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Gardening by numbers

21 June 2021
This garden has been divided up using polythene pipes.

Square-foot gardening has been around for decades, but is it right for your place? We take a look at the numbers.

Words Diana Noonan

If you’ve ever encountered a garden that’s carefully divided (whether by string or some other material) into a grid of identically sized squares, you will have some idea of the ‘square foot’ style of gardening. This method of growing was first unleashed onto the gardening world over four decades ago, and it has continued to attract devotees ever since. Its ‘inventor’ was American Mel Bartholomew.

Bartholomew, who died in 2016, was not only a gardener, but also an engineer, businessman, television presenter and author. Once retired, he became more interested in growing vegetables and, one day, when a composting tutor failed to turn up to the class he was to take, Mel and fellow classmates decided to take the matter of gardening into their own hands, and established a community garden.

Using the traditional method of ‘gardening in rows’, the community garden became infested with weeds and soon ground to a halt. That was when Bartholomew began to rethink the methods that gardeners had been using for – almost – ever.

He concluded that growing in rows was wasteful of space, labour-intensive, and unsatisfactory for dealing with pests and disease. To him, it seemed it was a method of commercial market gardening that had simply been downsized to fit into backyards – where it didn’t belong.

Commercial growing was geared towards allowing space for animals or machines to move along rows. These otherwise empty spaces received as much fertiliser and water as the rows of vegetables themselves and, because they were bare, attracted weeds that then had to be pulled. In all, Bartholomew concluded that 80 per cent of a commercial field was being unused for growing.

Commercial gardening, he also noted, involved mechanical sowing, something that inevitably led to the laborious task of thinning.

When Bartholomew asked fellow gardeners why they did things this way, they had no answer other than to say it was the way gardening had always been done.

Frustrated, Bartholomew soon developed a style of gardening that was, in his opinion, much more suited to the domestic grower. He was fond of saying that even beginner gardeners could master this method in a couple of hours – but that die-hard row-growers might take a lot longer!

The upcycling-savvy square-foot gardener will see potential in old Venetian blinds.

Read more in our July Issue

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