Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Reviews: Gardening When It Counts and Square Foot Gardening

I'm reviewing both of these books together because they represent the two ends of the home gardening spectrum when it comes to philosophy. I have both, love both and have finally figured out how to combine the best elements of both philosophies to fit my particular climate, space and habit. I'll warn now, this is more of an article than a blog entry and is a bit long. Sorry!

I'm also including both because I think many people get really polarized in their gardening views. And yes, I've actually heard folks use heated words with each other over this very topic. Strange, but true.

Another important reason to really delve into these gardening philosophies is based on what the future is shaping up to be. Both writers fully understand that during hard financial times, home gardening increases and many folks jump in for the first time while being really financially tied to the outcome. Even for the experienced gardener who has been treating their veggies as a hobby and not paying attention to what it costs would benefit from really evaluating their garden.

Sometimes, it boils down to the interpretation with regards to environmentalism, sustainability, food safety or even meshing with the wilds. The truth is, a strict adherence to any gardening style when it may not be ideal for any one particular spot on the world is going to be the lesser one and that could wind up being either of these. If I had to summarize what I took from both books, I'd say it was that knowing both methods is essential and all but the most urban spot is probably going to wind up needing a bit of both.

Gardening When It Counts

Steve Solomon, the author, hasn't been an advocate of the wide space method forever. In fact, he wrote books on various intensive methods in the past. He's actually a relative newcomer to this but he is a logical person with long gardening experience and a wonderful point of view. His current garden can survive without much in the way of irrigation or inputs and leverages the habits of plants in nature as a way to ensure harvests under adverse conditions.

Square Foot Gardening

Mel Bartholomew, probably one of the best known and most personable of all the intensive method gardening writers, is the developer of Square Foot Gardening. While he has refined it some over time, the basic premise remains the same as it was when it had its debut on PBS to the American people. It's been spread throughout the world and is often used as a way to allow urban people and schools access to growing food they wouldn't otherwise have.

The Good, The Bad and the Comparison

Spacing: One of the most basic differences in these methods is the plant spacing.

  • GWIC, very wide plant spacing is used to leverage expanding root systems to reduce or eliminate irrigation or fertilization needs. Instead of putting a lot of inputs, the plants get to use more area to get what they need. The upside is that water, if expensive, and fertilizers which are increasingly expensive, aren't needed. The downside is that lots of open space between plants means lots of light for weeds to grow and even more importantly, lots of space that is dedicated to crops instead of the natural plant array for that area.
  • SFG promotes a very close spacing of plants in an ideal soil mix while tending the plants to keep them in check, such as pruning tomato vines to the main vine or 2 instead of sprawling. The upside is that even the most limited space, even a balcony, can produce veggies. There is very limited destruction of ground structure and containment is easier. It is also the only option for many in HOAs that don't permit in ground gardens due to aesthetics. The downside is that some produce will be smaller, in particular, big beefsteak tomatoes, larger peppers and eggplants, primarily because roots sense their spacial limitations.

Initial Outlay: Big difference in costs and labor between these methods.

  • GWIC uses a much larger area but takes the ground as it is. Initial amendments are limited to what is on hand, like compost and manure and added only rarely or during fallow times. So cost is low. Sweat equity, on the other hand, is quite high. Initial clearance, leveling and breaking sod can be back breaking, and if you're clearing a large area or many patches, it can be overwhelming. If you live in a verdant area that has a lot of vines, creepers or invasives, this may not be do-able at all. And if you're in suburbia, your lot may not be big enough for much in the long run.
  • SFG does use a very small area relative to output. In just pound for area comparison, there isn't much to outstrip SFG. Initial labor means building beds, filling them and that means a day of hard work. The cost, however, can be really prohibitive if you don't have a ready supply of compost and manure and soil. Good lumber, stone or blocks to build the beds can cost a pretty penny and importing good soil and compost cost even more.

