The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Soil health in square foot gardening

Adding soil amendments to a square foot gardenIn addition to using permanent beds with small aisles and copious trellises, Mel Bartholomew gets more vegetables in a smaller space because he brings in a lot of soil amendments.  I'm of two minds about this part of his gardening strategy.

On the one hand, it's clearly expensive (and not very sustainable) to buy bags of peat moss, potting soil, and vermiculite to give your soil good drainage and then add chemical fertilizers to boost the plants' growth.  Mel Bartholemew is basically creating a large container garden, which means that he isn't tapping into the strength of a diverse soil food web.

On the other hand, Bartholomew might be able to get many of the same results by doubling down on compost and manure.  His point is well taken that if you divide the size of your garden in half, you can double the amount of soil amendments on each square foot, possibly resulting in a doubled (or at least larger) crop in the smaller space.

However, I don't grow vegetables just to get the largest fruits from the smallest tract of land.  I've discovered that the tastiest (and, I think, most healthful) fruits and vegetables have to struggle a little to find nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.  The fruits are often smaller, but they're jam-packed with flavor, and I suspect have more micronutrients from their roots' elongated journey through the soil.  I'm not willing to give up that quality in favor of quantity; otherwise, I might as well just buy my produce at the grocery store.

A permaculture approach to soil is completely different.  Instead of focusing on the plants' output per unit space, a permaculturalist would focus on maintaining a healthy soil ecosystem and on adding varied soil amendments that would boost micronutrient levels.  I would love to see a study comparing the vitamins and minerals in a leaf of lettuce grown in my type of garden versus one grown in Mel Bartholomew's.  Could science tell a difference?

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This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hi Anna. I am not sure if you have this book but it is one I found really helpful.

Just ignore everything the guy has to say about aerating compost tea and it's all terribly useful. I mean, I use compost tea on occasion but I certainly don't waste the electricity to put air into it. Otherwise it's a great read for understanding the soil food web. Personally, I think there's so much that we don't know about the ground under our feet that it's just as relevant a study as astronomy!

happy digging

Comment by El Sat Apr 24 08:12:44 2010

Thanks! I love that book! (Actually, I posted a lunchtime series about Teaming with Microbes back in December.

I haven't tried the aerated compost tea, but it actually makes sense to me --- if you're aiming for aerobic microbes, then you'd lose a lot by letting the tea sit and become anaerobic. I'm too lazy, though, so I usually just leave buckets with a bit of manure out in the rain then pour the result on my plants. :-)

Comment by anna Sat Apr 24 09:23:22 2010

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