Monday, February 19, 2018

The Square Foot Evangelist

This article was written about me for a June 2014 edition of a now-defunct local newspaper. While some of of the information is obviously dated (has it really been four years!?!) I thought I would re-post it this week as I start another season of Square Foot Gardening Talks and Demonstrations with my appearance Thursday at H.W. Little Hardware in Wadesboro. 

At the call of “Adventure!,” Laika, a two-year-old white and black terrier mix bounds enthusiastically from the adjoining room where she had been stretched out on the sofa. It’s Saturday morning in the Wynfield Creek home of Square Foot Gardening guru John Marek, and I’m here to talk with him about his latest community development project, Square Foot Gardening-Lake Norman, but it’s apparent that this isn’t going to be the typical “views and snooze” interview.

“You’re wearing hiking boots… good,” he says as he motions me through the garage door and toward his vintage Jeep Wrangler, Laika wagging happily along beside. “Last brand-new car I’ll probably ever buy,” he states, nodding toward the late-model Honda CR-V left behind in the garage as we back out. “The new car thing has gotten ridiculous. Our neighbors bought a Ford Edge and it has variable-color interior lighting. You press a button and the interior turns from green to blue to orange. Like my dad used to say, ‘just something else to go wrong.’ This old Jeep doesn’t have anything extraneous; everything serves a purpose. It’s solid and functional and timeless.” The same could be said about the man behind the wheel. Nearing his 52nd birthday, Marek exudes a boyish enthusiasm and casual wit that befit a man ten or more years his junior.         

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John Marek was born in Port Clinton, Ohio, a town of 7,000 on Lake Erie, roughly midway between Cleveland and Toledo. His father worked at the US Gypsum plant a half mile down the road from the family home, and his mother worked part-time at an elementary school a half mile in the other direction. “Between them, I don’t think my parents ever made more than $20,000 in a year, so we were definitely lower, lower middle class, and that’s probably being generous, but I never felt poor. Mom and dad were so good at managing money; I never felt like we had to do without anything we really needed… and of course, there was the garden. That was a big part of making ends meet.” As far back as he can remember, Marek helped his father maintain a vegetable garden that took up the entire back fifth of their yard. “Dad was great with tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes and beans. One of our favorite summertime meals was fresh green beans and potatoes with bacon. Mom would cook up a huge pot of it, slice up some fresh tomatoes and we’d have a meal or two for the cost of a quarter-pound of bacon.” Those lessons of frugality and self-sufficiency would become an integral part of the younger Marek’s character, and would eventually become the basis for his efforts to spread the gospel of Square Foot Gardening.

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Marek slows the Jeep and makes a sharp turn onto a narrow gravel road next to a sign reading, “Midas Springs Water.” We decelerate to a crawl and wave as we pass a group on horseback, all the while creeping deeper into the southern hardwood forest. Midas Springs has been a source of fresh, pure drinking water since the Catawba Indians settled this land in pre-Columbian times. The bottling operation was started in 1871 and the company (www.midasspringswater.com) has grown an extraordinarily loyal customer base over the intervening years. More to the point of our visit, the current owners have designated an area on the grounds for sustainable community gardening and allowed Marek to set up a Square Foot Garden where he regularly gives demonstrations of the techniques for high productivity, low impact growing originally developed by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970’s. As we roll to a stop next to a stone bridge that crosses a narrow stream, Laika blasts from the Jeep and rushes over the bridge to greet Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain. Swain, along with a dedicated group of volunteers, is the driving force behind the community garden, a traditional single-row plot they first tilled and planted in 2010. “I’ve known the mayor going back to my consulting days and we are friends on Facebook. When she posted about planning for this year’s garden I asked if I could install a Square Foot demo at the site and received an immediate and enthusiastic yes.”      

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Along with helping his father in the family garden, Marek spent much of his youth in the fields and woods and along the shores of Sandusky Bay. A voracious reader, he consumed everything he could find in print about the plants and animals of the area. “For a good part of my school years, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. I know that’s sort of a sitcom punchline, but I was pretty serious about it.” Instead of marine biology, John followed a more practical path, studying communications and business and earning his degree from Bowling Green State University in 1985. A year after graduation he married his college sweetheart, Janet, and shortly thereafter they bought a small farmhouse and apple orchard in rural Wood County, Ohio. Their struggles at juggling their fledgling professional careers and the “country gentleman” (Janet’s term) lifestyle provided the basis for Marek’s humorous memoir Little House on the Highway, but very few apples. “Yeah, I was an idiot. I read John Irving’s book Cider House Rules and thought the orchard would be an interesting pastime. Turns out that life is a lot harder than Irving’s romanticized version. The day we moved out of that house and into a no-maintenance condo in the city was one of the happiest of my life.”

