Give us a square foot and we'll give you a year's worth of produce
Come grow with The Bee Garden
By Pat Rubin - prubin at sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, April 19, 2008
Simple ideas are often the best.
And Mel Bartholomew stumbled upon a simple, even slightly
revolutionary, idea a little more than 25 years ago when he coined the
term "square foot gardening."
The retired engineer and dedicated gardener from Utah urged home
gardeners to convert their traditional row gardens into raised beds
filled with rich, friable soil; to divide each bed into 1-square-foot
grids; and then to plant something in every square foot. When you take
one crop out, add a handful of compost and plant something else.
There's no need to let the ground lay fallow if you follow this
method, he says. And in our mild Northern California climate you can
glean produce from a small vegetable garden all year.
While Bartholomew's method was aimed at people with little space, I
thought his principles were sound even for folks with large gardens.
After all, why waste space, energy and resources unnecessarily?
Well, I'd previously converted the vegetable garden to raised beds
because they organize the garden so beautifully. Instead of facing a
40-by-20-foot expanse overrun with weeds and volunteer seedlings from
the previous year's garden, I had a dozen beds with permanent paths
between them. The raised beds make the garden seem manageable
and less daunting. And while I consider myself a fan of Bartholomew's
square foot gardening method, I had never followed his suggestions to
That's what's different about this year's Bee Garden. I purchased the
square foot gardening grid for the garden as well as the tomato/pole
bean/cucumber support Bartholomew developed. I consulted his book to
determine exactly how many carrots, radishes, tomatoes, peppers,
eggplant, lettuce and basil to plant in each square-foot space. I
devised a plan for the garden and in early April planted all 32 square
feet of the 4-by-8-foot bed. I started radishes, carrots, basil,
lettuce and cucumbers from seed, some sown indoors, others directly in
the garden. I bought starter plants of eggplant, tomato, arugula and
peppers. The tomatoes went in along the north edge so they wouldn't
cast too much shade on the rest of the garden. The four varieties of
eggplant are in a 4-square-foot block, and I put small support cages
around the basil and arugula so they'd stand up straight instead of
flopping over their neighbors.
Then I stepped back and tried to imagine how the plants would grow and
change over the coming months, and saw a beautiful garden full of
And I'm more impressed with Bartholomew's technique today than when I
first read his book in 1981.
That's because his method makes you think. It makes you carefully
scrutinize every square foot of the growing area and force it to be
productive. It makes you a tidy gardener ? a goal most of us yearn to
attain but fail at some point as the weather heats up or insects
destroy a crop. To be successful with Bartholomew's method, you can't
allow the arugula to lay its lax stems across the eggplant. You can't
let the basil flop over the lettuce. The cucumbers and pole beans need
to go up, and not over the peppers and carrots.
So as I look at 32 neatly planted squares, each one framed by a white
plastic grid, I have high hopes for the 2008 Bee Garden. I'll share my
successes ? and failures ? along the way. I'll check Bartholomew's
book to learn just how to train a tomato vine to a single stem so it
stays in its allotted square foot. Once I harvest the last of the
radishes, I'll add a trowel of compost and plant something else. Ditto
the carrots. I'll harvest basil regularly ? we'll have lots of pesto ?
so it doesn't encroach upon its neighbors.
And as beautiful as vegetables are in the garden, I'll take
Bartholomew's advice and grow a square or two of flowers, just because