Garden Interview:

Mel Bartholomew

Mel Bartholomew

Wow, do I ever feel like we hit the jackpot here. Mel Bartholomew is a revolutionary in the world of gardening. With his famed method of Square Foot Gardening, many doors have opened up for people around the world to enjoy gardening to it's fullest!

With running his superb website, Square Foot and with many special appearances including television and radio, we are thrilled that Mel Bartholomew has taken his valuable time to teach us a thing or two about this amazing method. We'll find out why Square Foot Gardening triumphs over traditional gardening, how we can actually increase our growing season, and many, many more tips.

1. If you were to talk to someone who had never heard of Square Foot Gardening, what could you tell that individual that would "sell" them on this concept?

How would you like a garden that has no weeds, no hard work, you don't need any tools, is friendly to the environment because it takes up very little space, uses hardly any water, and yet produces 100% of the harvest of an old-fashioned single row garden?

Well, that's what Square Foot Gardening is. Square Foot Gardening, to produce 100% of the harvest compared to an old-fashioned single row garden, takes only:

40% of the cost
20% of the space
10% of the water
5% of the seeds
2% of the weeds
0% of the work

Yet produces 100% of the harvest!!!!

2. As explained on your website, Square Foot Gardening uses 90% less water. Can you tell us why?

The reason we need only 10% of the water is first of all, the space of the garden is reduced by 80%, and since most old fashioned gardens are watered by flooding the entire garden with irrigation water, or sprinkling the entire area, much of the water goes into the aisles where 80 % it's not needed, it only grows weeds there, or it lands on top of the plants and takes a long time to get down to the roots. So, if we've eliminated all of that space for the growing part of the garden, we've reduced our water needs down by 80%. But then, because we hand water or use drip irrigation, and we don't spray the water with the hose or sprinklers all over the tops, but merely add a cup or two of water to the root area, that reduces that 20% down to 10%.

Building Square Foot Garden

3. While on the subject of water, your 10 basic steps to Square Foot Gardening recommends using "sun-warmed" water. That's interesting. Why use "sun-warmed" water?

We recommend using sun-warmed water. Everyone asks, "Why?" Well, it's a very simple answer. How many of you got a cold shower this morning? Well, plants are just like people, and the next thing I would ask you is, "Does a plant grow faster in warm or cold weather?" Obviously, warm. Does cold water shock you when you jump in a cold pool or river? The same thing happens to the roots in a plant. So, why wouldn't you add warm water. Well, we don't want to use energy to heat it. How about the sun? Free.

So, we put a bucket of water out in our garden next to our boxes, and we ladle out a cup or two and pour it underneath the leaves at the root area, and it sinks right down into the ground. That way 100% of the water goes to where it's needed; the roots. Now why isn't everyone doing this? Why aren't all the gardening experts telling us this? Their answer is " Cause that's the way weÂ’ve always done it."

4. How does Square Foot Gardening differ from Raised Bed Gardening?

Although Square Foot Gardening may seem similar at first glance to raised bed gardening, we recently read a 3 page pamphlet from the county agricultural department, telling how to make a raised bed. And boy, was it a lot of work. But, it involved using your existing soil, and then adding to it, and building it up, and then, believe it or not, they suggested planting rows down your raised bed. There's another system called the French intensive method that has such a complicated staggered plant spacing method that it boggles the mind to figure it out.

Multiple Square Foot Gardens

Square Foot Gardening is so simple, and it's so different from raised bed gardening, because we don't use existing soil. We lay down a weed fabric over the existing ground so no weeds will come up into our garden; You build a box 4 feet X 4 feet, lay down a weed fabric over the existing ground inside the box, fill the box with a perfect soil mix we call Mel's Mix that does not use your existing soil cause that is filled with weed seeds, lay down a grid made out of wood or plastic strips like venetian blinds, spaced 12" by 12", so a 4'x 4' now has 16 square feet ; and we're ready to start planting. It's all that simple and easy.

Let me ask you a question. If you want to garden, and you start with a perfect soil, and you have no weed competition, and you place your plants at the perfect distance apart so they're not crowded, and you water them so they get the proper amount of water right at the root area, why wouldn't you have a perfect garden? With Square Foot Gardening you will. Remember, with no work, no tools, no expense after you build your first garden.

A different raised bed method advocates putting down newspaper or cardboard to stop the weeds coming up. Unless you lay down the New York Times over the entire area, and a couple of layers of cardboard, they are going to rot very quickly, and after the first year, all the weeds that are already in your garden soil are going to come right up through your raised bed.

5. To a gardener who states, "I wish I could garden for a longer period throughout the year", how could Square Foot Gardening come into play?

Out of season growing. Because your garden is so small, only 20% of the space, it's easy to protect. Protect from what? Not only animals and critters, but the weather. Picture a 4'x 4' box, and you can have as many as you want, but you only need 3 at the most per person to give you all the food you want all growing season. Think how easy it would be to take some PVC pipe, bend them in a hoop from corner to corner, tie the tops, (by the way you'll see photographs and directions in my All New Square Foot Gardening Book of this exact way of protecting), you now have a domed cover over your 4'x4' bed. Throw a piece of clear plastic over it and you have a greenhouse. Put that out in early spring, you'll warm the soil up and protect the plants from the cold evenings. If it's going to get really cold, throw a blanket over it and take it off in the morning.

