Mel Bartholomew has been lured out of retirement twice.
In 1976, after retiring from his own civil engineering firm at age 41, he planted a garden. It proved an inefficient use of space, so Bartholomew worked on the problem and came up with a planting method called "square foot gardening," which makes the most efficient use of land and water.Encouraged by friends, Bartholomew wrote a best-selling book about his gardening formula, which in turn developed into a 1982 television series. The show eventually aired over 280 PBS stations.
Believing he had now achieved enough success in life, Bartholomew again retired. However, just over a year ago, a school in northern California asked him to come and see the square foot gardens they'd grown.
"The kids were so excited about it all and how simple it was to do, that I thought it was a shame to be retired when I could be doing some more good," said Bartholomew in a recent interview. "So I came out of retirement again and set up a not-for-profit foundation."
His new mission? To take a garden to every school in America.
"This is probably the biggest challenge of my life," he said. "I'm all regenerated now and raring to go."
Bartholomew began by redesigning the square foot garden, reducing it from the standard 4 by 4 foot to 3 by 3 foot. The garden can now be picked up and carried through a school room door. "We make it out plywood and include a special soil mix, a drainage system and a grid on top," he said.
After experimenting with the program in several Idaho school districts - and having it wildly accepted by teachers - Bartholomew and his group came to Utah to present the program to state educators.
"We thought it was a great idea," said Brett Moulding, state science education specialist. "The program aligns nicely with our core curriculum for the fourth grade, where we look at Utah's plants and animals."
It will be a financial stretch on the not-for-profit group's budget, but Bartholomew has agreed to fund the entire project. "He's buying a square foot garden for every fourth-grade class in the state," Moulding said.
"We'll bring in fourth-grade facilitators from the districts this summer, train them and send them back to their school districts, where they in turn will train the teachers."
This first training episode should include about 80 percent of the 500 elementary schools in the state. The other 20 percent will be picked up in subsequent training.
And Moulding has been impressed with Bartholomew's openness, insight and ability to fit his gardening lessons into the state's existing science curriculum.
His approach goes something like this: "While we're getting ready to put the soil in the garden, we talk about it. What's clay soil? What's sandy soil? What's good about it? What's bad about it from a gardening standpoint? After encouraging students to research soil in the encyclopedia, Bartholomew shows them the soil mixture he's designed, which is one-third peat moss, one-third vermiculite and one-third compost.
"So then I ask them, `What's peat moss?' Well, a fourth-grader has no idea. The kid says, `I think you go to the store and buy it.' So, again we go to the encyclopedia and find out what it is." The students discover peat moss is a fuel, and the first step to making coal. It's mined out of the earth and is still used as fuel in many places, like Ireland.
"And then I say, `OK, let's get a map and color in all the areas where they still use peat as a fuel source. How many million years does it take for Mother Earth to make peat moss? What's below peat moss? We find it's a soft coal, and below that is a hard coal. So now, we're into geology. And then we can ask what animals lived during this period of time? Now, we're into dinosaurs. All this from a little garden box and we haven't even planted any seeds yet.
"And you can see that with a 3-by-3-foot box, divided up into thirds, your chances of teaching math principles are phenomenal. You count the squares and do square roots. Then you can get into volume. How many cubic feet are in the garden? And then, you have them convert the result to metric.
"Then, ask them why use the metric system? Why use the English system? Get out another map and color in the areas that use the metric system and the areas that use the English. Ask them why there are two systems of measurements. Then, maybe set up a debate; which system is the best? And still we haven't planted a single seed."
Bartholomew's lessons will also demonstrate the parallel between nurturing seedlings and nurturing humans. "We teach the kids that different types of plants can cohabitate just like people can. And if these petunias can live next to these onions that live next to this cabbage plant, then why can't people do the same thing? It becomes a lesson in attitudes."
Every aspect of gardening is related to education in Bartholomew's program. He even plans to teach students about pesticides, recycling and conservation. In the end, Bartholomew is trying to show students how much can be learned from something as simple as a small garden in your own back yard.
"Gardening has brought such joy to my life. I see it as such a wonderful thing. I see it tying in with families, also. I think it could help our families today by drawing people together in a common goal or purpose."
Those individuals or organizations interested in helping the Square Foot Gardening Foundation meet its goal of placing a garden in every school can contact Marci Brooks at 801-571-0751 or e-mail ([email protected]).