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V? hy write an updated version of the best selling gardening book of all time? The old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well, Square Foot Garden isn't broken, but the all new model is so superior, so much simpler, and so improved that you can now forget all about the original book and the original Square Foot Gardening method!
Whats so new about the All New Square Foot Gardening book? The original can be considered the Model T of Square Foot Gardening. This new one . . . like the latest Cadillac! They are both cars and they both move down the road . . . but—oh boy—what a difference!
In this expanded and revised book on Square Foot Gardening, you too can learn, as millions of others already have, how to become a successful gardener the simple and painless way This easy-to-understand method will revolutionize the way you think about gardening; and the new ideas found in this revised edition will awe and inspire you as I share insights on how the Square Foot Gardening method can, and is, changing the world.
A reporter once asked me ifl thought I had invented 'gardening for dummies," referring, of course, to the popular Square Foot Gardening method I developed in 1976. "No," I answered.
Actually, when I invented the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method, I thought it would be for expert gardeners. My method was very precise and detailed, yet very simple and easy to understand, and it provided all the conditions necessary for successfully growing a broad variety of plants in a very different way. It also eliminated all of the wasteful, inefficient practices of traditional single-row gardening. I thought the experts would shout "Eureka!" and immediately bless all of the new ideas and advantages of this new home gardening method.
As is turned out, the experts never understood this unique method. Apparently it was too simple and easy. But the beginning gardener, and those discouraged by previous failed attempts, understood it completely. They immediately saw the simplicity of SFG. The beginner's instant response was "I can do this!" while the experts continued to question every aspect of this revolutionary gardening method. They just couldn't admit that home gardening could be that easy.
In my lectures, like to reassure audiences that if they are new at gardening, or perhaps afraid or overwhelmed by the idea of starting a garden, they will be able to learn this simple method of gardening in just an hour or two. However, if they are already "expert" gardeners, it will probably take them about two weeks! After the laughter dies down, I remind my audience that beginners readily accept the minimal amount of technical information needed to become successful gardeners because they want to know how to successfully garden.
The "experts," on the other hand, are so entrenched with the idea of single-row gardening as used in farming, with all of its wasteful methods, that they just can't see it any other way. You might say, "They are stuck in a rut." As a result, I've learned to leave the experts alone and concentrate on the beginner, or the tried-but-failed, gardener, and even the afraid-to-s tart person.
SFG appeals to other large groups of would-be gardeners. Years ago, I read some very interesting statistics (and I'm sure the percentages are similar today) about these gardeners.
75 Million vs. 10 Million
Twenty-Five Years and One Million Books Later
The first book I wrote on SFG in 1981 lasted twenty-five years and sold over one million copies, becoming the best selling gardening book in America. Here is the story behind how I came to invent a better way to garden, and the ultimate success of SFG.
It all started in 1975 after my retirement from my consulting engineering business in New Jersey, n celebration, I moved my family to a waterfront home on the North Shore of Long Island. After a year of rebuilding the house and another year of landscaping and improving the grounds, I decided to take up gardening as a hobby. My first step was to attend a lecture on composting given by a local environmental group. It was a warm spring day in April—a great time to be out in the garden. A small group milled around at the advertised meeting point, bur no instructor ever showed up. So, rather than disband, I suggested to the group that we each share our knowledge with each other and tell what little we knew about composting. We had a wonderful time and actually learned a little bit from each other. As we prepared to leave, someone asked me, "Can we do this again next week?1' And I said, "Sure, why not?" Thus began my new career of teaching gardening while I was still a novice myself.
The next step was organizing a community garden for this same environmental group, found some land and convinced the town to cut down all the weeds and fence it in. A local armer delivered two truckloads of well-rotted manure, and, after the ground was all fertilized and plowed up, we laid out plots and aisles and opened for business. All of the spaces were quickly taken by people in the community, and everyone started with great enthusiasm. Since most of the participants didn't have a garden at home and were novices, they were enthusiastic about obtaining instruction and insights on gardening.
So I initiated a Saturday morning gardening workshop and presented information on a different subject each week while everyone sat around on bales of hay listening. I was teaching basic single-row gardening because that's all anyone knew back then. I was busy studying and learning gardening myself, trying to keep ahead of everyone's questions! The local county agricultural agent helped out and everything went well until about midsummer. It was about then that our once-enthusiastic gardeners stopped coming out to the garden. However, the weeds kept coming—and growing! Pretty soon the place was overgrown and looked a mess.
First Red Flag
I was discouraged and thought I had better do some research to figure out why we had failed, so I visited many backyard gardens.
What I found was a big space way out in the farthest corner of the yard, about as close to the neighbors property line as possible. In most cases, these individual gardens were also filled with overgrown weeds. The first red flag went up in my mind, indicating that there was something wrong with traditional single-row gardening. I began to think about all the conventional gardening practices we'd been taught and began to question the efficiency of each.
