In Homage to Mel

In Homage to Mel

My time in the farmhouse in Pennsylvania was curtailed by a beautiful women, who in spite of my habits, fell in love with me. A few years in Pittsburgh, a couple more in Boston, throw in a good job and a marriage, and we were a family of three looking for a house. Our destination was near the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire, we had a garden and the previous owners had again tried their hand at gardening. I had everything in my favor. I had sun, soil, and space. Then I discovered Mel.

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Mel Bartholomew has for many years driven a concept called square foot gardening. The concept is simple, stop thinking about rows and spacing. Instead, think about maximizing the amount of crop you can get from a small space. Divide up your garden into squares, each 12” x 12” and place your plants in those squares. Some plants will be grown 1 per square, like peppers and eggplants. Others meanwhile, you plant up 4, 9, or 16 per square. His approach helps you overcome a major misconception you have in backyard gardening, that is you think you area farmer. When farming, your goal is to create consistent crops for market. When backyard gardening, it is all about maximizing what you can grow in you back yard. You should care less about the size of your carrots and more about the potential yield. With square foot gardening, the vegetables are generally smaller, but the number goes up. His book became my bible.

I also discovered that the town delivered compost. In fact, they had so much of it they were almost giving it away. If you go to your local garden center then you might be able to buy 40 lbs of top soil for $1.50. 40 of those bags will give you a cubic yard, at a price of roughly $60/cubic yard. For that cost, including delivery the town would drop 4 cubic yards of good compost into my driveway. Being so cheap, I quickly built 6 raised beds, filled them with up, gridded the beds and planted seeds (lots of seeds). I was away.

The first major crop was spinach. Where before I was lucky to get a few leaves, I now had pounds of it. In fact, not only did we eat out fill, but colleagues at work found themselves with bags of fresh spinach in their briefcases on the way home. Spinach is a cool weather crop and will bolt given the first few days of heat. As a result you frequently over plant it so you have enough. However, that spring was long and cool. We had the best spinach crop ever. Each meal was started with 3 lbs of fresh spinach. Sometimes, all we ate was salad. That spring was probably the healthiest set of meals I have ever had. Even Popeye never ate so much spinach.

Carrot seeds were planted following Mel’s advice, 16 to a square. As were parsnips, peppers, leeks, shallots, tomatoes, peas, beans, squash… the list went on. In total, I had over 200 ft² of vegetable beds growing in the square-foot style. It started to look as if some modern artist had taken over my garden. Watering now became my next challenge. While I understand the benefits of watering the plants, I find that it gets a little boring now and then. You start to miss a few days, and then you find yourself unable to sleep for fear that your plants are dying. Therefore, I needed to take the effort out of things… I needed to be creatively lazy.

Raised Bed 1

The first issue was that the nearest faucet was a good 40 foot from the veg patch. While a long hose would reach, if left strewn across the grass not only would daughter trip over it, but also I would probably shred it with the lawnmower. Fortunately, being the engineer that I am, I realized that both of these problems could be solved if I buried it under the lawn. Trenching across the garden did lead to a long length of dead grass. However, grass in my mind is a weed and that wretched stuff grows back. In a few months my water main was invisible. Next was a simple timer and lots of sprinklers. Now when I felt the plants needed a water, I just needed to open the faucet, turn the dial and watch as my job was done for me. Not only could I garden, but I could be a lazy sod doing so.

Raised Bed 2

The results of my endeavors were wonderful. Beans took over their trellis. Carrots were amazing. Peppers were incredible. Leeks were in such excess that neighbors would find themselves going home with them as a result of saying hello. From my raised beds, I grew 100 times more crop than I had in my lifetime. It tasted great. Of course, there were a few crop failures. However, I was eating food from my garden in substantial volumes. Crop were in excess. Bellies were full. For the first time in my life my dreams were coming true…. This was it, I was gardening. I was in heaven…. Mel was a god! However, reality was looming, and it was furry.

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