Mel Bartholomew created square foot gardening in the early 1980's, and has sold over 2 million books about it. He has simplified gardening to make it possible for nearly anyone to enjoy and succeed in this hobby – even if you have very little space available, a busy schedule, or physical disabilities.
His new book on square foot gardening has made some significant improvements in his method, and it includes most of the information that beginning gardeners need to get started. Even though I feel he sometimes oversimplifies gardening, I do recommend many of his basic methods.
While I like square foot gardening, I do not agree that it is the best method for all gardeners and all locations.
- His “Mel's Mix” potting soil is very expensive to make.
- This intensive method requires regular and thorough watering in dry weather.
- In the maritime Northwest, symphylans can badly infest permanent garden beds.
- If you live in a very dry climate, you might build up high salt levels in your garden.
Also, his potting soil – a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost – is not always perfect, and can have its own disadvantages. You might have a hard time finding good quality compost – either commercial or homemade. A combination of poor composts do not add up to a good source of nutrients for your garden plants, especially if it is the only source of nutrients in your garden beds.
Mel's Mix can also be expensive to create, and many people have difficulty finding large bags of coarse vermiculite in their local communities. You will need to support top-heavy plants, like broccoli and peppers, in this mix, because Mel's Mix is too loose to hold these plants upright.
However, if you can afford it and can find good quality ingredients, it can be a real pleasure to garden with Mel's Mix, because it is mostly weed-free and is very soft and easy to work in. However, for many reasons, I often choose to use real soil in my raised beds, along with compost and organic fertilizers.
Although Mel tells everyone to use a weed barrier under their garden beds, I rarely do so. I want my garden crops to extend their roots as deep as possible into the soil.
In addition, I often space my plants further apart than his recommendations, because over-crowded plants can't grow as vigorously, can be more susceptible to disease, and sometimes demand more frequent watering than I can provide.
In addition, although I'll sometimes use grids to guide me in planting the beds, I rarely leave them in place. Not all of my crops fit Mel's standard 1 foot spacings. For example, I found that spacing my potatoes 16″ apart (9 plants per four-foot square bed, instead of 16) produces healthier plants and larger potatoes, with a similar total yield to using 1 foot spacing.
Nonetheless, his book provides a lot of great ideas on how to garden intensively in small raised beds. It is particularly helpful for beginning gardeners and those experienced gardeners that aren't familiar with using raised beds. Some people prefer his original book, but I like the changes to his method that he has made in his new book.