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Thinking (growing) inside the box

More and more gardeners are growing inside the box.

As Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot gardening method catches on, yards are filling up with boxes overflowing with vegetables and flowers.by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Steve Harris of Hillsboro, a frequent traveler who couldn´t keep up with a traditional garden, finished planting his square-foot garden boxes last weekend.

Bartholomew claims his method cuts down on weeds, saves time and money, and makes it possible to grow in even the smallest spaces, while yielding healthier harvests.

Bartholomew also believes most vegetables need only six inches of depth and one square foot or less of growing space. Row upon row isn’t necessary for the average backyard gardener, he says. All you really need is a few feet for a planting box.

Jerry Knott, a Master Gardener since 2005, teaches classes on square foot gardening, sharing the fundamentals of Bartholomew’s concept with those who are thinking about giving it a try.

“Gardening became fun when I started this,” Knott said. “Before that, it was a whole lot of work.”

Knott recommends Bartholomew’s book to those who are seriously considering the gardening method, but his basic tips are meant to help gardeners decide if it’s right for them.

Steve Harris, a Hillsboro resident following the method this year, liked the idea of a garden that was compact and didn’t require constant weeding or soil amending. For a constant traveler who hasn’t had time to keep up a traditional garden the last few years, the method seemed to be a solution.

First, build a planter. Kits for garden boxes are available, but can cost hundreds of dollars. Knott prefers to build his own using fir, which is cheap and lasts, he said. Make sure the wood is untreated.

Make grids to divide the planters into one-square-foot sections using string, PVC pipes or wood lath pieces.

Knott doesn’t like string because nails in the box sides can snag clothing and limbs, and create holes that gather water and compromise wood longevity. String also has to be replaced annually and gets in the way when adding more compost.

Knott said PVC grids can get expensive, but last a long time.

He doesn’t tack down his grids because he likes being able to take them off and store them inside when not in use.

After adding a bottom of landscape fabric with optional wire to fend off moles and gophers, or plywood with drainage holes, Bartholomew calls for a soil mixture of equal parts (measured by volume, not weight) peat moss, compost and vermiculite, which allows for adequate drainage and nutrition and requires no fertilizer.

Knott filled his boxes with potting soil, and mixes in compost seasonally. “Bartholomew’s recipe is good, but it’s a little fussy for me,” he said.

Harris was surprised at the cost of the soil mix. He thinks it will be worth the initial investment, though.

“Good soil is the number one thing you can do for your garden,” said Knott, who doesn’t use fertilizer either, but recommends a slow-release organic formula for gardeners who can’t resist.

Harris has planted everything from lettuce to pumpkins, and Knott has had great success with a variety of crops. Knott recommends doubling box depth to grow carrots and potatoes.

While Knott adds a thick layer of mulch to winter over the beds, Harris plans to grow year-round, turning his boxes into mini-greenhouses and packing straw around the box sides for insulation.

Starting out a skeptic, Harris now recommends it to everybody. This year, he’ll work out any kinks, but so far so good.

Check out Bartholomew’s book, “All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space,” for more detailed instructions on building, placement, crops selection and spacing, and more space-saving tips.




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  • 29 Jul 2014

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