Square Foot Vegetable Gardening

Later, over that same framework, in the hot summertime, you can put a shade cloth, so you can still grow lettuce, and much of the root crops all summer long. Something you can't do in a single row garden. Next season is fall, and as it gets colder and colder, you start covering at night, put on the clear plastic again, throw a blanket over it at night, and you can grow right into the winter months. If you have an early snow, that plastic will protect the plants from getting snow and frost all over them.

You'll learn what plants to grow that can stand cool weather you can grow right into the cold winter. Find which in my book. You can now extend a 6 month normal growing season into a 9 month Square Foot Garden season. That's a 50% gain in time. Back in the spring, if your soil is warmer, and you have protection over the top from a late spring frost, you can start your plants and seeds much earlier.

6. Is there any special maintenance with the beds?

There is no maintenance with the beds. First of all, there are no weeds. If a few weed seeds blow in or come in from your neighbor's old-fashioned single row garden and sprout, you'll see that they're out of place, because we plant in a simple pattern of 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants per square foot, and you go to the tool shed and get out your tools for weeding for a Square Foot Garden. Do you know what they are? Two fingers: your thumb and your trigger finger. You reach in, grab the top of the weed, and pull it out. Because the soil is never walked on, and it's very loose and friable, not only the top comes off, but all the roots come out and you'll never have another weed there again.

The only other maintenance, and it's hard to call it maintenance, but as soon as you harvest one square foot, you add a trowel full of a nice blended compost, hopefully home made, to that square foot; stir it in, mix it up, smooth it over, and you're ready to plant your next crop. Takes about one minute. That's all the hard work you will ever have to do. We never have to turn our soil over or roto-till it or chop the weeds out with a hoe all summer.

Back to that one sq ft you just harvested, we always replace it with a different crop. That gives you crop rotation. That's about the only maintenance I can think of all year long. You just clean up and replant each square foot as you harvest it. You don't leave a mess at the end of the year, and your garden looks nice all winter long. And, in the spring, you're ready to go without any work at all. There is NO WORK to Square Foot Gardening.

7. On a personal note, what would be your Top 3 favorite flower/vegetable choices for Square Foot Gardening?

My top choices for flowers are pansies , which grow almost the entire year, right through the winter and sprout up and bloom in the spring, with a little shade they'll grow all summer, and in the fall they'll perk up and have those pretty little faces looking up at you again.. Next would be marigolds , all kinds, sizes, colors, shapes; marigolds are almost America's favorite flower.

Vegetables: I love all the different kinds of lettuce , for kids, I would start with radishes . In just 4 weeks after planting the seeds, they can harvest those radishes, and they'll have a new vegetable they'll love to eat if they grow it themselves. Also I like beans, either bush beans or pole beans for kids. They have a pretty little blossom, they grow quickly, kids love to harvest them. For herbs, I would grow parsley. It is so nutritious, so easy to grow, and it lasts all year long; and you take your scissors and you harvest a couple of sprigs or leaf ends every day and put them in your salad, your soup, and in your dishes.

Of course, America's favorite, and mine too for vegetables, is tomatoes. They come in every color, every size, and we grow ours vertically. We can grow an entire plant in 1 square foot; but it grows 6 feet tall and it's loaded with fruit. You make a vertical frame, as you can see in the book, and train our plants to grow vertically. They're just like skyscrapers in the city; you don't see any buildings in a city with the city's valuable land all spread out at 1 floor.

We don't let tomatoes sprawl out. We don't let any vine crops sprawl out with the Square Foot Gardening system. We grow them vertically. Huge advantages: it takes no space, they don't lay on the ground (ground rot), you don't step on them, critters don't get to them, easy to harvest and they're really good looking.

If you want to learn the simplest, easiest, method of gardening, go to our web page, Square Foot . All kinds of information there. Get the All New Square Foot Gardening book at the library and pretty soon you'll want your own copy. We have videos if you like to watch videos on how to get started, how to grow, and you don't have to have a back yard, you can grow all these things in the same boxes on your patio, or on a deck, and the nice part of it is it doesn't matter what age you are.

You can grow things when you're young; and as you get older and you can't do the hard work any more, you can still Square Foot Garden. We even have our boxes with plywood bottoms put right on a table top for people in wheelchairs or for those that can't bend over. It just works for everyone.

Go to our website and check it out You can also buy any of the boxes or tomato towers right from our web site. We are a non profit Foundation and fund all our Humanitarian and Educational programs through the sale of our books and garden boxes.

One million thanks Mel, for enlightening us with this terrific way to garden. If after reading this, we're all not ready to run out and start building our square foot garden, somethings just plain wrong!!

Good luck everyone!!

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