Square Foot Gardening: Hands-On Tips from Mel B’s Legacy

square foot gardening tips

What do you want your legacy to be? Chances are, it has something to do with making the world a better place. Civil engineer turned gardener Mel Bartholomew’s legacy is exactly that. Over three decades ago he revolutionized a form of gardening, known as square foot gardening, that aimed to make gardening in your backyard and around the world more efficient.

Mel Bartholomew: The passing of a legend

Bartholomew died on April 28 in San Diego at the age of 84.

His obituary in the New York Times states that, “Mr. Bartholomew turned to gardening after retiring at 42 from his engineering and construction firm…and moving his family to Long Island. There, frustrated with weeding and watering rows of vegetables in his backyard, he applied his engineering expertise to conceive a densely packed, 12-foot-by-12-foot subdivided plot.”

An out-of-the-box thinker, in a 1996 interview in the New York Times, Bartholomew said, “I was always taught if you can’t go over a mountain, you go around it; if you can’t go around it, you tunnel through it; if you can’t tunnel through it, you stay and make a gold mine out of that side.”

He said of his gardening philosophy, “I garden with a salad bowl in mind, not a wheelbarrow.”

His book “Square Foot Gardening” sold more than 2.5 million copies, and his television program of the same name was broadcast on PBS, The Learning Channel, and Discovery Network.

Bartholomew’s non-profit foundation, Square Foot Gardening Foundation, aims to spread his message of efficient gardening methods around the world with a focus on bringing these techniques to developing nations.

What exactly is square foot gardening?

Square foot gardening is a raised bed garden that is four feet square. That square is divided into a four by four grid, thus plotting out 16 individual square foot garden spaces. The garden space is used efficiently thus offering a greater yield than a traditional garden.

7 advantages of square foot gardening:

1. 100% harvest with 50% of the cost, 20% of the space, 10% of the water, 5% of the seeds, and 2% of the work of traditional row gardening. Bartholomew ‘s method allows a gardener to have a high yield harvest with significant reductions in output of human and economic capital.

2. The garden can go anywhere. Because the four by four foot garden is filled with high quality soil, it can be placed anywhere (even atop concrete).

3. Encourages crop diversity. Bartholomew encouraged square foot gardeners to plant 16 individual crops in the garden. Not only is crop diversity better for the environment, it is also more delicious.

4. Save money on seeds. In traditional row gardens seed is usually sown thickly in a row and then thinned. Square foot gardening encourages gardeners to sow a small pinch (2-3 seeds) of seeds and therefore have less need to thin.

5. No need to walk on garden soil. In the days before Bartholomew revolutionized gardening, a gardener would have to walk on the thin path of soil between rows of crops in the garden. With his method, any gardener can reach all areas of the four by four foot garden without having to step onto it in the process.

6. Garden accessories are easier, too. Need a chicken wire cage to keep pests out of your garden? That cage is a reasonable, easy to move, size for the square foot garden. Need a dome support to drape fabric over to guard against frost? Again, that support is a more manageable size.

7. Easily accommodates trellises. Peas, beans, and tomatoes need a trellis to climb. The square foot garden readily accommodates a trellis by placing it on the side of the garden or up against a fence.

How to make your own square foot garden in 3 simple steps:

1. Gather supplies. For my own square foot garden I use a one-foot-wide plywood to make the four by four foot raised bed structure. According to Kim Roman, assistant to Mr. Bartholomew, “You’ll need one-foot-wide plywood to make the four by four foot raised bed structure. We use regular dimensional lumber (i.e. 1×6, 2×6, or any height). Mine is up against a fence so it’s 2’x23.”

Not sure how to make a raised bed? Check out this helpful link.

You’ll need thin (1-2 inch wide) strips of wood to make the grid that sits on top of the raised bed.

Mel’s Mix is a high quality soil that is made up of one third peat moss, one third vermiculite, and one third compost.

Of course, you also need seeds.

2. Within each of the 16 one foot squares use your finger to mark out another small grid. How many squares the grid has depends on the crop you’re growing. A tomato plant, for example, will need the whole square. Use a four square grid for lettuce with a pinch of seeds in each square.

Consider companion planting. For example, grow cabbage, which is a chunky sized plant, near radishes or lettuce, which take up less room. Another example is to plant a shade-loving plant like lettuce near a sun-loving plant like corn or beans. Want to learn more about companion planting? Check out this link.

3. Water as needed and enjoy far less weeding than in a traditional garden.

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lead photo of garden via Shutterstock