“Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.” — Author unknown
Need something to make staying at home more enjoyable? Consider adding a raised bed or two to your garden, just in time to sow some winter vegetables, create a herb garden, or grow some plants like blueberries that have special soil requirements.
At its simplest, a raised bed is just a mound in the landscape. I have a herb garden created from soil that I moved from elsewhere in the garden and bordered with concrete pavers. It’s only about 4” above the rest of the ground, but it’s just enough to stand out, and is a much better use of my limited sunny area than the scraggly lawn was!
Most people think of a rectangular wooden structure when they imagine a raised bed, but the shape can also be square, circular, or polyhedral, and it can be made of cinder block, bricks, gabions (stones in a wire enclosure), or be something like a repurposed metal watering trough. There is a lot of opportunity for creativity, and a lot of information available (the Gardener Scott videos on YouTube have excellent how-to instructions). Of course, plants can do just fine in our ordinary garden beds but there are some advantages for us gardeners to raised ones.
Benefits of raised beds:
- You can make beds that are easier to use by children, those in wheelchairs, and those of us with problematic backs.
- You can grow special-needs plants like blueberries.
- Dogs won’t run through them and cats are less likely to dig in them.
- You can build them anywhere sunny, on soil or hard surfaces.
- They make it easier to pull weeds, and less likely that volunteers will blow in.
- You can make sure that the soil is not too wet or too dry but just right.
- It’s hard to drag a hose through the bed or bump into the plants when your mind is elsewhere.
- Having a small space to plan and organize does a lot to eliminate the “I have no idea where to start” syndrome that large areas can invoke.
- Beds under 4 ft wide won’t require any contortions to reach the middle.
- Unless all you want to grow is lettuce which does fine with light shade, put the bed in a sunny place.
- Nothing will grow without regular watering. Soaker hoses and a timer will make life a lot more enjoyable for both you and the plants.
- Paths at least 2 ft wide will prevent walking between your beds from feeling like a balancing act.
- Plants are happiest with compost and other organic material along with soil: 50-60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10-20% organic matter. (For more detail about this, see the joegardener.com podcast)
- Putting mulch over landscape cloth will reduce weedy, muddy paths around beds, and mulch in the beds will slow evaporation.
- Vegetables are voracious feeders so if you want oodles of produce, plan to add amendments regularly.
Some other thoughts:
- Replacing lawn: If the lawn isn’t Bermuda grass, dig it up or mow it short and cover it with cardboard or layers of newspaper before filling the bed. If it is Bermuda, every tiny bit of above-ground stolon or below-ground rhizome can become a new plant. Now, while it is hot, you can “solarize” the area under and around the bed by using the sun to heat up the soil and kill the bits. First, water the area well as that will help the heat to move down in the soil. Then immediately cover the area with 1.5-4 mils clear, UV plastic sheeting (drop cloths can work) and leave it anchored in place for 4 to 6 weeks. Do not dig into the surface when you fill the bed or mulch the paths lest you bring up the undead. Solarization does need to be done while it is very hot; it won’t work when the weather cools.
- Gophers: If these treat your garden like a smorgasbord, put down a layer of ½ “ metal hardware cloth at the bottom of the bed--this will keep gophers and moles out but let earthworms through. Make sure to overlap and fasten edges and to extend the cloth a few inches up the inside, stapled in place so the gophers can’t pry their way in—like squirrels, they are crafty little devils.
- Insect pests: Not only is it good for the soul to commune with your plants every day, it makes it easier to nip insect infestations in the bud, so to speak. Along with the normal IPM (integrated pest management) methods for addressing pests, think about confusing the critters by intermingling flowers and herbs with the veggies in the bed. Plant basil next to your tomatoes and include flowers like pot marigolds and nasturtiums; it not only looks pretty (and these are edible) but a mix of plants tends to make it harder for unwanted insects to find your vegetables and lay eggs.
If this has inspired you to create a raised bed, send the Garden Club a photo and let us know how it’s going!