Go to the archives

The Square Foot Garden: Gardening Made Easy

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 11, 2017
Category: Food and Wine

“I am two with Nature,” Woody Allen quipped. Me too. So I was spooked by the passage in Dominique Browning’s glorious Slow Love when she got down on her hands and knees in her garden, “peering into the heart of a flower.”

On the other hand, if immigrants are deported by the tens of thousands, the cost of carrots and zucchini will soar. As will the price of anything that needs to be picked.

So let’s talk gardening. The painless kind: above-ground vegetable gardening. With this method, you don’t have to twist yourself into poses too tough for a yoga teacher. And the yield per spare foot is crazy, so you can plant many fewer square feet.

The forecast for my state calls for a blizzard this week. But I’m turning the clock forward and starting to read about the Yankees, and I thought: Not here in Manhattan, but if you have any land, it’s the season to order seeds and plan your boxes. Months from now, you can send me your boastful report.

Like this: "Last summer, at 62, I decided to try gardening for the first time. I followed the Square Foot Gardening method, and the results were fantastic, painless and fun. We ate fresh vegetables all summer and fall from two 4×4 and one 4×6 box… 56 square feet of abundance.”

Reasons for a Square Foot garden?
— Health: The organic food you grow is better for you than any you can buy.
— Spirit: It’s good to reconnect with our ancestral roots.
— Exercise: You will use muscles that don’t get worked out at the gym.
— Economic: It’s vastly cheaper to grow your food than buy it.
— Satisfaction: Watching something small grow into something good.

With Square Foot gardening — planting in raised beds, contained with planks any fool could hammer together — there’s no more digging to China. No more long rows. Use only as many seeds as you hope will grow, so you don’t have to spend hours on your knees thinning your crop.

The king of this school of gardening is Mel Bartholomew, an engineer who retired in 1975 and took up gardening as a hobby. He had also been an efficiency expert, so he had lots of questions that others might not have dared to ask. Like: Why plant a zillion seeds, only to thin 95% of the young plants a few weeks later? Like: Why plant entire rows of a single crop if you don’t, for example, want 30 cabbages to ripen at the same time? Why leave a 3-foot aisle between rows? Why add compost at a rate that doesn’t give you great soil for seven years?

The answers he got were the same each time: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

To a smarty, them’s fightin’ words.

in “All New Square Foot Gardening” Bartholomew breaks gardens down to 12” squares — literally. With proper spacing, that means just four plants per square. By his math, planting in 12” squares instead of long rows saves you 80% of the garden area. To put it bluntly (and he does): “You can grow 100% of the harvest in only 20% of the space.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

What does Bartholomew ask of you? Lay out a 4′ by 4′ area, frame it with planks nailed together (and, if you’re so inclined, painted a crisp white). Dig up the top six inches of soil. Mix in peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Now you have a 12” high growing area. Plant it.

Bartholomew shows you how to do everything. When to do it. What tools you’ll need (few). How much work lies ahead (not so much). Everything important gets a big, clear, color photograph. And from the testimonials it really looks as if a few minutes a day can yield a bountiful organic harvest.

“The Vegetable Garden’s Bible," by Edward C. Smith, is a first cousin to the square-foot method. Smith lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont; whenever you read this, it’s probably snowing there right now. Smith is a bigtime gardener — he grows 100 kinds of vegetables in 1,500 square feet — so it’s harder for him to think small. And he does require a bit more of you. (No readymade compost for him, and he likes to dig deep.) But he adopts the raised bed approach. He likes wide rows. He’s organic.

Smith, like Bartholomew, had revelations along the way. “Whenever a plant’s growing space gets wider or deeper or both, its growth improves.” He teaches you how to really read a seed catalogue. He shares useful tips, like planting mint and horseradish — in pots, so they don’t grow wild — to repel cabbage moths and bean beetles. And he takes you through every process, in step-by-step photographs. [To buy the paperback of "The Vegetable Garden’s Bible" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Effortless gardening? Only in those TV commercials that show you how to roll out a carpet of ready-to-sprout flowers or grow tomatoes upside down on a porch.

Nearly effortless? These books show you how. Now you have no excuse not to grow your own.