Old Field, N.Y. — When Mel Bartholomew quit his successful practice as a consulting engineer, he retired here to Pheasant Run Farm, overlooking Long Island Sound -- and a life of experimental gardening.
The acreage was extensive and the opportunity for large-scale gardening only a power tiller away. But Mr. Bartholomew chose instead to cultivate a plot small enough to fit far more cramped urban situations. His aim: to promote what he terms "square-foot gardening" -- a concept in which the labor needs are calculated in minutes a day, not hours, and yet have a garden that contributes significantly to a family's supply of fresh food.
In fact, after initial soil preparation, the only tool required is the hand trowel -- year after year.
As Mr. Bartholomew sees it, a 12-by-12- foot plot, or thereabouts, is a suitable garden for most families. "Calculate 4 feet by 4 feet for each family member, plus 2 more for good measure," Mel says.
Significantly, too, all the homeowner need do is cultivate one square foot of garden a day by this method. A garden of this size will provide nearly all of a family's salad needs and many of the root crops as well. Once up and growing, the square-foot garden would need to be harvested every day -- a few lettuce leaves, some scallions perhaps, a carrot or two, and maybe some peppers.
"It is important," Mr. Bartholomew says, "to see what has matured each day and to make use of it the same day. That way you get the most out of this type of garden."
What prompted him to design the square-foot concept?
"In helping out and advising community gardeners, I saw that most people, particularly newcomers to the art, overgarden. They plant all the backyard, or the whole packet of seeds, and end up with something they can't manage -- or with a large one-time harvest that provides them with far more than they can eat.
"The net result is, too many of them get discouraged and quit.
"So I've designed a system that is manageable, where there's no waste, and which cuts down 80 percent on the time spent in a normal vegetable garden. Anyone can find time to work one square foot of garden a day. They can do more if they like, but one square foot is all that is necessary."
This is how the typical square-foot garden might be laid out:
First, dig over or rototill the entire plot, incorporating such soil amendments -- manure, compost, peat moss, mineral rock, etc. -- as you wish.
Now mark off the garden into 4-by-4- foot beds with pathways in between. Mr. Bartholomew says he marks off his square plots with 12-inch-wide planks. These serve as the paths so that he never compacts the soil by tramping on it.
"make the paths as wide as is comfortable for you," he advises. "Twelve inches suits me; someone else might want a wider path."
Think of each square foot within these 4-by-4 plots as a separate bed in itself and plant it to whatever crop you wish. You may want to plant several square feet to the same crop, or you may have 16 separate crops in each 4-by-4 plot.
One square foot of garden space might seem insignificant to you. "Not so," says Mr. Bartholomew, who lists what can be grown in such a confined area: 16 carrots, beets, and onions, all planted 3 inches apart; 9 plants of spinach, leeks, chives, peas, or beans, 4 inches apart; 4 plants of leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, kale or parsley, 6 inches apart; 1 pepper plant, cabbage, or head of lettuce.
When one square foot has been harvested, it takes a few seconds for Mr. Bartholomew to prepare the soil and replant it. He simply scatters a little fertilizer over the surface, followed by a trowel of compost (keep up the humus content of the soil at all times, he advises), and dig this in with the hand trowel. Then he sows the seeds of the next crop or transplants seedlings from a flat.
This is how he sums up his plan: "The basic concept of square-foot gardening is to plant vegetables and flowers in square blocks with the plants spaced equal distances in all directions. This eliminates the wasted space between rows. By keeping your planting squares only 4 feet wide, you can reach in from both sides to any plant. You'll save space and you won't be walking on your plant's growing soil, all the while packing it down and preventing oxygen and water from reaching the roots."
Mr. Bartholomew also recommends single-seed planting. This way you'll never need to spend time hinning plants. There is a big saving in seed costs, too. You can keep your seeds viable for years by storing them in sealed jars in the refrigerator, he concludes.
This type of gardening, of course, does not allow for the large crops, the sprawling cucumber or squash vines and large tomatoes. The answer is to grow these vertically in cages or up trellises in areas away from the square-foot garden.
For free information on the square-foot gardening method send a stamped, self- addressed envelope to G & B Company, Georgetown, CT 06829.