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Long Live Square Foot Gardening!

We lost a dear friend last April when Mel Bartholomew, who created the Square Foot Gardening system in 1976, passed away at the age of 84. Mel was the author of THE best-selling gardening book of all time and host of a very popular PBS series—both called "Square Foot Gardening". He brought thousands of people into gardening and radically changed the way that literally millions of people grew their plants.

We were lucky enough to have him as a guest on our Public Radio show several times over the years, with the most recent interview airing almost exactly three years before his passing. And now we pay tribute to one of the true giants of the organic gardening world with two 'top ten' lists that Mel created when he revised his classic (but heavily 'engineering-oriented') 1981 book into the much more accessible and readable "All New Square Foot Gardening" in 2005.

Biggest change: Instead of the old advice of digging a hole and filling it with a soil-free mix and compost, Mel moved up to placing raised bed frames overtop of your existing soil and filling them with his famous "Mel's Mix". No digging.

But the grid system—square foot growing areas divided by strips of wood lathe—did not change one bit. To many people, the grids are Square Foot Gardening.

Mel's "Ten Commandments of Square Foot Gardening":

1. 'Thou shalt not waste space by growing in long rows!'
2. 'You shall not dig up or till your existing soil...'
3. '…or use a shovel or rototiller.'
4. 'You shall not waste seeds by overplanting and then thinning.'
5. 'You may NOT grow without your Square Foot grids.'
6. Cue the angelic chorus: "Thou shalt not use any pesticides!"
7. 'Do not plant more than you can harvest and care for.'
8. 'Do not waste water by irrigating.'
9. 'Thou shall grow all of your vining crops with vertical support.'
10. 'And thou shalt not fail to replant every square foot as soon as it is harvested.'

And just how did Mel suggest we achieve each of those miracles? By following his 'ten basic tenets of Square Foot Gardening':

Number One: Arrange your garden in four-by-four-foot squares, not rows.

Number Two: Build boxes (what I call 'raised bed frames') to hold a completely new soil mix above the ground for growing, as opposed to the hard work of trying to improve or grow in your existing soil.

Number Three: Space these boxes three feet apart to provide wide lanes for walking.

Number Four: Fill those boxes with 'Mel's Mix': one-third compost, one-third peat moss and one-third vermiculite. (This is the only area where Mel and I disagree. There was a serious issue with asbestos contamination of packaged vermiculite from the notorious Libby Mine in Montana years ago [the asbestos was naturally-occurring in the vermiculite rock]; and so I have always suggested perlite as a substitute. It's a similar naturally-mined volcanic glass with great soil-lightening properties that has never been found to be contaminated. So my 'Mel's Mix' would be compost, peat moss and perlite.) (Yet another 'mix note': Peat moss is highly acidic, so add a dusting of wood ash or lime to the mix to bring the pH up to 6.5 or 7 [neutral].)

Number Five: You MUST make a square foot grid on the surface of every growing box. (Otherwise it would not be Square Foot Gardening!)

Number Six: Never walk on the soil in your Square Foot boxes; tend your plants only from the aisles. (And to this I say amen, Brother Mel!)

Number Seven: Diversify. Plant a different flower, vegetable or herb in each square foot, using one, four, nine or sixteen plants per square foot, depending on their final size.

Number Eight: Do not waste seed. Avoid having to over-thin by using only two or three seeds in each planting area.

Number Nine: If you need to water, do so 'by hand' using a bucket of sun-warmed water. (How poetic! To which I'll add: Water only in the early morning; not in the evening or heat of the day. Never water if your plants have received an inch of rain in the past week. Use rainwater whenever possible; and if you must use treated city tap water, leave it sit out for 24 hours and stir it a few times to help remove any chlorine or other loosely-bound chemicals.)

Number Ten: When you finish harvesting a square foot, add some fresh compost to the surface and replant the area with a new and different crop.

You may notice that except for the system of grids, this is pretty much the same 'raised bed, light soil and abundant compost' advice I dish out. That's because Mel and I had the same influencers, including J. I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, John Jevons, and the French Intensive System of Kitchen Gardening.

But Mel was an engineer by training, not a horticulturist (or, like me, a writer/broadcaster); and the grid system he designed really appealed to the engineer in him—and to the millions of people who adopted the idea and followed his designs.

The "Ten Basic Tenets" comes from a little brochure Mel issued to promote the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, which he wisely created years ago to carry on his good work. That brochure also has some great advice about location:

• Pick an area with 6 to 8 hours of sun a day that does not puddle up after a heavy rain.
• Stay away from the shade and root systems of trees and shrubs.
• Garden close to the house for convenience and protection.
• And don't worry about your existing soil, because you won't be using it.

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