Gardening the square-foot way – no digging, no weeding

Gardening the square-foot way – no digging, no weeding

Betty Brand

Mick Manfield's lushly growing garden
Mick Manfield’s lushly growing garden

After putting a lot of time and effort into gardening the more traditional way – a large space with traditional long rows – and getting a low yield, Mick Man field searched for a method that required less space, time and effort but produced better yields. His search led him to square foot gardening, where wooden raised frames are built, filled with a special planting mix and set directly on existing land. This method meets his stated requirements. It also helps people of all ages and abilities live healthier lives because they can grow their own food.

Mick has been a certified, square-foot gardening expert and a master gardener since 2011. He gardens in Lockport, growing over 50 different vegetables and berries in 24 raised wooden boxes that sit directly on his grassed property, close to his house.

One benefit already touched on is that raised beds can improve gardening access for those with limited mobility. Mick shares his gardening expertise with the clients of Imagine Ability, a local Winnipeg organization that serves the needs of persons with an intellectual disability and they too are growing some of their own food. Mick sees square-foot gardening as a fantastic way to involve kids and grandkids in gardening because the plants are closer to their height and it is great fun for them to pick and eat what they grow.

Mick can appreciate that enthusiasm. He first learned to garden as a five-year old child alongside his dad and granddad in England, where they grew a variety of vegetables that fed the family. And he has also done workshops with local Winnipeg daycares, engaging children and their caregivers in growing some of their own food such as salad crops, potatoes, cucumbers and melons.

To understand square-foot gardening, Mick suggests thinking in “squares”– four-foot-square boxes that are a minimum of six inches deep. On top of each box sits a square foot, wood grid that creates 16 planting squares. Mick recommends that plants or seeds be planted in each square according to spacing instructions on the plant tag or seed packet. This means fewer waste seeds and less need to thin plants later.

He recommends building the boxes out of a durable wood such as cedar, but says spruce or any non-treated wood is also an option. He also uses cedar for the grid but rope or string can be used. To prevent existing weeds from coming through, he first places professional-grade landscape fabric on top of the soil and then the wood frame.

The frame is then filled with a three way soil mix – blended compost, peat moss and vermiculite. Gardeners can mix their own or buy good quality premade bagged mixes at local garden or homebuilding centres.

Location of the boxes is important for optimum crop yields. Mick strongly recommends an area close to the house with six to eight hours of sunshine daily (south is best), with no trees and shrubs to impede roots and no low-lying areas where drainage is poor. He also strongly recommends that a two-foot path be left between boxes, enough space for gardeners to weed from the aisles and enough room for a wheelbarrow to pass through.

When asked what to grow in the beds, Mick’s advice is to “grow what you love”. He says most vegetables are well-suited to square-foot gardening, including salad vegetables such as kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, bunched onions and smaller versions of cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Mick’s tomato favorites are Tiny Tim and Tumbling Tom.

He also utilizes vertical gardening for beans, peas and cucumbers, and builds narrower and deeper one-foot boxes with trellises to support the plants. Mick also successfully grows strawberries in a circular, three-tier raised frame. Only plants with a deep root system, such as asparagus, are unsuitable for frames and containers. Fresh herbs and flowers can also be grown in the boxes.

Mick is often asked to hold information sessions to help gardeners, novice or experienced, learn more about square-foot gardening. He also recommends joining a local gardening club or attending the annual Gardening Saturday symposium, held in Winnipeg in March and offering a full day of gardening workshops. Mick recommends the website for online information.

Betty Brand recently retired from the Manitoba government, where she worked in program and policy development on issues affecting the lives of seniors, women and persons with disabilities.

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