Retired engineer-turned-gardener Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” consistently tops the list of best-selling gardening books—and there’s a reason. Square Foot Gardening promises little or no weeding, consistent results, and lots of organic veggies from a tiny space.
The late Mel Bartholomew brought gardening to a whole new crowd, and it really looks like a fun way to grow. But does it work?
Let’s take a look.
What Is A Square Foot Garden?
Square Foot Gardening differs from most other gardening systems in that you don’t use your native earth. Instead, you use a perfect mix (“Mel’s Mix”) of soil created from 1 part compost, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part peat moss.
The classic Square Foot bed is a 4-foot x 4-foot square constructed of anything from lumber to bricks to cinder blocks. Bartholomew also strongly recommends putting a permanent grid over the top, dividing the bed into easily manageable 1-foot squares. This is useful for crop rotation, replanting, seeding, and spacing. This grid can be made of stretched string, PVC, 1 x 2 lumber, or whatever else you have lying around. Having a visual delineation of your plants is definitely helpful, but this part of the Square Foot design is where gardeners often diverge from the plans in Bartholomew’s book.
An “official” Square Foot Gardening bed isn’t in contact with your native soil at all. Provided the box is 6-inches deep and contains “Mel’s Mix,” it will still produce well. The only fertilizer Bartholomew recommends is compost. Keep producing that, and your gardens will keep growing for you.
That’s Square Foot Gardening in a nutshell. It’s a remarkably well-engineered, self-contained way to garden.
Benefits of Square Foot Gardening
“Mel’s Mix” is a spongy, airy, rich medium for your plants. It’s also weed-free, unless you start with homemade compost that wasn’t “cooked” enough in a hot compost pile.
(NOTE: Even if you do think your compost pile got hot enough, watch out, as lots of seeds usually manage to slip through the cracks.)
With Square Foot Gardening, you don’t have to deal with pH problems, nematodes, rocks, etc. It’s like … science gardening. Having a clean slate is great.
Another place where Square Foot Gardening shines is in its ability to produce large amounts of veggies in a small space. If you want to grow beans, cabbages, salad greens, peppers, onions, and other smaller plants, Square Foot beds are very convenient and supportive. Bartholomew also provides plans for melon and bean trellises, so you can grow vertically and get more use from the space.
Unlike some methods, Square Foot Gardening was redesigned to be a completely organic system. As you pull out spent crops, put in a handful of compost in the holes left behind and then plant again. This means you do not have to bring in anything new after the initial purchases of peat and vermiculite. All your “fertilizer” is produced by you.
With a Square Foot garden, you can drop a garden right over grass or weeds without even pulling stuff up.
Bam. Instant space.
The book recommends putting a barrier down at the bottom of the newly constructed bed. Weed block and cardboard both work. Or you can build the bed on top of concrete, believe it or not.
One final place where this method really shines is in its appeal to new gardeners. The system is simple enough for anyone to create and it produces consistently. Mel Bartholomew is really fun to read—the book is worth buying just to hear what a truly excited and enthusiastic gardener sounds like. For a person just getting started, he takes the overwhelming world of food production and cuts it into nice, neat 12-inch x 12-inch pieces that are easy enough for even a complete novice to digest. When my wife wanted to start gardening years ago, I set her up with Square Foot beds. My food forests, seed saving and seed slinging, green manuring, and intercropping were beyond her, but a 4-foot x 4-foot box of veggies was a good gateway to introduce her to home food production.
Drawbacks of Square Foot Gardening
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. If Square Foot Gardening were the end-all system, it would be recommended across the gardening community, right? Yet writers like Steve Solomon, Ruth Stout, John Jeavons, Toby Hemenway, Carol Deppe, Edward Smith, Dick Raymond, and yours truly all have different methods that work for them.
Square Foot Gardening, despite its advantages, also has some drawbacks.