I questioned why fertilizer is spread over the entire garden area, but the plants are only placed in long, skinny rows with 3-foot wide aisles on both sides. I wondered why you were supposed to till up all the soil in an entire garden area when those 3-foot wide aisles consume over 80 percent of a garden area, although plants in rows require less than 20 percent of the garden space. Then I wondered why you would walk all over the rest of the garden area again, packing down all that newly tilled soil? And, why is an entire garden area watered when plants are only located in a 6-inch wide row in the center of a 6-foot wide strip?
Too Many, Too Much
As I analyzed these traditional gardening methods, I realized that there is only one outcome you can expect when you fertilize and water a 3-foot wide aisle with nothing planted in it—weeds!
The following is a conversation I had with a friend of mine who was an agricultural agent.
"Why a 3-foot wide aisle on both sides of the planted row?" I asked.
"So you have room to get into the garden to hoe the weeds," he replied.
"But I don't want to hoe the weeds," I protested. "That's too much work."
"Well," he said, "let's face it. Gardening is a lot of hard work."
This triggered another red Hag in my mind. Gardening shouldn't be a lot of hard work. < iardening should be fun! There's something wrong here.
This led to further questions. Why do the planting instructions on packages of seeds direct the gardener to pour out an entire packet along a row only to have you later go back and tear out 95 percent of the seeds you planted once they sprout? Why use up an entire $1.89 packet of seeds for every row you plant? Isn't that rather wasteful? Why would they instruct us to plant that way? Who's in charge here, anyway?
The next question ] asked was why plant an entire row of every 11 ¡ing? Just because my garden is 30 feet long, for example, do I really want or need a whole row of cabbages? i hat would be thirty cabbages spaced 12 inches apart. This brings me to another commonsense revelation that no one seems to have thought about. Why would I want thirty cabbages to ripen all at the same time? If everything is planted at one time, won't it also be ready to harvest all at once? It sounds like farming to me, but that s too much to enjoy at the same time for a homeowner. How many people go to the grocery store and buy thirty heads of cabbage once a year? Do you? So why grow it that way? ! here must be a better way to stagger the harvest, and the obvious solution is to stagger the time of planting whenever possible and to plant less.
Because That's the Way
I soon realized that I had a lot of questions with very ew answers, so I traveled all over the country seeking out the best experts: agricultural college professors, county agricultural agents, garden writers, radio and TV gardening personalities, gardening publishers, book writers, garden clubs—all those who were supposedly knowledgeable people in the field of gardening. I sought answers to all the gardening questions 1 had and, no matter where I traveled throughout the country from Maine to California, I kept receiving the same answer. Can you imagine what that answer was? It soon became apparent that the only reason traditional single-row gardening methods continued to exist was, "Because that's the way we've always done it!" Right then and there I said, "I'm going to invent a better way to garden."
Part of the problem, I realized, was that single-row gardening was nothing but a hand-me-down technique from large-field crop farming. Single rows make sense when you depend upon a mule or a tractor to plow up the soil and tend the crops because those big hooves or wheels take up a lot of room. But why had no one ever realized that in a home garden, there is no longer a need for all that wasted space. There only needs to be room for two feet— yours! Yet, every single direction for home gardening still instructs, "Space rows 3 feet apart." Perhaps that's really the gardening method for dummies!
The next step I took was to list all of the ineffective, inefficient, and unnecessary steps that have been consistently taught for traditional single-row gardening and then find a better and more efficient way to accomplish the same task. I should mention here that besides being a civil engineer, I was also an efficiency expert. Before I sold my engineering company, my job was to travel to construction sites or manufacturing facilities to analyze current processes in order to identify and correct inefficiencies in facility operations. In other words, to find a better way. Thus, the challenge of inventing a new way to garden was right up my alley. The sequence of questions I asked and simple solutions I developed was actually very easy and straightforward, but it involved a little out-of-the-box thinking. Follow me along now.
I have fun when teaching a class or seminar by asking, "How many seeds do you think are in a packet of leaf lettuce?" Some guess fifty, one hundred, two hundred, and some even venture a guess as high as five hundred seeds. I then astound them by saying that I once opened a packet and counted them, and there were well over one thousand seeds! Why plant hundreds of seeds in one long row, and then turn around when they sprout and thin them out to one plant for every 6 inches? It doesn't make sense, does it? It's a terrible waste of seeds and time and work—all useless, unnecessary work. My first solution was to lay down a yardstick and plant one seed every 6 inches. Then, I had nothing further to do and no wasted seeds. The next thought was, if you're growing, for example, lettuce, and the seed packet says to thin plants to 6 inches apart in the row, how far away does the next row really need to be? The answer, of course, is 6 inches—not 3 feet!
Depending on the mature size of each plant, space seeds or transplants one, four; nine, or sixteen per square foot.
