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In 1976 Mel Bartholomew, a retired consulting engineer and efficiency expert, took up gardening as a hobby. After a dismal first experience in a traditional community garden, he started asking questions: “Why are home gardens planted in long rows?” and “Why do we till and fertilize a large plot of ground for a garden and then use only 20 percent of it to grow edible plants?”
The answers to these and other questions were published in the 1981 edition of his book called “Square Foot Gardening,” and in the revised 2005 book, “All New Square Foot Gardening.”
Over the past 36 years, square foot gardening has become one of the most popular gardening methods for beginners.
What is square foot gardening?
So, just what is square foot gardening? In a nutshell, it’s a garden in a box — a small, manageable plot that can be customized to suit anyone's needs. More specifically, square foot gardening is a combination of totally organic raised bed and container gardening that each gardener makes uniquely his or her own.
“For those people who would like a garden and either don’t know where to start —or maybe they’ve had a garden before and it’s been unsuccessful or really hard for them — the square foot garden method is really the best and easiest way to do it,” Jim Teahan said in a recent interview.
Teahan, of Draper, Utah, is a certified square foot gardener who trained with Bartholomew about 13 years ago when Bartholomew had a demo garden at Thanksgiving Point. He currently teaches classes on the subject at Thanksgiving Point.
“One of the major advantages of square foot gardening is you’re saving 80 percent of the space of a traditional row garden, and you can place it just about anywhere,” Belinda Jensen said. Jensen is also a certified square foot gardener who runs “Home Gardens to Go,” a square foot gardening business in Lindon, Utah.
“I met Mel Bartholomew and I saw this fantastic idea — grow on top of the soil, because no matter where you live, the soil is bad for gardening. And even if you want to fix it, it takes tons of stuff you have to put in the soil,” Jeff Cold said in a recent interview. Cold is also a certified square foot gardener who trained with Bartholomew during his Thanksgiving Point days and currently teaches classes on the subject.
How to create a square foot garden
It doesn't take a lot of space, time, money or expertise to create a square foot garden, and that's the beauty of it. Here are the basic steps to create one for yourself.
Step 1: Find the right spot for your square foot garden. It doesn’t have to be a big space.
“Your square foot garden can be placed just about anywhere,” Jensen said. “You can even place a wood bottom on the bottom of your box and put it on a deck or patio. I have a bed sitting right by my front door where I can see it easily (and) tend it easily.”
Step 2: Build or buy four-foot square frames to create the box for your garden. Beginning gardeners might want to start with just one or two boxes. Bartholomew has detailed instructions for building the boxes in his book.
The box is manageable and so easy to tend. It's not overwhelming like most gardening is.
–- Belinda Jensen, Home & Gardens to Go
“The box is manageable and so easy to tend,” Jensen said. “It’s not overwhelming like most gardening is.”
Step 3: Mix the soil and add it to the box.
“Just put a box on the ground and put good soil in there that’s weed-free, and you don’t have to weed,” Cold said. “Stuff just grows because almost everything in the world grows in six inches of topsoil. So that’s all you need, is six inches.”
The soil is one of the key unique features of square foot gardening. Called “Mel’s mix,” it is a combination of one-third coarse vermiculite, one-third peat moss and one-third compost. The compost should include a variety of organic, plant-based sources.
Step 4: Place a grid on top of the soil to define square foot spaces and plant seeds or starts in each square in groups of 1, 4, 9 or 16, depending on the mature plant size. No fancy tools are needed.
“Simple tools are all we need for our gardening: a garden trowel and utility scissors,” Jensen said.
Step 5: Water and watch regularly. “You want to water with warm water, if you can,” Cold said. “Pull the leaves aside and water the soil, not the leaves. The roots are in the soil, and that’s where the water needs to be.”
Step 6: Enjoy the harvest.
“I have these wonderful vegetables, completely organic,” Jensen said of her square foot gardening crop. “I don’t use any types of fertilizers or pesticides. I’m getting these great vegetables on my kitchen table at a much lower cost than I could buy them in the grocery store.”
“Gardening should be fun; it should be easy,” Teahan said. "And this way is very, very easy. You really don’t have to know anything about gardening, except a few key points in the square foot garden system, which are very easy to learn.”
Rosemarie Howard lives in a 100-year-old house on Main Street, Springville, Utah. She enjoys creating multimedia projects. Her website is at www.dramaticdimensions.com.