Helen McKerralBook review: Square Metre Gardening

New gardening books appear every week, surrounded by varying amounts of hype. Sometimes the hype’s justified, sometimes not, especially when book or author have no track record. But what of a “new” book that’s been in print for three decades and sold two million copies? Clearly such a book has much to offer, and Square Metre Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew (Exisle, 2013 RRP $29.99), certainly does. But does it live up to the hype?

Square-Meter-Gardening-front-cove-72dpiSquare Metre Gardening is the Australian descendant of ‘Square Foot Gardening‘, first published in the US in 1981 and updated in 2006 as “All New Square Foot Gardening”. These books presented a new way for Americans to grow vegetables: rather than long rows of individual crops, Bartholomew planted a range of vegetables in square metre-sized raised beds, divided by a grid of narrows slats on the surface to create nine squares. Vegetables are classified into four size categories so gardeners know how many to plant into each grid: one (broccoli), four (lettuce), nine (beetroot) or sixteen (radish). Small successive plantings into different squares extend harvest, avoid glut and provide a diversity of food in small suburban and urban gardens. When one square is harvested, you add compost and replant with something else. Bartholomew is also frugal with seed – why thin seedlings when you can simply sow the right amount?

The use of a particular growing medium, “Mel’s Mix” comprising one third each garden compost, peat moss and vermiculite is considered essential: omit or vary the growing medium at your peril.

sfg-classic-tv-series__34242.1331598018.1280.1280Over the decades, Bartholomew’s empire has evolved. Google ‘Square Foot Gardening’ and you’ll find not only his website but also discussion forums on gardenweb, squarefoot, and numerous blogs: mysquarefootgarden, squarefootabundance, getrichslowly. There have been radio and television series, DVDs, Certified Instructors, and humanitarian efforts in South America and Africa. Bartholomew’s SFG Foundation supports worthy projects by providing products at discount prices.

Square Foot Gardening is clearly a huge phenomenon in the United States, but what does it offer Australian gardeners today?

The basic concept – growing different vegetables in small, raised beds – is not new and has long been embraced by Australian gardeners, as seen in television gardening shows, community gardens and the range of raised garden kits sold in every garden centre. In fact, with limited space in today’s Aussie back yards, home vegie gardens are already more akin to SMG than to market gardens.

What Square Metre Gardening does, with outstanding clarity and accessibility, is describe the process of establishing a Square Metre Garden. The tone of the book is positive, encouraging and – it has to be said for laconic Australian audiences – self-promotionally loud in that uniquely American way. But this is a quibble, because the steps are so simple, the photos and illustrations so instructive, that even someone with zero gardening experience can confidently succeed. The book itself is beautifully presented. Experienced gardeners will also find hints and tips – there’s always something to learn – but they will probably be utilising many of the principles in their gardens already. I especially like the way Bartholomew breaks maintenance into small, manageable chunks of time and effort.

donations-internationalIronically, the book’s greatest strengths – clarity and simplicity – are also its greatest weaknesses. While new gardeners will be empowered, more experienced ones may find the didactic tone annoying. For example, Bartholomew’s insistence on ‘Mel’s Mix’ without substitution (coir peat is grudgingly acknowledged as a more sustainable possibility, but not encouraged) will exasperate thousands of gardeners successfully using other growing media. This inflexibility is all the more surprising when SFG projects in Africa are apparently having great success with 100% compost; different growing media may similarly better suit Australia’s long, hot, dry summers, just as gardeners in wet humid regions may need drier growing media and wider plant spacing. Photos on the SFG website also show many gardeners adapting Mel’s system to suit their own needs and growing conditions, so I was mystified as to why the book itself is so reluctant to encourage this.

wood-grid__52288.1330465312.1280.1280Similarly, Bartholomew’s insistence on the use of a physical grid will suit engineers, and online reviewers reflect this with quotes such as: “Fantastic! It very much appeals to my innate sense of organisation and efficiency!” Nor is Bartholomew’s own engineering background any surprise when he writes: “The numbers are so simple and easy to remember…. If you like maths, and who doesn’t, you will recognise right away that…” Well actually, Mr Bartholomew, I don’t enjoy maths at all, and a neat, physical grid is not how I want my garden to look, though my beds are arranged in blobs of mixed vegetables that resemble a haphazard SMG (ie without straight lines). Of course, many gardeners feel precisely the opposite! Either way, while new gardeners may prefer to closely follow Bartholomew’s instructions until they gain confidence, those with more experience are likely to do better by adapting to local conditions.

Of course, interplanting vegetables in the way Bartholomew suggests, avoids monocultures. When combined with herbs and flowers, SMG also incorporates permaculture principles of integrated pest management and complementary nutrient uptake. Crop rotation is much less important in this context, but I was disappointed that Bartholomew mentions it only in passing. I expect this is because introducing crop rotation for soil-borne disease control complicates planting, and indeed he writes that he avoided including information about pests because it daunts new gardeners. However, in my opinion, gardeners practising such intensive growing throughout the year (including winter) as we do in Australia with growing media that uses home-made compost, would greatly benefit from a basic understanding of the main vegetable groups, so they can incorporate rotation into planting. Bartholomew mentions plant families briefly – a small table or list would have been helpful, or even a reference to the planting table on p. 264, which arranges vegetables by family.

