A celebration of square foot gardening

January 26, 2017 | Doug Oster comments

Mel Bartholomew started the square foot gardening phenomenon in 1981 when he released his original book “Square Foot Gardening.” It’s one of the best-selling garden books ever, selling more than 2.5 million copies.
Bartholomew, who passed away last year at the age of 84, also had a wonderful PBS television show about his passion for growing in these 12-inch grids. He changed the way gardeners look at their growing space, forgoing traditional row planting.

Kim Roman with her mentor and friend Mel Bartholomew who founded the square foot garden method. Roman runs Square Foot Garden 4 U in Maryland.

Kim Roman with her mentor and friend Mel Bartholomew who founded the square foot garden method. Roman runs Square Foot Garden 4 U in Maryland.

I thought a lot about him after his death, how he had created something special and inspired so many gardeners. Writing about him now is a way of reintroducing gardeners to his method.
I found the perfect opportunity to tell his story after a chance meeting at the Mid Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore. As a group of garden writers introduced themselves around a lunch table, Kim Roman told everyone she ran a business called Square Foot Gardening 4 U in Glen Burnie, Md. She also mentioned working closely with Bartholomew.
“He was so humble and so approachable,” she says of her mentor. Roman discovered his book in the late 1980s and it revolutionized the way she gardened.
“I knew it was a good method, because every time I lent my book to somebody it never got returned. After buying the sixth copy, I stopped lending it out.”
Bartholomew was an engineer by trade with an analytical mind. After selling his business and retiring at 42, he looked to gardening as a hobby.
“He found out he really hated it,” Roman says. “It looked like a nasty weed patch in the middle of summer.”
After talking to experts and asking why so much area, water and plants were wasted by growing in conventional rows, he went to work creating a system that used 12-inch grids to grow his plants.
It was years later that Roman discovered Bartholomew’s updated version of his first book called “All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!,” released in 2005. Living in Germany at the time, she took a certified instructor course for the new method and was hooked.
Certified instructors can use the Square Foot brand to create a business.
Previously, Bartholomew included the arduous task of double digging beds and then incorporating organic matter to the beds.
“He called himself a lazy gardener,” she says, and he was looking for an easier way to use the square foot planting. His new approach was to start on a flat piece of earth, lay down some landscape fabric and then build up with a special mix of growing medium.
Mel’s Mix is what he recommended. It’s a commercial product, available through Home Depot, that Bartholomew formulated to give the plants everything they need. Gardeners also can make their own, Roman says, by combining equal parts of peat moss or coco core, coarse vermiculite and a really good blend of compost.
One of the reasons she gardens this way and teaches the method is because it works and has for more than 40 years. She planted 100 squares in her 25-foot-by-35-foot garden and harvested more than 250 pounds of produce. “It’s easy, no digging, no tilling, no kidding,” Roman said with a smile. It was her relationship with Bartholomew though that might have been the best thing about discovering square foot gardening. “It was awesome, she says of getting to know him, the reason you can work with someone you worship, is that he was so down to earth.”

Phyllis Gricus is a garden designer and horticulturalist who owns Landscape Design Studio in Pittsburgh. She uses Mel Bartholomew's square foot garden method in some of her designs. She often favors raised beds for their ease of care and to keep small critters at bay.

Phyllis Gricus is a garden designer and horticulturalist who owns Landscape Design Studio in Pittsburgh. She uses Mel Bartholomew’s square foot garden method in some of her designs. She often favors raised beds for their ease of care and to keep small critters at bay. Photo by Phyllis Gricus


Local garden designer and horticulturalist Phyllis Gricus, owner of Landscape Design Studio (landscapedesignstudio.com) in Pittsburgh, was introduced to Bartholomew’s method in 2011 when she heard him speak at a gardening event.
When she incorporated his planting mix into her container plantings, Gricus had a much more successful yield and then decided to spread the word to her clients.
“They were excited about the idea,” she says.

Phyllis Gricus is a garden designer and horticulturalist  who owns Landscape Design Studio in Pittsburgh. She uses Mel Bartholomew's square foot garden method in some of her designs. She even has used his technique to create this beautiful cutting garden of flowers.

Phyllis Gricus is a garden designer and horticulturalist who owns Landscape Design Studio in Pittsburgh. She uses Mel Bartholomew’s square foot garden method in some of her designs. She even has used his technique to create this beautiful cutting garden of flowers. Photo by Phyllis Gricus


It wasn’t all vegetable gardens either, she installed a beautiful square-foot cutting garden for flowers too. She’s had raised beds made that are 18 to 22 inches high and 4 feet wide, so there’s no bending over when gardening since homeowners can reach the middle.
One design is made of cedar and fenced in to thwart the deer. It was made by Rich Salvante from Yard to Table Garden Builders.
Gricus gets a lot of satisfaction from putting the gardens in place so her clients can continue growing and harvesting on their own and enjoying the beauty of the garden too.
“It’s thrilling to create an aesthetically pleasing bed and make it part of their edible landscape,” she says. “It allows people to continue gardening for a long time.”

Details: squarefootgardening.org

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.