By Amber Coe
Although Alpine resident Mel Bartholomew developed square-foot gardening more than 20 years ago, his idea is still making an impact as this method of gardening spreads around the world.
Bartholomew’s method of gardening using an aboveground, wooden, four-foot square box, divided into 16 one-square-foot plots and filled with a soil blend of compost, peat moss and mica is what is known as square-foot gardening.
Last year, Bartholomew approached The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the idea of training missionaries to teach gardening in foreign missions.
In the fall of 1999, he and Valentine began teaching seminars to missionary trainees, with instructors later taking their place.
“In a sense, it has nothing to do with religion, but it really does,” Bartholomew said.
Vivian Brown, a training supervisor in the church’s Spanish welfare program, said square-foot gardening is taught to sister missionaries with the message of self-reliance to the people of the countries they are destined for.
“We teach them the basics, in the gardens we have here, so they can teach it to others,” Brown said.
“It can really make a difference to the people. The gardening is economical and adds variety to their diet,” Brown said.
Missionaries taught square-foot gardening are destined to more than 10 countries, including Ecuador, Mongolia and the Caribbean.
This year, Bartholomew and Susan Valentine, co-host of Bartholomew’s television show, have also introduced gardening to the blind through the Helen Keller Institute, and have spent time in Bolivia.
They have also donated gardens to an at-risk youth program in Bountiful.
Despite his work in showing the universal quality of gardening, Bartholomew’s focus is its benefit to developing countries.
“My real interest is working with any group or individual in connection with humanitarian aid,” he said.
“We are enabling a woman to care and feed her family.”
The woman no longer has to wait for her husband to plow the field, he said.
“I’d like to give them more options to care for their families and themselves, and get things done on their own terms,” he said.
Bartholomew said these women can eventually begin cash cropping with flowers and herbs.
Bartholomew said his method empowers women to feed their families.
Often agricultural advisers don’t examine the compatibility of their ideas with the exciting social structure, Bartholomew said. When traditional farming is introduced in developing countries, the men typically run the heavy machinery. But with square-foot gardening, this is not necessary, he said.
“Because this is such a natural method, it is easy to comprehend. We rely on compost, which is all native materials. It helps the Earth,” he said.
“Women doing it themselves: That’s the message we want to send around the world,” he said. “I cannot fully emphasize the simplicity and naturalness of the method.”
Bartholomew said his square-foot gardening in Third World countries is beneficial in three ways.
First, it brings self-sufficiency to families by taking out the need to rely on farming equipment.
Second, it reduces hunger.
And thirdly, it can educate.
Bartholomew said square-foot gardening is useful to everyone. College students can maintain a one-square-foot garden on a sunny balcony, as can Europeans with limited space.
Bartholomew said it is also an ideal solution for most developing countries.
“The beauty is what we have to offer to everyone,” he said. “It improves not only health values and income, but also self-sufficiency; it also binds families together.”
One community in India dedicated six acres to square-foot gardens, and found that they reaped two additional crops, self-esteem and community bonding, he said. Elderly citizens gather to tear up paper for compost, rather than sitting separately at home, he said.
Bartholomew said these senior citizens don’t feel forgotten; instead, they feel worthy of living because they are contributing to their community.
Younger children work alongside the elderly, and by spending time with the senior citizens, these youth develop a bond with the “elders” in their community, he said. The youth also feel useful and productive.
Valentine and Bartholomew spent 1999 donating gardens to every school in Utah, including lesson plans to realize the full potential as teaching tools.
Bartholomew said his garden can be used to teach math from simple square footage to calculating soil volume.
The soil blend is a source for teaching geology, as mica is a mineral mined worldwide, and peat moss is a future coal. During the donation of school gardens, Bartholomew and Valentine were invited to display a garden at Thanksgiving Point in 1999.
Bartholomew said he originally came up with the idea when he took up gardening as a hobby after an early retirement. As a civil engineer, he had been trained to focus on the efficiency of the manufacturing process.
Bartholomew said he found traditional gardening tedious and wasteful. He said he saw the planting of whole packets of seeds in long, spaced rows and an overabundant harvest to be more appropriate for mass-producing farms than a family garden.
“(Traditional gardening) is a hand-me-down from farming,” Bartholomew said.
As a self-described critic of experts, Bartholomew said he began experimenting with various soils and garden organization.
“It just kept evolving,” he said.
The result was square-foot gardening.
Bartholomew’s focus on efficiency, convenience and harvest led to a best-selling book, and eventually two weekly television shows, hosted with Valentine.
Bartholomew said he is regularly perfecting his work.
“I need a challenge to keep going,” he said.
For more information, contact Thanksgiving Point: 768-2300, www.thehungersite.com.