Home & Garden: Valued veggies

Mel Bartholomew on garden investment

‘High-Value Veggies’ is the latest book by Mel Bartholomew, who has a passion for helping gardeners save money by growing crops with high value.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

Before bestselling garden author Mel Bartholomew began writing books on growing food, he had built his own consulting engineering firm specializing in site and utility design. At age 42 he retired as a successful innovator and took up gardening as a hobby. From his “hobby,” he developed a more manageable and efficient way to garden called the Square Foot Gardening system. His first book, titled Square Foot Gardening and published in 1981, became America’s largest selling gardening book ever.

Bartholomew is also the founder of the nonprofit Square Foot Gardening Foundation, which has an innovative school garden program named “Square Yard in the School Yard.” In addition to that, he has started projects to eliminate world hunger in Africa, South and Central America, Haiti, the Philippines and other third-world countries, by teaching local communities how to grow their own food more efficiently.

This spring, Cool Springs Press published Bartholomew’s latest book called High-Value Veggies: Homegrown Produce Ranked by Value. His latest passion is helping gardeners save money by growing crops with high value. Most gardeners want to grow what’s easiest to grow in their yard, but Bartholomew encourages readers to take a closer look and keep in mind that what’s the easiest to grow is likely to be the most widely produced and the lowest priced at the local supermarket.  

“Let’s face it, anything you grow and eat is something you don’t have to buy,” says the author. “Even though you’ll put a good deal of work into a garden, along with tangible investments including plants or seeds, soil amendments and gallon upon gallon of water—you’ll usually get a decent return on your investment.” But this isn’t always the case. “It depends on what you grow,” he adds. “The time to figure out the real value of what you grow in your garden is before you ever drop a seed into a hole you’ve made in your sun-warmed soil.”

Being a trained engineer, Bartholomew says to trust the numbers. His “garden investment” theory is a thoughtful approach to edible plant selection with an eye to which plants represent the best use of your time, money and effort. Amen! His formula uses an average price-per-pound to determine what a season’s worth of produce from any plant is worth. That value is measured against the cost of inputs to grow the plants over a season to calculate an overall ROI (return on investment). In simple terms, the calculations take into account what you put into each individual plant subtracted from what the harvest from that plant is worth.

Here is what he found: The homegrown veggie with the highest ROI is … herbs! The runner-up is parsnip. Parsnip? What?! You’ll like third place more. Coming in third is the Cherry Tomato.

Bartholomew’s team looked at 59 edible plants in the competition. The top 10 high-value garden winners were:

  1. Herbs
  2. Parsnip
  3. Cherry Tomato
  4. Garlic
  5. Heirloom Tomato
  6. Turnip
  7. Leek
  8. Winter Squash
  9. Spinach
  10. Hybrid Tomato

His research team found that the veggies that make the least sense to grow were:

  1. Potato
  2. Brussel Sprouts

      3.Bell Pepper

      4.Swiss Chard

  1. Asparagus
  2. Okra
  3. Bean
  4. Pole and Bush Bean
  5. Celery
  6. Green Cabbage

Let’s talk about our winner: Herbs. I always recommend novice gardeners to begin gardening by finding a sunny spot and growing an herb garden. Most herbs are fairly easy to grow here in California, so this allows new gardeners to feel like winners and fall madly in love with gardening! Then we have them for life; fellow plant junkies, or as I like to call myself, a hortiholic.

Bartholomew recommends growing a variety of kitchen herbs and to keep any unused portions by freezing them. Both thyme and rosemary are edible but can also be used as exceptional filler plants for rock gardens. And then there’s mint. Most gardeners hate it because it grows like a weed, but if grown in containers, mint will not take over your yard. You’ll just grow enough to put in your summer Mojito.

As for basil, Bartholomew believes that there is no such thing as too much basil. In Marin, basil will keep producing until the first frost. Parsley is an herb rarely bothered by pests and will reseed itself in your garden. Flat-leaved varieties are more tolerant of our dry summer weather. Cut off a small handful of outer leaves to use or shear the entire plant if you need a larger amount. It will quickly regrow.

As for parsnips … Well, maybe it’s time we learned to love them.

Check out some parsnip recipes (parsnip chips, fries, soup, cookies, cake!) from the Bay Area’s Mariquita Farm here: Mariquita.com/recipes/parsnips.html.

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  1. Great article Dirt Diva… sadly though i need to let you know:

    Square Foot Gardening Creator Dies at 84

    Mel Bartholomew, creator of Square Foot Gardening, has passed away at the age of 84 in La Jolla, California after a two-year battle with cancer.

    Bartholomew was a graduate of Georgia Tech, and served in the Army as a 1st Lieutenant/ Radar & Electronics Officer. After retiring from a career in Civil Engineering, Bartholomew applied his love for gardening and his engineering experience to find a brand new approach to single row gardening. The Square Foot Gardening method was the result, and it revolutionized the way millions would garden.

    His first book, Square Foot Gardening was published in 1981 and has sold over 2.5 million copies making Bartholomew the best selling garden author in North America for over a generation. Through his books, PBS Television series, innumerable personal appearances and a wide network of Certified Instructors, Bartholomew encouraged gardeners everywhere to abandon the tradition of row gardening for a more efficient, space saving, easy and fun method.

    From the proceeds of his book sales, he established the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to combat world hunger by spreading his method of gardening around the globe.

    Bartholomew’s death was announced by the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, which has vowed to carry on his mission. “The Square Foot Gardening Foundation, along with the Bartholomew family look forward to continuing with Mel’s mission and the future of Square Foot Gardening for generations to come.”

    Mr. Bartholomew is survived by his son Stephen, from Huntington New York and Jeffrey from Brookville, Maryland. A daughter Gail died in 2000. Mel is also survived by seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, as well as his former wife Virginia. A private service will be held on Long Island at a later date. Donations can be sent by check to: Square Foot Gardening Foundation, 939 Coast Blvd. 12D, La Jolla, CA 92037


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