A main drawback of this system is the initial setup cost. You have to build beds from something and then fill them with perfect soil. Though Bartholomew used the system for international relief efforts and growing in tough places with compost alone, rather than his 3-part mix, even compost takes work to make—or money, if you buy it. Getting a proper Square Foot garden together cost me about $60.00 to build and fill. That’s for a 4-foot x 4-foot growing space. Double-digging could create the same space for $0.00, provided you had a little compost or manure lying around. If you wanted to feed your entire family with Square Foot beds, you’d be out some serious cash. Granted, you’d earn it back in homegrown organic produce over time—which is why I bit the bullet and built beds for my wife—but it’s still a big outlay. And the building of beds and mixing of “soil” takes some time. You also have to make a TON of compost. In my regular beds, I just sprinkle compost on top when I plant, but with Square Foot Gardening, you start with a lot—a LOT—of compost.
I also found that the 6-inch-deep thing didn’t work out very well here in Florida. The soil tended to dry out faster than I expected and stress my plants out. The standard Square Foot bed also doesn’t allow you to grow much in the way of large root crops or crawlers like melons. I eventually took the bottoms out of mine once I was sure the weeds beneath were dead.
This system requires more watering than systems that employ wider spacing. It may be perfect for a townhome’s backyard, but it’s less attractive when you have a lot of land available or where irrigation is less available. You might not have weeds to pull—but you’ll be spending some time watering during the summer. You can’t let a week slip past or you’ll be having a Square Foot funeral.
Finally, you have to build the boxes. I like the simplicity of digging mounded and borderless beds rather than having to make beds from wood.
To SFG Or Not To SFG
Even though I don’t follow most of his advice, I’m a fan of Mel Bartholomew. He’s gotten people gardening and helped feed people around the world. He’s encouraging, uplifting, thoughtful, and a fun writer. He’s an organic gardener and a philanthropist, and just seems to be an all-around sharp guy with a good heart. If you’ve got a limited amount of space, like well-planned systems, and you’ve got some resources, Square Foot Gardening is a great method. It really does work, and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of gardening. You will get good results with little weeding.
That said, it’s not where most of the food comes from on my homestead. I use a combination of methods ranging from row gardening to biointensive beds to water gardening to food forestry, etc. Square Foot Gardening is in my arsenal—but it doesn’t play a major role in my garden plans. In fact, I later dug beneath my old SFG beds and stacked in chunks of wood as water reservoirs in a hugelkultur-inspired fashion … but that’s another story altogether.
If you’re not gardening now, you need to start. And if it takes a 4-foot x 4-foot box with good instructions and a smiling mentor—sure, you can start with Square Foot Gardening. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually outgrow the box and concentrate on building your own soil rather than bringing it in from outside.
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David The Good is a Grow Network Change Maker, a gardening expert, and the author of five books you can find on Amazon: Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening, Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, and Push the Zone: The Good Guide to Growing Tropical Plants Beyond the Tropics. Find fresh gardening inspiration at his website TheSurvivalGardener.com and be sure to follow his popular YouTube channel.
Great article, David! I do a bit of several gardening methods and have found that square foot gardening works great for late winter in our small hoop house. Once the summer sun is doing its thing, the square foot gardening is done. We both work in town during the week and cannot keep it watered well enough to not stress it through the day. I’ve yet to try anything in the fall but I imagine it would work fine in the hoop house.
There are no doubt square foot gardening “enthusiasts”, but I don’t know who touts square foot gardening as an “end-all” gardening method. I certainly don’t, since I know every situation has its own considerations for what works best. But a combination of square foot and container gardening is really the only practical solution for my own particular situation.
I live in a city and have had to fight my neighbor’s shade trees and city easement ordinances just to get the meager 17×22 ft area I now have that’s suitable for gardening. The square foot method has produced many times more in that tiny space than I could ever imagine with gardening in natural soil. Furthermore, our soil contains a lot of clay, and digging a native earth garden requires a prohibitive amount of effort.
I’ve watched many of your (very entertaining) videos, David, and I get why your preferred methods are more “grown-up”. Unfortunately, your approach is impractical for gardeners with the limited space such as we have. Unless we are fortunate enough to acquire a larger rural property with more natural resources to build quality soil, I won’t be outgrowing square foot gardening anytime soon.