Gardening Pioneers at Luther Acres

Ruth Lohmeyer and Terri Wible are trying some new gardening methods at Luther Acres, the Luthercare senior living community in Lititz. Both Luther Acres residents, they are experimenting with different ways of gardening that bring many benefits to the garden.

Square foot gardening is a method that Ruth Lohmeyer has used for about 10 years.  After moving to Luther Acres from Culpeper, Va., in the summer of 2017, she reserved a garden plot at the campus Horticulture Center, an amenity open to any Luther Acres resident who desires to plant and tend to flowers, vegetables, etc. Ruth had her new square foot garden set up and planted by early spring of this year and has been enjoying the crops ever since.

Ruth first learned about square foot gardening from a show on PBS. After doing some research and planning, she had her first garden up and running. It was such a huge success that she has done it ever since and has helped a few friends start their own successful gardens. Square foot gardening uses raised beds; she recommends 12 inches deep. Weed barrier is placed on the ground, and then it is filled with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss and compost (1/3 each). The raised bed can be as long as you choose but should be no more than 4 feet wide to allow for reaching into the middle. The box is then divided into 12 inch squares. Ruth uses nylon rope to make a grid on the box and charts the spaces on graph paper so she remembers what is planted in each space. 

Her crops include: lettuce, spinach, radishes, arugula, onions, beats, kale, Swiss chard, beans, carrots, and more. When an early crop is done, she is able to loosen soil in a 12-inch space and plant something new.  

Ruth sees many advantages to square foot gardening. It is easy to rotate crops; you don’t need to bend to the ground; the weed barrier and dense planting prevents weeds from growing; and you can start planting early in the season because the soil mixture allows very good drainage in wet spring weather. The only disadvantage she sees is the initial cost of set up. The soil mixture is a bit pricey to start when you are filling the bed. But after that, the only thing she does is add some fresh compost each year. To Ruth, “Gardening is an experiment. Some seeds work and some don’t. You can always plant something different next year.”

When she moved to Luther Acres, Ruth began a weight-lifting program at the campus Wellness Center. She was amazed at how much easier it was to pick up the bags of soil while getting her garden ready. Ruth loves living at Luther Acres, getting involved in different activities, and meeting new people. She feels like she has discovered a whole new life!

Terry Wible grew up gardening with his family, and when he and his wife Lenoir moved to Luther Acres, he immediately claimed a garden plot. Now Terry is one of the resident-volunteers who oversees the gardens and greenhouse. He works with fellow resident Ken Craley to assign the plots, organize the greenhouse, help with bed prep, and keep up the common areas. He also plants quite a few plots of his own.    

After noticing some areas in the garden were experiencing some very wet spots and hard soil, he decided to experiment with a straw bale garden. He did some research and learned how to condition the hay bales to get them ready for planting.  After watering them, adding urea and allowing them to sit for a few weeks, the bales were ready to plant.  

Virtually any crop can be planted in the hay bales. The only soil that he added was a small layer on top to sow seeds. So far, it is a success. His tomatoes and beans are thriving. He’s grown three types of eggplant, four types of peppers, two kinds of tomatoes, Japanese cucumber, whippoorwill peas and more. “Some people have asked me why I wanted to plant all of these things when I can buy them at the wonderful farmer’s markets nearby, but I plant things that you can’t get locally,” he said.

The hay bales provide a raised bed so bending to the ground is eliminated. As the time goes on, the hay bales begin to break down. By next spring they will become compost, and he will till them into soil. He is hoping the addition of the hay bales will improve drainage and make the soil easier to work.