An easy way to get your thumbs green

Neophytes, children can succeed at square-foot gardening

February 11, 2010|By Susan Reimer On Gardening

It is hard to think about growing vegetables in weather that won't even let you drive to the grocery store to buy them.

But planning your garden may be just what you need to distract you from the blizzard outside.

And Mel Bartholomew makes that planning so much easier.

This civil engineer-turned-gardener is the originator of square-foot gardening, a system of 4-foot-by-4-foot aboveground boxes that make starting your first vegetable garden so much less intimidating. And so much more productive.

Bartholomew takes the advice I offered in my first column for rookie vegetable gardeners - plant in a garden box about 6 to 8 inches deep filled with a good growing mix and compost so you don't have to dig and you don't have to worry about your soil quality - and he takes it a step further.

Divide that box - no bigger than 4 feet by 4 feet - into square-foot grids and plant a different vegetable, or flower, in each, with anywhere from one to 16 plants, depending on the type of plant. (Judge by the planting instructions on your seed packet or the instructions that come with your seedlings.)

That's 16 plants or 16 different vegetables - a very manageable number for the rookie gardener. On his Web site,, and in his revised book, "All New Square Foot Gardening," Bartholomew also has instructions for beans and other vine crops.

If you want more growing space, build a second box, but separate the boxes by 2 or 3 feet to create a walkway between. That allows you easy access to tend, water and harvest your vegetables without stepping on and compressing the soil.

The key to Bartholomew's system is the 1-foot-by-1-foot grid. It eliminates the temptation to plant in rows, which he finds very inefficient. The grids can be made from wood, plastic strips or old blinds, and they are screwed into place on top of the box or laid on top of the ground.

When you have harvested one of the grids, plant a new crop.

Square-foot gardening has taken off, and there are lots of Web sites and online videos to help you get started. This method requires less space, less water, fewer seeds and less work. And it is perfect for children - simply build a 3-foot-by-3-foot square for them to tend.

Bartholomew, who sold over 1 million copies of his first book, has come out of retirement and started a foundation to promote square-foot - or rather, square-meter - gardening in the poorest countries to increase productivity and battle hunger.

But you can get started on a much smaller scale.

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