For the better part of the next two decades, Marek’s life was more “Frasier” than farmer. First as a marketing executive with an auto parts manufacturer, and then as a consultant, he traveled extensively, wrote two books on marketing and developed a reputation as an engaging speaker and corporate trainer. But, after more than a decade of delayed flights, bland room service meals and harried rental car returns he was ready for a change. The opportunity came in the form of a unique job offer from the city of Statesville, just 25 miles north of his home. “My last year as an independent consultant, I’d been doing a lot of work with economic and community development agencies; chambers of commerce, downtown development groups, workforce development boards and the like. I found that work very rewarding and put out feelers that I might be interested in a more permanent arrangement, but honestly didn’t know what that would look like. Statesville basically fell into my lap.” The position Marek accepted with the Greater Statesville Development Corporation (now Statesville Regional Development) and Mitchell Community College in the spring of 2007 was an unusual hybrid of economic development, marketing and corporate training responsibilities; a job for which he was particularly qualified. “If you had given me the job description when I was 25 and told me to spend the next 20 years developing the exact skill set required, I don’t think I could have done any better.”

The Statesville job, in addition to being close to home with “regular” hours and minimal overnight travel, allowed Marek to reconnect with a more grounded, genuine lifestyle. “It [Statesville] is a wonderful small city. The vibe there is entirely different from Charlotte or Atlanta; more relaxed, more authentic… closer to the earth, you might say. It was a little like decompressing after a deep dive. It took a while to get all the fizz out of my bloodstream.” As the months and years passed, he found himself more and more comfortable again in the woods and on the water. Then, in the winter of 2011, a freak accident opened yet another door. “It was a raw, blustery day. I got home from the office and let my dog out the back door and was stunned to see one of my huge cedar trees – probably a 50 footer – laying across my backyard, just feet from my house. It might be a little overly dramatic to talk about the ‘hand of God,’ but that tree literally fell in the one place it could have without doing damage to either our or our neighbors’ houses.” Nevertheless, the close call made an impression, and he called an arborist who recommended several additional trees be removed. “One of the main reasons we bought the house at Wynfield Creek was the heavily wooded lot. The flip side was that our backyard got almost no sun. When those trees were removed it occurred to me that there was now a sunny spot for a garden.”

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After a few minutes of “shop talk” with the mayor, Marek motions me toward a wooden box adjacent to the larger community garden. The demonstration Square Foot Garden at Midas Springs is just four feet wide on each side and only six inches deep, yet according to Marek it will yield produce equivalent to an eight foot by ten foot single-row garden. The Square Foot concept essentially applies Lean principles to home gardening. By creating a carefully controlled planting environment incorporating a raised bed, special soil mix, grid system and precise spacing, the Square Foot method allows the home gardener to grow more in less space, with less effort and less water. “With Square Foot Gardening there is no digging, no tilling and very little weeding. It changes the home gardening paradigm from one of labor-intensive pseudo-farming to something more akin to growing houseplants. Because the physical effort required is so greatly reduced, it opens up gardening for the very old, the very young and the physically impaired. The growing beds can even be customized to provide access for those who have problems bending or who use a wheelchair.”      

Marek first became acquainted with Square Foot Gardening a year after the incident with the cedar tree. “After the hazardous trees were cleared, I planted a couple of patio tomatoes in pots on my deck to make sure the area really got enough light. When those did okay, I decided to put in a real garden the next season. But, not wanting to re-live the issues with the apples at the Little House on the Highway, I retreated to the gardening section at my local Barnes & Noble, and it was there I found Mel Bartholomew’s book, All New Square Foot Gardening.” This past spring, after two successful growing seasons on his own, Marek decided to become something of an evangelist for the cause. He took a multi-week online class sponsored by the Square Foot Gardening Foundation and earned his certification as an instructor. He followed this up by launching a community service organization, Square Foot Gardening-Lake Norman, dedicated to promoting, teaching and assisting with Square Foot Gardening in the region. The demo garden at Midas Springs and an identical demo garden in Statesville are part of that outreach. “This isn’t a business for me. It’s not about making money or soliciting donations or anything like that. I’m only interested in helping people lead healthier, more intentional and sustainable lives with Square Foot Gardening. Whether they are trying to help make ends meet, to get outside more, to build self-reliance, to exert greater control over what they eat or all of the above, we want to make it as easy as possible to take that first step.” To that end, Marek has developed a website, makes regular presentations at his two demonstration gardens and offers free introductory classes at local libraries, schools and garden centers. Future plans include programs specifically designed for disabled veterans and low-income families. On this day, a family who had come to visit the community garden stops to talk, and Marek cheerfully tells them about the advantages of the Square Foot method, gives them a brochure showing how to get started and invites them to one of his upcoming classes. As Laika trots over to add a friendly wag and an enthusiastic chuff, Marek tidily sums up my impression of him from the morning visit, “Whatever you need, folks, I’m here to help. That’s what I do.”                    

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