Master Gardener Dale Skrivinich. Photo: Richard Miller, KP News

The novel coronavirus is inspiring more people to grow their own fresh veggies this spring. Square foot gardening helps keep your patch manageable.

Dale Skrivanich of Vaughn has gardening in her genes. And as a Pierce County Master Gardener she is passionate about sharing her enthusiasm and knowledge with others. 

“Simplify it for yourself,” she said. “You see all these great garden magazines with all these gorgeous photographs. Regular gardening is not neat and tidy. Martha Stewart does not do her own gardening.”

Skrivanich’s maternal great-grandparents owned a nursery in Great Britain during World War II. Her grandfather, who as a younger son would not inherit the business, opted for adventure, became a shipwright, and moved to the Pacific Northwest. He ultimately settled in Seattle to raise a family.

Her father’s side of the family has owned a commercial wheat farm in the Palouse for more than 90 years. “My father was a Cougar and my mother was a Husky,” she said. “My mother wouldn’t live in Eastern Washington and so we managed the farm from Seattle. The people that have worked the farm have been with us for that whole time.”

“Regular gardening is not neat and tidy. Martha Stewart does not do her own gardening.”

Her mother was active in the University of Washington Arboretum, one sister was the horticulturist for the Woodland Park Zoo, and the other was the main grower of poinsettias for Smith Gardens in Bellingham. When her father died, Skrivanich became the commodities manager for the farm.

Marriage brought Skrivanich to this area in 1972. Her college roommate was from Gig Harbor and introduced her to her husband, a fisherman with deep roots in the community. “Don was gone fishing a lot, so I spent a lot of time out here,” she said. She taught special education until she left to take care of her mother.

In 2012, after her mother died, she and a friend joined the Pierce County Master Gardener program. “Gardening was natural,” Skrivanich said. “Commercial farming is really gardening on a massive scale.”

The program included weekly classes for three months, additional trainings and an intern project — hers was on invasive plants of Pierce County. She is a member of the committee that sets up continuing education, and for the last seven years she and four others have organized an annual workshop open to the public, “From the Ground and Up,” at Franklin Pierce High School. They have held regular clinics at Ace Hardware and Home Depot and have had booths at the KP Livable Community Fair and Farm Tour, but the outreach programs have been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Skrivanich thought that, in these stay-at-home times when people are thinking more about self-sufficiency, some advice about square foot gardens might be in order.

The concept of square foot gardens dates to the 1970s when Mel Bartholomew, a recently retired engineer, decided to take up gardening as a hobby. He thought that the standard approach to vegetable gardening was very inefficient. Rather than long rows in large beds he suggested raised beds four feet on a side and eight inches deep. Plantings of each small crop are within defined one-foot squares.

“You will always have a learning curve. I’d like for a beginner to have real satisfaction. Then you’ll have a gardener.”

“Square foot gardens are great if you have never been a gardener or if you are downsizing,” Skrivanich said. “You can even have one on a deck or a balcony. They are great for kids, for seniors, and they can even be built to allow people in wheelchairs to garden. You can get great variety without too much work.”

The first step, she said, is site selection. “Look up!” she advised. Know the direction of the sun and beware of tree branches blocking it. Six to eight hours of sun are needed in the summer. The flatter the site the better, even if it means building up one end or digging down. Be sure that there is good drainage and be sure that the water source is nearby.

Next, build the box. Plans and kits are available on the internet, but the basic concept is to have a four by four box, at least eight inches deep. The next step is to define the one-foot squares within the box. That can be done by building a grid with wooden strips or simply placing nails in the frame and stringing twine.

“Soil is to gardening what tires are to a car,” Skrivanich said. “It has to be good.” She said that good all-around soil, bagged or delivered, mixed with processed compost works well. She also adds something to help with drainage. Perlite, pumice or chicken grit can help accommodate the inevitable rainfall. The soil should be six to eight inches deep. “Be sure to mound it up,” she said. “It will settle and get compacted even though you won’t be walking on the beds.”

“Soil is to gardening what tires are to a car. It has to be good.” Photo: AdobeStock

Although the ideal time to plan a garden is in January, Skrivanich said it’s not too late to get a garden started now.

How big a plant will be will determine how many to plant in each square — sixteen radishes, one cauliflower, one tomato plant. Some of the smaller squashes, if the vine is trained to go onto the surrounding ground, can fit. Peas and beans require two squares and a trellis to support them that won’t block the sun.

Look for seeds that are specific to this region, Skrivanich said. “Lots of seeds are designed for the East Coast or the Midwest. Look for the shortest number of days to maturation.”

Seeds are cheaper than starts, but it will be several weeks before the plants are viable and they will need to be thinned once they sprout. “We are lucky that we have great nurseries here and the starts we get here are mostly grown here. They may be a bit more expensive than seeds, but there will be less loss and using starts will save several weeks.”

Some plants, like peppers, tomatoes or eggplants, can’t be directly sown as seeds in this climate and need to be started in a greenhouse. Some root vegetables, like radishes and carrots, must be sown as seeds.

“Whether you have seeds or starts, you will always have a learning curve. I’d like for a beginner to have real satisfaction. Then you’ll have a gardener. Starting out with 16 square feet is a great way to learn. There can be a lot of variety and you can reach everything.”

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