The snow has finally melted and I have started the inventory of winter damage. For the first time in fifteen years, there are corners to repair on the raised beds.
This takes me back to when we built the beds, shortly after moving in. The first thing we did was move a ten foot high arborvitae hedge to create a sheltered, south-facing spot for a vegetable garden.
The man who moved the hedge came all the way from Newport, Vermont, hauling a goose-necked trailer on which perched a bobcat with a cone-shaped tree digger on the front. As he settled into the cab to drive the rig off the trailer, loud music suddenly erupted from two speakers on the side of the bobcat. “What’s that?” yelled my sons, then ages eight and five. “I like to work to music,” the driver shouted. Puccini’s “Tosca” poured forth, each aria soaring above the houses in the neighborhood as the machine twirled back and forth across the driveway.
Three hours later, suddenly quiet, the hedge was moved and we had a place in which to build our raised beds.
In a yard as small as ours on South Street, raised beds are the way to go. Drainage, vital for healthy plants, is good. You can plant many more plants in a raised bed than in a flat garden. It is easier to tend because of the height. And you can organize the soils and the plants by variously amending the soils in the different beds depending on what you plant.
We planned the dimensions and lay out of the beds on graph paper. I needed to be able to reach the plants easily without walking on the soil so it would not be compacted. Then, after plotting out the beds with measuring tape and string, we dug down 12 – 15 inches in each rectangle, removing either gravel from the old driveway, or sod from the former lawn. We nailed together rough-cut fir boards for the sides, 2 X 12’s, 7 and 8 feet long and placed the rectangles on the ground. We shoveled topsoil into the four (now seemingly enormous) holes. Then we top-dressed the beds with composted sheep manure.
We top-dress the beds every year with ground up leaves from our yard, compost from the kitchen along with garden clippings. We also add ashes from the woodstove from time to time, or lime, to sweeten the soil. We added sand to the bed designated for herbs, many of which prefer somewhat less rich soil.
That first year garden, fifteen years ago, was miraculous. There were no pests, no rodents, no bugs, no woodchuck (they all arrived the second year) — the garden was new, and “the word” had not gotten out. The amount of produce, using a square foot gardening system, was astonishing.
Here are some raised bed basics:
Site: Try for a spot that gets lots of sun, and where water does NOT collect. My beds face south. They are sheltered (which makes it warmer), and the ground gently slopes to the south, which is ideal. Ask yourself the following questions: how near is the bed to a water source? Are there big trees nearby, whose surface roots could compete for moisture and nutrients? Is the sunlight consistent (this might affect what you can grow)?
Size: Walking on soil compacts it. So design a bed that you can easily access. A width of 4 to 5 feet should suffice, 4 feet is ideal.
Paths: Some people have lawns between their beds – so design a path that is wide enough for your mower. My friend Margy removed the topsoil from the paths, and filled them with wood chips. Barbara’s paths are filled with gravel, and her beds come in a variety of shapes. Last year, my husband and I laid blue stone between our raised beds.
The soil in raised beds warms up faster, so your vegetables get a head start.
Raised beds are easier to tend.
Raised beds dry out faster, so monitor them carefully for watering. Ideally, you should mulch, a topic for another day.
Different beds can contain different soils, depending on what you want to plant.
Raised beds can be planted intensively, but watch out: plants tend to really thrive, so don’t over – plant!
Not all vegetables work well in a raised bed, like corn, squash and pumpkins: they need more space.
If you haven’t gardened before, start small. We started with four smaller beds and now have six large ones. Some people have both raised beds and flat beds (in the ground).