04/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vegetable Gardening: Two Books Make It Easy To Grow Your Own

There was a vegetable garden on the White House lawn during World War II. In the mid-'90s, Alice Waters --- founder of Chez Panisse and a leader in the eat-local, eat-organic movement --- suggested that Bill Clinton revive the garden. (He didn't, but Mrs. Clinton got the message; she planted a tomato rooftop garden at the White House.) Now Ms. Waters has proposed the idea to Michelle Obama.

If the Obamas can tear up a patch of the White House lawn for a vegetable garden --- and my bet is: they will --- then you can probably have one too. And if you can, you should. For health reasons: The organic food you grow is better for you than any you can buy. For spiritual reasons: It's good to reconnect with our ancestral roots. For exercise: You will use muscles that don't get worked out at the gym. For economic reasons: It's vastly cheaper to grow your food than buy it. And, in a hard time, for the simple satisfaction, of seeing the upside of life --- seeing something small grow into something good.

If you've never done this, starting even the smallest garden can feel like climbing Everest --- you need an idiot's guide. But here's a surprise: If the last time you gardened was the summer you spent with rural relatives back in the day, you too will want a guide. Because approaches to gardening have changed --- and it's much easier now to grow Alice Waters-worthy vegetables.

What's different? No more digging to China. A new approach to weeding. No more long rows. Using only as many seeds as you hope will grow, so you don't have to spend hours on your knees thinning your crop.

In a word: above-ground gardening --- planting by the square foot in raised beds, contained with planks any fool could hammer together.

The king of this school of gardening is Mel Bartholomew, an engineer who retired in 1975 and took up gardening as a hobby. He had also been an efficiency expert, so he had lots of questions that others might not have dared to ask. Like: Why plant a zillion seeds, only to thin 95% of the young plants a few weeks later? Like: Why plant entire rows of a single crop if you don't, for example, want 30 cabbages to ripen at the same time? Why leave a 3-foot aisle between rows? Why add compost at a rate that doesn't give you great soil for seven years?

The answers he got were the same each time: "That's the way we've always done it."

Not any more.

In All New Square Foot Gardening, Bartholomew breaks gardens down to literal 12" squares. With proper spacing, that means just four plants per square. Savings to you? Well, by his math, planting in 12" squares instead of long rows saves you 80% of the garden area. To put it bluntly (and he does): "You can grow 100% of the harvest in only 20% of the space."

So what does Bartholomew ask of you? Lay out a 4' by 4' area, frame it with planks nailed together (and, if you're so inclined, painted a crisp white). Dig up the top six inches of soil. Mix in peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Now you have a 12" high growing area. Plant it.

I am, as Woody Allen says. "two with nature." But Bartholomew shows you how to do everything. When to do it. How much to do it. What tools you'll need (few). How much work lies ahead (not so much). Everything important gets a big, clear, color photograph. And, from the testimonials, it really looks as if a few minutes a day can yield a bountiful organic harvest.

The Vegetable Garden's Bible, by Edward C. Smith, is a first cousin to the square-foot method. Smith lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont; whenever you read this, it's probably snowing there right now. Smith is a bigtime gardener --- he grows 100 kinds of vegetables in 1,500 square feet --- so it's harder for him to think small. And he does require a bit more of you. (No readymade compost for him, and he likes to dig deep.) But he adopts the raised bed approach. He likes wide rows. He's organic.

Smith, like Bartholomew, had revelations along the way. "Whenever a plant's growing space gets wider or deeper or both, its growth improves." He teaches you how to really read a seed catalogue. He shares useful tips, like planting mint and horseradish --- in pots, so they don't grow wild --- to repel cabbage moths and bean beetles. And he takes you through every process, in step-by-step photographs.

If you want an encyclopedia, consider the 577-page All-New Illustrated Guide to Gardening, a Reader's Digest book, updated so it's completely organic. It's a total reference book, discussing 700 plants, presenting 2,500 color photos and 800 diagrams. Unlike the other books, it also deals with flowers, trees and plants. Probably not for the beginning gardener.

Effortless gardening? Only in those TV commercials that show you how to roll out a carpet of ready-to-sprout flowers or grow tomatoes upside down on a porch. Nearly effortless? Two of these three books come very close. Which gives you no excuse not to grow your own.

[Cross-posted from]