The most important lesson that I have learned (so far, anyway) is that you must do your own experimenting to find out what works for you – not what some author or web site says (including this web site).
We started out using Square Foot Gardening as the basis for our garden plans. It is a wildly popular system, the book and its author are widely known and quoted, so we figured that he must have it right. What is written in Square Foot Gardening may well work for him and for others, but we found a number of things in the book that simply did not work when put into practice. Here are some examples:
- “Mel’s Mix” – When I was not getting the results I expected when using Mel’s Mix (from the most recent edition – All New Square Foot Gardening), I took samples to the county agriculture center for testing. The fertility rate, as measured by dissolved salts, was literally off the scale. It was way too “hot”. I had to cut back on the compost. For it to work, you would need a huge supply of just the right kind of compost. We used 4 different types of compost, including everything from our own compost pile over the previous year.
- The book says that Square Foot Gardening can be done in something as shallow as 6″. Wrong – unless you are planting very small plants. See more about soil depth here.
- The plant spacing claimed by the book is wildly optimistic. Can you plant lettuce with 4 per square foot as the book recommends? Yes, as long as you don’t let them grow to maturity. We planted ours (Romaine, Paris Island) 3 plants across our 4′ wide garden (each plant has a 16″ circle of ground to grow in). That is less than 1 plant per square foot. At maturity, the plants were just the right spacing. A test area where they were evenly spaced 3 across, and then additional plants 2 across (a pattern of 3-2-3) was so tight that the leaves could not adequately dry out and rot started developing. While plants can be grown tightly together, other factors come into play. A garden is a complex system – everything affects everything else. Plants need air circulation to be healthy – give your plants space to breathe.
- The biggest lesson here is that the ability of intensively worked soil to provide nutrients to the roots is NOT the only factor involved. Soil volume affects moisture holding ability, soil depth affects the ability of the roots to support the plant above it, plant spacing affects air circulation which affects drying which affects the formation of rot and disease.
There is plenty of good information in Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening book, but there is also plenty of information in there that I have found to be just plain wrong in my application. Everything in there may work just fine for someone else in some other place – but not for me. Do your own testing and then be quick to adapt when your favorite gardening book doesn’t produce the same results for you that it does in the book.