Two other issues are problematic in this first Australian edition of a northern hemisphere book. One is the recommended watering method: leaving a bucket beside your square metre garden to let the sun warm it (!), and using a ladle or cup, carefully pouring water at the base of each plant. Bartholomew is 100% right in saying that hand-watering in this way keeps gardeners in touch and in tune with their plants but, even with the growing medium he suggests, this would be impractical for nearly all gardeners in an Adelaide heatwave with ten successive days over forty degrees Celsius, and weeks either side over thirty five C… especially as Bartholomew does not advocate the use of mulch (a major omission for hot temperate Australian summers). He does mention drip irrigation, and, in my opinion, this is a more feasible solution for our hot regions.

Another editorial glitch has slipped into planting times. Australia encompasses tropical to cool temperate climates – a challenge for any garden writer – but a number of the planting times in the book are for icy Northern Hemisphere winters, and incorrect for Australia. For example SMG recommends that garlic and coriander should not be planted in autumn. Parsley, lettuce, broad beans and beetroot also grow happily through winter here. Such errors will no doubt be corrected in future editions but, in the meantime, readers should use planting information from Australian magazines, local newspapers, nurseries and radio programmes.

One Magic SquareLolo Houbein’s book “One Magic Square” (Wakefield Press 2008) presents an interesting contrast to “Square Metre Gardening”. Although her underlying principles are similar, Houbein’s casual style and tone are as different as is possible from Bartholomew’s. She encourages the use of whatever you happen to have lying around, whatever composts or growing media are cheaply and easily available, and she introduces crop rotation principles to her readers.

I found Bartholomew’s book more clear and easy to follow, Houbein’s more engaging and inspiring. One will suit the engineer, the other the artist. For example, Bartholomew writes:
“It’s very important to use the grid so you can see what space you have to fill and also so the individual plants are spaced within each square at the optimum spacing for growth and cropping. If your box frame doesn’t have a grid, then it isn’t a real SMG.”

And Houbein writes:
“Never garden in a mood of wanting to control everything. Observe nature’s ways. Don’t be quick to interfere when things grow in unexpected ways – there may be reasons. Patient gardeners discover out-of-season surprises, such as ripe pumpkins in winter … Let nature take over a little – become her assistant.”

The Australian edition of Square Metre Gardening comes three decades after its first American incarnation, and Aussies are already onto the basic concept, so of course it is no longer as groundbreaking as the promotion implies; it will also be interesting to see how Aussie gardeners respond to Bartholomew’s style and tone. However, for new gardeners especially, this book is an excellent introduction, destined to become dog-eared and grubby with torn corners and annotations in the margins: a clear, practical guide to creating and planting a vegetable garden in easy, manageable steps.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

6 thoughts on “Book review: Square Metre Gardening

  1. AliCat on said:

    I really like your review of this book Helen – you have grasped the pros and cons so well. Having read some of the book myself, I totally agree with all of your reasonings put forward.
    I did find his tone ‘irritating’ and so chose not to continue reading it. But there are some excellent positive attributes to the book, like you say, especially for new gardeners.
    Great review Helen.
    Alison

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thanks, Alison – , I was curious as to how other Aussies might respond to Bartholomew’s style and tone!

  2. Thanks Helen, for a great review – and particularly for the warning of the didactic tone.
    I’ve been gardening in raised beds (about 1.5 m2 – will I get a detention for that?) for a few years, and learning heaps, but what I’d love is some really good info on tight successional planting so as to get as many crops as possible per year. That info is hard to access, particularly in a country of such outrageous climatic diversity that I can’t do what gardeners 15 mins away can, let alone what others in different states can. Given that, what we need is principle, not prescription. Sounds like the author’s bent is more towards the old legalism. I might just have to push through that and see what he’s got to say. I assume the intensity I’m chasing would be the norm when you’re gardening in that size space.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Hi Michael – re tight successional planting & maximising crops, yes, you will definitely get ideas from the book because it’s fundamental to the system (you replant each little square the moment it’s harvested) though the actual varieties suitable for your microclimate at various times of year will be up to you. Bartholomew also gives tips to maximise the use of the area with frames/trellises, stacking a smaller box in the centre of a larger one, etc; I think he also suggests growing slow-to-harvest seedlings (eg cabbages) in small pots before transplanting them into the SMG so they take up space for a shorter time. There is plenty of solid, practical information in the book.

  3. Geoff Steen on said:

    Thank you Helen for your review. His insistence on his Mel’s mix is rather way too expensive for me in Melbourne. I have composted over many years and have a very loose soil for my vegetables. I have taken up his suggestion for using the lawn mower to convert dry autumn leaves into a very fine mulch, not for the compost as he suggests, but as a direct addition to my garden plots. Rather than waste money on wooden slats to define my squares, I have used some cut bamboo stakes to mark the corners of the squares in my plots. I used a very inexpensive twine with a handful of nails to mark out each veggie plot into squares, with the corners then marked by my bamboo stakes. The other problem I have identified with wooden slats is that they are inappropriate for veggies such as zucchini and cucumbers which take up more that 1 square for one plant. A single zucchini actually takes up 9 squares. With my bamboo stakes, I have great flexibility in this regard.
    Cheers, Geoff

  4. sofia on said:

    I really like this, thanks a lot Helen!

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