspired Bartholomew to solve the tilling, spacing, harvesting and weeding issues in traditional gardening. He built his first square-foot garden on his Long Island property with squares instead of rows to minimize weed-prone areas; 48-inch square plots; and a different plant in each 1-foot section for beauty and diversity. That was 1981. Two books and a PBS television series later, square-foot gardening is being taken up by a new type of gardener, one concerned with food miles, carbon footprint, sustainability and food safety.

“What’s the best thing you can do for the environment?” Bartholomew asks. “Eat fresh or raw. If you could eat all fresh, raw food, think of all the things you wouldn’t need.”

With the success of the All New Square Foot Gardening book, a cookbook was a natural next step, and the All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook was released earlier this year. It delivers a feast of simple salads, drinks, pestos, appetizers and salsas. When you grow it yourself and eat it just-harvested, fresh foods—like great ideas—need very little elaboration.

 Here’s how to get started:

  • Pick a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of sunshine daily.
  • Build 4-foot-square boxes to hold the garden. Place them 3 feet apart to provide aisles. Fill with several kinds of compost, peat moss and vermiculite. Install a grid (made from wooden slats or string, for example) on the top of each box to create 1-foot-square sections.
  • Plant each section with one variety of plant. Bartholomew’s book contains guidelines for the number of plants per square foot—for example, 1 tomato plant, 4 lettuces, 9 spinach plants or 16 onions or radishes.
  • After harvesting each section, add compost and plant another variety.