There are plenty of excuses for not having a garden. But if you really want fresh vegetables and flowers for your home, there are ways to get a lot of produce from a little pile of dirt. Collectively, the Virginia Cooperative Extension calls it intensive gardening. The intent, according to Alex Niemiera, professor of plant science at Virginia Tech, “is to have something growing in every part of the garden at all times during the growing season.”
A better label might be crowded crops since it does away with the wide-open spaces between the rows of traditional vegetable gardens. In fact, it’s easier to list the things that are not involved in intensive gardens: a lot of land; a lot of money for equipment; a lot of bending and lifting. The three most popular tactics for ignoring row planting are square patches, straw bales and containers. All three can be easily adapted to the needs of wheelchair-bound gardeners.
Square Foot Gardening (a name copyrighted by retired engineer and gardener Mel Bartholomew) is based on a 4X4-foot box built from 1X12-inch untreated lumber, filled with garden soil, then marked off with cedar slats into foot-square plots. If the box is placed on land likely to contain weed or lawn seed, it is underlaid with landscape fabric.
Mindful that many gardeners don’t have big budgets, Bartholomew suggests safe substitutes for his standard list of building materials. Several types (but not all) of scrap lumber — including the insert leaves from old dining tables — can substitute for dimensional lumber. Bamboo or lengths of PVC tubing can replace cedar slats.
Each of the Square Foot garden’s 16 plots is dedicated to a single vegetable. How many of each vegetable depends on the size of the mature plant. You can get in 16 onion sets, for example, or 9 spinach plants but only 1 tomato plant. For more information about the vegetable varieties best suited to an intensive garden, tune into the Patrick County Master Gardeners’ WHEO radio 1270 AM program on February 22 at 8:30 a.m. It will be the 2nd of a three-part series on Growing Your Own Food.
The bottom line is that once the vegetables have grown a bit in their individual plots, they present a lush bouquet that is so crowded, a weed doesn’t have much of a chance. Should a stray pop up, it will be easy to reach and pluck out. At harvest time, the mature vegetables are just as reachable.
For those confined to wheelchairs, the basic square foot garden is simply raised up on legs, with a sheet of plywood for the bottom, to become a specialized table. Bartholomew’s book provides suggested dimensions or ADA guidelines for pedestal sinks can be used. Allow a minimum of 29 inches from the ground to bottom of the garden box for knee clearance; no more than 34 inches in width for the plants to be reachable from either side. (Standard arm reach is about 17 inches.) Using ADA’s maximum height of 40 inches, a planting depth of about 11 inches is possible.
The Straw Bale Gardening Method advocated by horticulturist Joel Karsten is also easily accessed by wheelchair. Both the straw bale and the square foot methods specify 4-foot-wide aisles if multiple gardens are installed. Reaching into a straw bale garden is easy since the bales themselves are narrow, and Bartholomew’s 4X4-foot grids can be elongated to 2X8-foot.
The key to success with a straw bale garden is setting the bales on edge so that the binding twine wraps around the sides instead of traversing the top and bottom. With the straw stems thus set on end, water can drain through the bale before promoting mildew and fungus growth. (Karsten cautions that most balers bend the straw on one side and cut it on the other, so be sure that the cut side is on top.)
The downside: straw supplies no appreciable plant nutrients. A light application of garden soil and inexpensive lawn fertilizer to the top of the bale remedies that. Allow the treated bale to sit undisturbed for about 12 days in a process Karsten calls “conditioning” — in essence, decomposition — and the bale is ready to receive young vegetable plants.
The third intensive garden practice is use of containers. Almost anything can be used, says Diane Relf, retired Virginia Extension specialist, as long as it is big enough to support your chosen plant once it’s fully grown; able to hold soil without spilling; has adequate drainage; and never held a product that could be toxic to plants or people.
There’s a downside to nearly any container material, says British horticulturist Liz Dobbs in her book Container Vegetable Gardening. Pick the one you can live with.
Fiberglass is lightweight and durable but expensive.
Watch for sharp edges and rust on metal containers. And avoid constant bright sun — they might get too hot for plants’ roots.
Plastic containers can have many good features “but do not age well.”
Terra cotta doesn’t do well if left outdoors in winter — “it’s frost tolerant but not frost resistant.”
Terrazzo will keep plants cool but are expensive and heavy.
Wicker and rattan are attractive but not durable.
Even rot-resistant woods are likely to require end-of-season maintenance.
“Most plants need containers at least 6 to 8 inches deep,” says Relf.
Then match capacity to the resident plant. “Use a minimum of a half-gallon pot at least 6 inches in diameter for herbs and small leafy greens,” says Dobbs. “A 2.5-gallon pot can support a group of three to five plants; thirsty plants like pole beans, tomatoes and cucumbers will need 4-gallon containers.”
No matter which container is chosen, drainage holes to prevent root rot and some sort of rubble to keep soil from draining out with the water will be needed. Rubble can also be helpful for adding stability to small fiberglass and plastic containers that could be blown over in the wind. Whichever rubble you use — broken pottery, small stones, packing peanuts, etc. — Dobbs suggests putting it in mesh grocery produce bags to ease pot cleaning at the end of the season.
Once soil is added, any container can become too heavy to easily move in and out of the sun or to protect it from heavy wind and rain. A dolly or wheeled platform will solve that problem.
None of the three methods will do away with the need for watering your plants or for supporting those that vine or bush heavily. In almost all cases, soil nutrients and some fertilizer will be needed as well.
Virginia Cooperative Extension is a partnership of Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments. Its programs and employment are open to all, regardless of age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, military status, or any other basis protected by law.