More food in less space — revisited

Perhaps you've heard the term "Square Foot Gardening," but you weren't sure what it meant, or thought it was just a passing fad.

The term came from a book of the same title by Mel Bartholomew in 1976. It soon became the best-selling garden book in America. Bartholomew has updated his book recently, calling it "All New Square Foot Gardening."

With the renewed interest in gardening, his method is being touted as a way to grow more food in less space, especially in our urban and suburban backyards.

Even if you didn't grow up on a "truck farm," you have no doubt driven by countless fields where crops are grown commercially, all neatly in rows. Mel says we first must discard the idea of planting things in rows. That is necessary only for large-scale gardening, because tractors or horses pulling machinery need about three feet between rows to drive or walk. Yet we tend to grow our own garden produce in rows because that's what we've seen, and "because we've always done it that way."

Square-foot gardening theory goes like this: If plants need to be six inches apart, for example, that is true in all directions. So why plant in long rows three feet apart, which allows for wide walkways between rows, but leaves much of the garden's soil unused? That method often produces lots of weeds and too much of a given crop all at once. Can you really use 120 radishes within a few days from a 20-foot row, with plants 2 inches apart? Why not shorten the row to one foot, space the radishes 2 inches apart in both directions, yielding a more usable 36 radishes?

If plants like lettuce should be six inches apart, grow four of them in a square foot. Sixteen carrots or onions fit nicely in one square foot. Each cabbage, on the other hand, needs its own square foot. Get the idea?

If you're using raised beds for your vegetables, which is recommended if you have clay or decomposed granite soil, these square foot plots can be right next to each other over the entire bed, as you don't need to walk in the garden.

If you're planting directly in your soil — which as been amended with lots of compost and/or aged manure — you'll need a narrow walkway between sections of square foot plots.

One advantage of this method is that you can stagger the harvest so that not all of your season's crop is planted at once. You can repeat the same crop, or follow an early crop like radishes with a later one, like carrots.

Another advantage: Fewer weeds! By planting close together, your veggies will shade out most weeds. And who wouldn't love that?

In my next column, I'll go into a little more detail about square-foot gardening, including how to mark off the square-foot plots, a new way to plant the seeds, and soil to use in the raised bed.

Remember to note Thursday, April 16, on your calendar. From 7 to 9 p.m. at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point, Marcus Buchanan, Oregon State University soils specialist, will teach a class on "Gardening in Clay Soils." Cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 for further information.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at

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