Square Foot Gardening Celebrates Thirty Years of Worldwide Success and Goodwill

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Mel Bartholomew developed the square foot gardening method thirty years ago, and it has since become the most adopted gardening method in the world. This has led to Bartholomew channeling that success into a nonprofit foundation that has as its goal using the SFG technique to help end world hunger.

Mel Bartholomew

Row gardening, Bartholomew points out with barely concealed disdain, is a wasteful exercise that is innately “stuck in a rut.” In his world, a garden is a 4 x 4-foot wood box filled with a carefully concocted potting soil he dubs “Mel’s Mix.”

Is Mel Bartholomew America’s most influential gardener?

With the zeal of a tent evangelist and the precision of a civil engineer, Bartholomew has preached his unorthodox Square Foot Gardening gospel in all corners of the world for more than 30 years. From Africa to South America to practically every Main Street in the USA, he’s hopped onto his soapbox, adorned in a famous straw Panama hat, and delivered the good news: If you follow his method, you can grow more in less space. With well over two million copies of his Square Foot books in print, his message has found its audience.

But to gauge Bartholomew’s influence by book sales alone is to miss most of the story.

The impact of Square Foot Gardening is rooted in two highly unique points. First, the “SFG” method really is revolutionary, in every sense of the word. Prior to it, home gardeners planted exclusively in rows. And row gardening, Bartholomew points out with barely concealed disdain, is a wasteful exercise that is innately “stuck in a rut.” In his world, a garden is a 4 x 4-foot wood box filled with a carefully concocted potting soil he dubs “Mel’s Mix.” Equal parts peat moss, compost and vermiculite, the planting medium discourages weeds while nourishing plants so effectively that they can be sown with much greater density than in soil. The exacting plant spacing is established by dividing the box into one-square-foot grids (hence the name of the method) and growing the number of specimens recommended for each plant type. Based on this, Bartholomew claims that a typical SFG can match the yield of a row garden in only 20 percent of the space and consuming only 10 percent of the water.

The second unique point behind the success of Square Foot Gardening is Bartholomew himself. While many authors work hard to promote their books, Bartholomew engages in a regimen of lectures, workshops, TV shows, personal appearances and ceaseless travel that has a larger point. He literally wants to save the world. He is convinced that his method of growing edibles can be deployed effectively anywhere in the world where poor soil and scarcity of resources lead to hunger. And he has made this outcome his mission in life, creating a 501(c)3 nonprofit called The Square Foot Gardening Foundation to facilitate the plan. All of the royalties from All New Square Foot Gardening go directly to Foundation, which employs a small staff to run the global outreach program.

To help disseminate the SFG strategy, Bartholomew and the Foundation recruit and train dozens of new certified Square Foot Gardening instructors every year. And, in turn, each instructor conducts classes and workshops attended by thousands of home gardeners who almost uniformly buy into the method. Where most gardeners enjoy learning a new tip or discovering a new cultivar, Square Foot Gardeners embrace a complete methodology and a comprehensive approach to growing that at times seems as much a lifestyle choice as a gardening technique.

The Square Foot Gardening History

Square Foot Gardening had its beginnings, appropriately enough, in a community garden. In 1975, Bartholomew was trying to fill his schedule after retiring from an engineering career. He decided to start a community garden to fill his time (and use his considerable energy). The garden was based on the traditional row method, and the experience quickly became an exercise in frustration. Halfway through the growing season, most of Bartholomew’s fellow gardeners had simply given up in the face of so much work, and the garden was fast in the process of losing the battle against weeds. It made no sense to Bartholomew’s orderly mind, and presented an intriguing problem—one that for a lifelong engineer, needed solving. “I thought,” he said, “that I had better do some research about why we had failed.”

He realized that row gardening had room for improvement. In his view, it wasted space, resources like water, fertilizer and seeds, and took far too much redundant labor. So he did what any good engineer would do faced with inefficiency: he devised a new system. Rather than improve soil every year, thin out seedlings each season and weed almost constantly, his method would control the soil culture and confine it to a raised “box.” Rather than long rows, he would plant in a square box divided into 16 individual square foot squares. This revolutionary type of garden would be completely contained in a small area, where the gardener could control it all with much less work than growing in rows required.

As Bartholomew points out, it was a matter of savings. “Traditional row gardening is wasteful start to finish, and I think people have done it for so long, they just don’t question it any more.” But when Bartholomew put together the numbers on his new system, they were thought-provoking to say the least. “Square Foot Gardening is all about saving resources,” he says. “It takes about 10 percent of the water a row garden would use, and a square foot garden produces 100 percent of the harvest in 20 percent of the space of a comparable row garden.”

With benefits that obvious, it’s no surprise that the method quickly caught fire, at first locally, and then nationally. News coverage led to more news coverage. And soon, Bartholomew had more queries for information about the method than he could reasonably respond to. So he decided to write a book that would help others to effectively Square Foot Garden. Square Foot Gardening would go on to become the bestselling gardening book of all time. That book led to a series of TV programs, merchandising and Bartholomew’s founding of the Square Foot Gardening Foundation. He would go on to work with the public school systems in California and Utah to introduce Square Foot Gardening into elementary schools, with an educational program entitled “Square Yard in the Schoolyard.”

By then, Bartholomew had fine-tuned the method, making it even easier, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly. He captured the improvements in a new book, All New Square Foot Gardening (the second, revised edition has just been published by Cool Springs Press). With millions of books sold, the method continues to convert row gardeners everywhere.

The Square Foot Gardening Foundation

Contacted by a think tank a decade ago with the simple question, “How many people could an acre of land feed, using the Square Foot Gardening method?” Bartholomew put his engineer hat on once again, sat down, and came up with a plan. “I worked out a plan for third-world countries where you could feed 500 people from just one acre of land, using the SFG system.” Shortly thereafter, the Square Gardening Foundation was launched.

But not content to plan, Bartholomew has traveled extensively to bring the message to everyone who will listen. The last two decades have seen him travel to parts as widespread as India, South America, and Europe. He’s worked directly with local poor populations in setting up both Square Foot Gardens and SFG training programs, all with an eye to actually wiping out world hunger.

Bartholomew’s grand plan would be an easier road with governmental or non-governmental support. But Bartholomew isn’t holding his breath. The SFG method has yet to be widely embraced by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension service, or the mainstream gardening community. “Unfortunately the government still doesn’t recognize SFG as a viable method. They’ve been teaching row gardening for so long, that the department of agriculture and the county extension services don’t even list it Square Foot Gardening as a method of growing. Sometimes, some innovative agents teach it, but it’s not officially recognized,” Bartholomew says. He’s at a loss to explain why, but offers, “I just think it’s just common sense. And I’m afraid it’s too simple for the majority of those in power to see. What they need is an expensive, big, monumental project. Something splashy that they can talk to voters about.”

So the SFG movement continues to spread, one gardener at a time. If Bartholomew has his way, eventually he’ll convert every gardener worldwide. Until then, keep a watch on your own backyard (or community garden, or park, or church, or school) because the revolution could show up just about anywhere at any time. All it takes is a few square feet after all.

Want more information on Square Foot Gardens or Mel Bartholomew? Visit The Square Foot Gardening Foundation at http://www.squarefootgardening.com.

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