The practice produces a large amount of food in a small space with a special soil mix and a little planning.
In the front yard of her home in Long Beach, Calif., Jennifer van der Fluit has cultivated a small but bountiful vegetable garden. Lettuces, bitter greens and a giant tangle of onion shoots flourish alongside carrots, Chinese cabbage and other cool-weather varieties.
“My son loves turnips — whatever! Right?” chuckles the mother of two, ages 5 and 8, as she navigates the wide, mulched pathways between the raised beds she has divided into a series of square-foot grids.
Van der Fluit, 44, practices what is known as square-foot gardening.
Developed in the early ’80s by retired civil engineer Mel Bartholomew, the method is designed to produce a large amount of food in a small amount of space. It uses only 6 inches of soil and eliminates over-seeding, overproduction and thinning.
“Most people who do row gardening end up with far more produce than they’ll ever use,” says Jerry Nielsen, a 72-year-old certified square-foot gardening instructor from Pasadena. “With square-foot gardening, you can really plan in such a way that the produce you grow can be staggered. When one plant is gone, the next one is already coming along.”
The method almost ensures success. So it’s no surprise square-foot gardening is taught in developing countries (through Bartholomew’s nonprofit foundation aimed at ending world hunger) as well as to home gardeners through a network of instructors listed at www.squarefootgardening.org.
Special soil mix is used
Square-foot gardening is foolproof. For starters, it uses a carefully prepared soil dubbed Mel’s Mix — one part each of peat moss, vermiculite and compost — and a grid system that controls how much food is planted, produced and harvested.
“I love this method because I can be easily overwhelmed, and so it helps me concentrate on one square at a time,” says Van der Fluit, who gave up long, single-row gardening several years ago after reading Bartholomew’s guide, “All New Square Foot Gardening.”
The second edition of the book is due out Feb. 15 with an expanded section on vertical gardening and tips on pest control.
But the principles have not changed.
The raised grids should be no wider than 4 by 4 feet. Otherwise, gardeners run the risk of stepping on the soil and compacting it.
There’s no need to till, dig or fertilize the soil.
And gardeners should plant only the number of seeds or starters they think they’ll need.
Adapting to patio gardens
Nielsen has taken those principles and is in the process of adapting them to a patio garden.