Maintenance and Output: Tending the garden for what you get out of it

  • GWIC is reputed to give very large and very abundant results. With so much space to sprawl and drawn nutrients from, the plants give their all and this is the kind of garden you can get prize sized tomatoes from. Of course, the downside is the weeding since weeds are going to take advantage of all that space and sun and nutrients too. You'll lose the advantage that produces the size unless you're tenacious with weeding. Mulching with whatever is available reduces that need for weeding some, but relies on the availability of mulching material that is appropriate. Watering, which can be a pain, is much reduced as the resevoir of retained water is being used by a smaller number of plants per area.
  • SFG definitely gives smaller produce in space dependent plants, however the amount per square foot is higher overall. Weeding is so easy as to be a non-issue and once plants establish they shade the ground preventing more weed growth and keeping in moisture so the watering isn't too bad. Of course, you do have to water SF Gardens more overall. In the height of a truly blazing summer a bed of tomatoes is going to need a shot every other day no question. Nutrients are going to be depleted more rapidly with an intensive bed, no matter what. Side dressings of compost are going to be needed for full season plantings and a handful of compost added to each square during succession planting is a must.

Overall Impressions of both books:

Each one is a valuable addition to the core gardening reference section of every home gardener. If you're at all concerned with changes in economy or foreign food safety changing the way you garden or feed your family, then these are really a must. Both have sound principles and both have a valid point of view. Both of them aren't likely to be able to be used singly in any location, though there are exceptions to that, but together and used in combination, they cover almost any garden location you can think of. I don't think you'll regret making these purchases and will refer to them over and over as the years go by.

Knowing how to figure out what is right for you can be hard for some folks. It is just too confusing and people remain unsure about things for years, even when they really do know it deep down inside. I wasn't born with a green thumb...I developed one. It took only about a year of watching to figure out what was right for me. And believe me, if I can do that with little effort, so can anyone else.


TheOrganicSister said...

Great info! I have the SFG book and draw some info from it. I have heard a lot about the GWIC but haven't read it yet. We live in such a dry climate (4 inches a year) that no irrigation is not an option for growing anything other than cacti (edible but not exactly a well-rounded diet). I'd still like to get this book though. I have a feeling I'd use it much the same as SFG - another tool in the toolbox, so to speak.

Thanks for the thorough info. :)


Milah said...

You have certainly done your homework! I'm always amazed when I see small space gardening. I never had to garden that way, but I think it would be fun to give it a try.

I'm very fortunate that I have two expert gardeners in my family. Whenever I have a question I call my mom or aunt. They have gardened all their lives and still like to garden even though they are in their 70's.

I would give anything if someone had taken a picture of all my mothers canning. We had a basement with floor to ceiling shelves and a chest freezer. I will never forget what that looked like.

I worked in my families garden when I was a kid. I kept a garden the first 5 or 6 years we were married. Then I had a back injury which forced me to give it up. I really missed it, but now I'm glad to say I'm back at it. Though it's on a much smaller scale these days.

I say find what works for you and do it....then someday you can write a book!;D

wandering owl said...

I have the old edition of SFG, but I don't use it like I should. Still stuck working between rows. One of these days!

mos6507 said...

You said you blend techniques from both. Could you elaborate on that?

Christy said...

Interesting review. I'm going more for the spread out type of gardening this year. We'll see how it goes.

livinginalocalzone said...

Thanks for the great reviews, seeing them in contrast helped me and got me thinking. I have SFG too, and I guess I'm in that camp, for space limitations, and I'm using raised beds (although its more than a square foot, but still).... I think that another advantage of SFG is that it helps make growing ones own veg seem less daunting for those who think that they have to have acres of land to make a dent in the process of providing at least some of their own food. SFG completely debunks that myth! Since I think that daunting feeling might be one of the things that makes it harder to get more people involved and caring about the whole food supply/earth sustainability/taste factors, anything that can open minds is a good thing, right?