Single Row, Double Row, Triple Row
Eager to test my reasoning, I planted two rows, 6 inches apart, to see how well the plants would do. It worked! The plants grew just as well in two rows as they did in a single row, as long as each plant had 6 inches all around. Next I tried a triple row—three rows where I placed all the plants 6 inches apart in all directions. Again, it worked! How wide could I make this, I asked? The answer is, as wide as you can reach in to maintain your garden; in other words, as long as your arms. But I still had a harvest too large to utilize.
So what was the obvious solution? Shorten the rows! And they kept getting shorter and shorter, until they were only 12 inches long and 12 inches wide—a square foot planting area. How many plants could you grow in that square foot if each plant was 6 inches apart? The simple answer: four plants per square foot.
Depending on the mature size of each plant, space seeds or transplants one, four; nine, or sixteen per square foot.
So, in summary, if plants should be thinned to 12 inches apart, plant one per square foot. If plants should be thinned to 6 inches apart, plant four per square foot. If plants should be thinned to 4 inches apart then you can grow nine within the space of that one square foot. If plants are thinned to 3 inches apart, you can grow sixteen in that same square foot. Doesn't it all make sense and seem easy enough?
I then wondered just how far someone could reach in to maintain a garden without compacting the soil by walking all over it. So, I got a little old lady and a big husky man and measured how far they could easily reach. I found that both could comfortably reach in 2 feet without losing balance. In order to reach in 2 feet and walk all the way around your garden, you end up having a 4x4-foot area. Now, the only soil that needs to be dug up, improved, watered, and fertilized is a 4x4-foot garden area and not all the aisles. That reduced the actual growing area in the garden by 80 percent. And, an added benefit is the growing soil in the 4x4-foot area is never packed down, so you don't have to hoe or dig up the ground to keep loosening the planting soil.
The next step was how to improve the soil. After listening to agricultural agents and reading books on soil improvement and conditioning, the only option seemed to require a great deal of work, time, and money. My research indicated that average soil conditions around the country were not well-suited for growing healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers. Thus, in most areas soils had to be greatly improved to obtain the best gardening results.
Most soils only contain about 3 or 4 percent organic material. Thus, the traditional first step for improving soil in preparation for gardening was to dig and till up the soil in the entire garden as deep as you could and then add soil enhancers such as compost or well-rotted manure followed later by commercial fertilizers. This initial step rang a bell with me because, as a teenager, I was the one who had to turn over my mothers garden, digging the whole thing up every year. My father had to bring home bushel baskets full of horse manure in his brand new Chrysler. After we dumped it into the garden area, I had to do all of the spreading, mixing, and turning. As laborers in Mom's garden every spring, my dad and I
were not happy campers, although she was thrilled with the results.
I once conducted a survey, asking gardeners how long it took them to improve their soil until they got it just the way they wanted it. The average answer was about seven years—seven years of hard work to properly condition the soil for gardening! And do you know what statistics say the average homeowner does after seven years? They move! And guess who buys that home? Someone who doesn't even garden!
You can probably imagine the conversation between the new homeowners. "Henry, lets pave over that garden area; it would make a great place to park the trailer." Seven years worth of effort lost. There's something definitely wrong with this scenario.
I started thinking, "Why not have great soil during the first year of your garden, and every year thereafter, no matter where you live?" Of course, with traditional big garden areas, having the best soil conditions right away may be too costly and entail too much time and effort. Remember that after I did the math, I found that by switching from a traditional single-row garden to a 4x4-foot layout —which will produce the same harvest—80 percent of the garden area could be completely eliminated. This means that you can grow 100 percent of the harvest in only 20 percent of the space. That 80 percent of a single-row garden is wasted space—space that doesn't need to be fertilized, watered, or improved, but it does have to be weeded. Think of it. With the SFG method, seven years worth of work can suddenly be condensed into as little as a single day without all the effort!
My first book showed how you could reduce the work by laying out a 4 X4-foot area, then digging out 6 inches of existing soil and mixing in 2 inches of peat moss, 2 inches of vermiculite, and 2 inches of compost. These ingredients are available at any nursery. Many gardeners even make their own compost at home from kitchen scraps and other plant material. Mixing the ingredients together with the soil that you removed, you now have 12 inches of 50 percent improved soil. My thinking was that 12 inches of improved existing soil would be all that new plants would need to thrive with the plant roots staying within these 12 inches of improved soil. But the experts I consulted said that most vegetable plant roots need to keep growing downward, searching for water and nutrients many, many feet below the surface of the soil. "But," I thought, "if plants are provided a good growing soil composed of more than 15 percent organic matter, and if vermiculite and peat moss are mixed in, helping to retain water in the soil, plant roots would no longer need to continue growing downward in search of additional moisture and nutrients." Besides that, I wondered il they were right about the roots needing to grow deeper than 12 inches, how come most rototillers dig down less than 6 inches? Well, it turned out they were wrong. Our gardens thrived with less than 12 inches of improved soil and that was just the beginning! Wait until you read Chapter 2, which describes the latest advances in this "out of the box" type of thinking.
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