In 1975, gardener Mel Bartholomew was frustrated with the amount of time and effort his garden took. He wondered why seed packets instructed him to fertilize the entire garden area, but plant vegetables in long, skinny rows with 3-foot aisles on both sides. Weeds naturally take up residence in those long aisles, and he didn’t want a full row of 30 cabbage plants—he just wanted a few. If he did plant 30 cabbages, he certainly didn’t want them all to ripen at the exact same time. When he asked gardening friends for an explanation of this traditional single-row approach, he found their explanations less than satisfactory (most were “that’s just what you do”).
He started doing some research, and discovered the single-row gardening method was a hand-me-down technique from large-field crop farming. It was designed for high-volume food producers who wanted to harvest crops with machines and take them to market to sell, not for the home gardener who wants vegetables to eat throughout the growing season.
Bartholomew also found it odd that most seed packets instruct gardeners to plant a whole packet (more than 1,000 seeds) in one long row, then to thin seedlings to one every 6 inches when they sprout. He tried something that seemed simple: He planted one seed every 6 inches, then planted a second row 6 inches from the first. When his garden grew successfully, he had a plan.
Bartholomew developed the Square-Foot Gardening method and wrote a book of the same name. Square-Foot Gardening requires one-fifth the space and, he says, one-fifth the work to produce as many vegetables as a typical garden. Using the method, gardeners plant crops within a grid of individual one-foot squares. (Bartholomew recommends growing in raised beds to ensure high-quality soil.) Depending on a plant’s mature size, a certain number fits neatly in each square. For example, four lettuce plants fit in one square; 16 carrot plants fit in a square; spinach is nine to a square. Once you determine your garden size and choose crops, a Square-Foot Garden practically plans itself. Many school programs have adopted Square-Foot Gardening for its easy-to-understand design and high productivity. Bartholomew’s recent book, All New Square Foot Gardening, is updated with the tricks and tools he has learned over the past few decades of practicing and teaching his method. Learn more: squarefootgardening.com
Mel Bartholomew’s Perfect Growing Mix
1/3 peat moss: Available at any garden center.
1/3 vermiculite: Buy coarse grade in 4-cubic-foot bags at garden centers or home improvement stores.
1/3 blended compost: If you don’t compost at home, buy bags at the garden center. You must have blended compost, so don’t buy all the same kind.
How Many Plants Fit?
Most seed packets instruct gardeners on the number of inches apart plants should be thinned to. Using that number as a guide, you can plot out your Square-Foot Garden:
• Plants that should be thinned to 12 inches apart: Plant one per square foot.
• Plants that should be thinned to 6 inches apart: Plant four per square foot.
• Plants that should be thinned to 4 inches apart: Plant nine per square foot.
• Plants that should be thinned to 3 inches apart: Plant 16 per square foot.