fighting the lack of good ideas

square foot gardening by mel bartholomew

Years ago, my mom and I would routinely try to catch episodes of Square Foot Gardening (SFG) on PBS.

Hosted by Mel Bartholomew, a retired civil engineer, SFG was a program whose aim was to enable gardening by the masses in confined spaces (though, naturally, if can be implemented in larger settings as well). Mr Bartholomew’s aim was to take his years of experience as an engineer, and turn gardening on its head: too much focus was (and still is, though less prominently now) given to gardening as miniaturized farming, rather than as a practice in its own right. It also promoted organic gardening and growing years before the current organic marketing wave.

The basic premise of SFG is to plant cooperatively, intensively, rotatively, and sequentially (see the wikipedia,, and sites for even more information).

  • Cooperatively: plant different types of flowers and vegetables together to reduce the likelihood for disease transmission, to ward-off predators, and to give a dynamic look to the garden.
  • Intensively: carrots only needs a few cubic inches of good soil in which to grow – plant them 4×4 in a 1’x1′ square.
  • Rotatively: once a given crop has finished, reuse the plot, but for a different plant type to not overly wear-out the soil.
  • Sequentially: if you want to go with a more homogeneous garden, plant in a cyclic fashion to spread the harvest over a period of time throughout the year

Soil preparation takes a bit of practice, but once you have a garden going, continually supplying compost should become easier (take all garden waste and add it to the pile). The only ingredient you should need to buy on a semi-frequent basis is peat moss, and that only once every 2-3 years per box. Vermiculite refresh is needed less often – closer to every 4-5 years per box.

The program and book had enough of a lasting impact on me that I used it as the basis for a paper in college – Eating Off the Grid (full PDF^*` and appendix).

A second book referenced in the television series, CA$H from Square Foot Gardening (of which I also own a copy), goes into further detail of expanding the SFG approach into a source for local users to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables!) of your labors, in exchange for compensation. In particular, Mel highlights supplying local restaurants and/or farmer’s markets with your produce.

If you are interested in growing even some of your own food, I strongly recommend Square Foot Gardening as the place to start.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Understandability: 4/5
  • Ease of implementation: 4/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5

^Prices accurate as of Jan 2006
*Yes – I know about the typo at the end of page 3 (“there” vs “their”) and on page 5 (“them” vs “the”)
`See also PYOP review for information on windbreaks