Master Gardeners encourage new thinking on gardens

David Broyles

May 12, 2014

Local master gardeners presented an alternative to traditional family garden methodology at a raised bed gardening workshop Thursday.

The seminar was held at the Firehouse Friends Community Garden in the hope of extending the benefits of homegrown vegetables in local families’ diets. Master Gardeners Joe Sloop, Linda Vaughn and Hugh Wilkins introduced many of the participants to “Square Food Gardening” method to make the most of the beds.

“We’ve grown some tremendous gardens here,” said Sloop, who explained using smaller beds means they do not have to walk on the soil, which compacts it which hinders root growth. If the soil gets a disease, it can easily be removed. Weeding is easier. Water can be controlled and you can prepare a mixture of soils instead of pure compost. You can also plant closer together and produce more per foot. The key to a good garden is the soil in it.”

Square Foot Gardening gained recognition in 1981 when Mel Bartholomew took a new look at traditional gardening and issues such as why plant in long rows, why use so many seeds, why do gardeners want to weed and why garden? Bartholomew crafted an approach to agriculture from an engineer’s standpoint to maximize yield and ease of tending vegetables. His book on the subject has been revised and a Square Foot Gardening Foundation now exists to certify instructors to help communities.

“You can eat well out of a 4 by 8 (foot) bed,” Sloop said. “It (square foot gardening) is a philosophy of planting and an efficient way of planting.”

Sloop told participants most gardeners need as much humus, which is organic matter, in the soil as they can get as well as additives to keep moisture in the soil such as peat moss or vermiculite to hold in moisture. Many commercial potting soils use perlite, which is a volcanic substance which looks like Styrofoam beads.

He also told the group regulations for testing for arsenic in treated wood had been in place since 2003, so all treated woods used for raised bed boxes are now safe to use. Sloop said raised beds can even be built with a bottom to them so they can be used on porches or decks. He said marine grade plywood is often used for this and reminded participants to drill holes in the bottom for drainage.

“The idea is to get an idea of what you can grow in a square foot,” Sloop said. He told the group they can use sticks or cords to mark of squares in the beds to help them visualize the space for different crops in a square foot area. Sloop said plants, like clothes, come in different sizes. He said one extra large plant, four large plants, six medium plants and 16 small plants may be planted per square.

The parameters of a raised bed suggest using compact versions of plants or using a trellis for climbing plants like cucumbers, pole beans and some tomatoes. Succession planting, where corps which mature early can be harvested to plant another crop in its place is also recommended.

“I love gardening. It’s a good pastime and hobby,” said Sloop. He told participants to water their gardens in the morning because watering midday can “burn” plants and watering late evening can cause unwanted bacteria to grow. He also instructed them to pull weeds as close to the ground as possible and to use an asparagus knife to loosen weeds with a long taproot.

According to Extension Agent Joanna Radford, the community bed was established by a grant three years ago in cooperation with partners including the Surry County Health Department and Lowe’s Home Improvement. She said six of the 16 beds there have been “adopted” with master gardeners tending other beds to donate vegetables to local charities. Persons interested in tending a bed for their use may contact Radford at 336-401-8025 for information.

David Broyles may be reached at 336-719-1952 or on twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.