Our garden isn’t all that big. We don’t have a quarter acre in vegetable gardens, but we hope that our garden will provide more than enough vegetables for my husband and I this year. We have a 40×40 foot garden that has been in a conventional row system for the past two years, but this year, we plan to put in some smaller raised beds and will eventually replace the conventional garden with raised beds in the same area.
Our conventional garden had a lot of success. However, the garden required a lot of work just to get into shape for the following year. That’s why I am working to advance my entire garden to raised beds.
Why Raised Beds?
If you’re a beginner gardener, raised beds are for you because they remove many of the barriers that you face. Though raised beds require a little more upfront investment, it guarantees better success that first year. Build a box, add some soil, throw in some compost, sow some seeds, sprinkle on some water, and something will grow. This is much better than tilling, fertilizing, tilling again, seeding, weeding, weeding and weeding some more and then bending over or fighting hard rocky soil to get vegetables out of the ground.
A raised bed will up my soil for the easiest possible gardening. The less work, the better. Rather than tilling the soil every year to add fertilizer and amendments, I will be maintaining my raised beds by simply adding materials on top.
It will save me lots of work. Compost, mulches, manures, and other soil conditioners can all go directly onto the top few inches of the soil without the need for backbreaking work. The soil can do its own tilling as worms and roots push their way through. While regular mechanical tilling depletes the soil structure, adding organic material builds up the organic component of your soil over time. Instead of compacting the soil where the plants are growing, I walk on the paths between the beds, and never on the beds themselves.
I am getting older and I can use all the help I can get to continue gardening. A raised bed reduces back and knee strain. A raised bed, especially one that is at least twelve inches tall, can resolve debilitating back and joint pain. Building raised beds is an investment in my health.
Raised beds help keep pests out of the garden too. The tall sides of a raised garden box will slow down the migration of slugs and potentially rabbits into your garden. In addition, some gardeners attach copper flashing to their boxes to keep the slugs out. If you install chicken wire to the bottom of the box, you’ll prevent digging animals, like moles and voles from eating your root crops. Dogs are also less likely to urinate on your box. If deer are a problem, consider placing inexpensive six-foot bamboo fencing around your garden area. Though the fencing is lightweight and easy to move, deer won’t jump the fence because they can’t see through it. Uniformly designed raised beds are easy to add prebuilt plastic hoops to them for bird barriers, cold frames, or row covers.
A raised bed offers better drainage. Early in the gardening season, my garden is prone to flooding. The most popular depth for a raised bed is eleven inches, which is one inch below the sides of a twelve-inch high garden box. For most crops, this is enough drainage and gives plants almost a foot of extra breathing room above wet conditions. Raised beds also tend to drain better in general, even in heavy rains.
My garden will have fewer weeds and crabgrass. This was the biggest reason I am not using conventional rows. My garden became inundated with Bermuda grass, a perennial shallow-rooted grass that doesn’t quit during drought or deluge. This is wonderful grass for my lawn but chokes out everything in my garden if I don’t stay on top of it.
I don’t have to till. Tilling germinates more weeds by burying weed seeds and giving them the perfect opportunity to propagate. It also uncovers weeds that have been buried too deep to germinate. To make gardening even easier, I cover my beds with mulch, and cardboard, after a quick clean-up and dig with a broad fork in the fall to kill any of the plants that might grow during the winter. When it’s time to start planting again, I simply rake off the dead weeds before they have a chance to go to seed. I’m learning that one of the most effective ways to battle crabgrass is with a raised bed. I put cardboard on the bottom of my beds before I fill them to stop the grass from infiltrating.
Raised beds can be planted earlier in the season than conventional rows. Early planting in raised beds is possible because the soil dries out faster in the spring and warms more quickly for planting than soil at ground level. Many gardeners also find a surprising number of plants have overwintered in a raised bed that usually wouldn’t otherwise. This partly relates to the type of soil in the bed. If untilled and fortified with compost, your soil will regulate temperatures better than disturbed, nutrient-poor soil. In addition, raised beds can be retrofitted with a cold frame that helps warm the soil.
Planting in beds save me space because I’m able to plant closer within the bed than I would if I had to weed between each row. The closely planted garden vegetation will require less space than it would if the plants were planted in rows. If a plant gets a disease, I can easily pull it out and replace it with another. I can also plant smaller quicker growing plants between larger slower growing plants and get more than one harvest in that bed.
Other Situations Where Raised Beds Would Benefit
Raised beds look good, especially if the only decent place you find to grow your garden is in your front yard. In the city, a raised bed may be needed to keep neighbors from complaining. I have my garden beds in the front yard because the ground in the backyard slopes to the south and the neighbor’s trees block the sun. Because I planned the bed spacing to specifically accommodate my lawnmower, I’ll be able to mow the pathways between my raised beds and create a distinct separation between the bed and those pathways. This will decrease the need for weeding because I won’t have to weed those pathways. A pass with my lawnmower and my garden path looks manicured. Throw in a few strategically placed flowers in the front garden beds and my garden will become a showplace.
If you’re not in your forever home like I am, raised beds may be the best answer for you. Raised beds don’t have to be permanent. If you don’t own your garden area and you’re not sure if your landlord would allow you to have a garden, talk to them about your plans and show how aesthetically pleasing your raised beds can be. A neat and properly built garden box can enhance property values and be a feature rather than an eyesore. If the landlord still says no, a temporary garden can be built by using a removable garden box. The box is simply set on the ground, cardboard is placed over the grass inside, and the box is filled with soil. When you move, take the box with you, spread out the soil, and throw down grass seeds.
With raised beds, you can avoid soil contaminated with heavy metals. Urban gardeners are at a higher risk of ingesting heavy metals, especially lead. Many different vegetables, especially roots, tomatoes, and greens, can easily absorb unacceptable amounts of heavy metals from contaminated soils. Keep your beds away from the road and research how your land was used in the past. If possible, plant thick between the road and your garden beds. Then bring in new soil for your raised bed that hasn’t been subjected to whatever toxicity may be on site. Toxicity is further reduced by adding compost. As time goes on, you’ll be diluting the concentration of contaminates every year by binding heavy metals to soil particles.
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