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Raised Bed Gardening

“The yard didn’t really have any plants in it except for an unknown and overgrown tree, so I thought, I’ll prune it back and dig up a small flower bed underneath for some summer bulbs.  I wanted to make a nice little spot for hanging out when the weather was nicer.  So, I handled the tree, bought a fancy new shovel, and went berserk at the nursery buying flowers.  Once I edged out the shape I wanted and tore up the grass, I figured I was just going to dig a big hole, add some compost to the soil, and fill it back up.  Piece of cake, right?  Wrong.

It took me three days to dig the hole.  I have never seen so many rocks in my life—and big ones.  I couldn’t push my fancy new shovel a half a centimeter into the ground without hitting a meteorite, remains of an ancient city, or a fossilized skeleton of a dinosaur from the Triassic period.  I had to stop and dig out chunks of rock every few minutes.  Then, there were the roots of this tree everywhere.  It was a total pain.  I eventually got it all planted, and now I have gladiolus and lilies poking out everywhere, but I don’t know if I want to go through putting in any more beds.  I just can’t deal with the rocks and clay and roots.  On the plus side, I didn't have to buy any edging.  I just used my giant pile of rocks.

Oh, that tree?  It ended up being a helicopter tree.” 

That is the experience one of our staff members had installing her very first flower bed, and we’ve all had them.  Installing and maintaining a flower bed or edible garden in the ground can be difficult—once you have put the labor into creating and digging the bed, the work doesn’t stop.  Deficient or compacted soils must be amended and maintained, and weeds and pests are a constant battle.  All of this hands-and-knees work can be rough on the body, and can make gardening an impossibility for some.  There are also the space constraints of urban growing environments, and the damage that can be done by pets and children.  These problems can be solved by raised bed gardening.  Though many people shy away from installing a raised bed either because of the assembly or the monetary investment, a raised bed will save you from a lot of the labor and money that maintaining an in-ground garden can require. 

Raised and framed beds are planting areas that are placed on top of the ground level and enclosed inside of a frame.  This eliminates the digging of holes and the use of tillers or large equipment to prepare a spot for gardening.  The frame is simply placed in the desired location in the yard, and it can be filled with best soil for what is being planted, instead of dealing with diagnosing soil problems and treating them and mixing in amendments. 

In fact, this is one of the ways raised bed gardening is cost-effective.  A lot of money can be spent on amending and re-amending soil that erodes, compacts, and loses nutrients quickly.  The frame of a raised bed protects it from erosion and acts as a barrier between your garden and tiny feet or paws that might smash or tamp the dirt down while playing (not to mention, smash or tamp your plants down).  You don’t have to use your own soil at all, and can start with healthy and nutritious soil from the beginning that will be much easier to keep healthy and nutritious and at the desired pH for your plants.  You also won’t have to spend money on costly equipment to keep the soil loose.  Plants will be happier and more productive in good soil, getting you more bang for your buck in flower and fruit or vegetable yields. 

The increased ease of access is what attracts many people to raised bed gardening in the first place.  With fewer pests and weeds intruding and damaging plants, less soil maintenance being necessary, those with injuries or limited mobility may find raised bed a much easier option for gardening.  Raised beds may be just a foot or two off the ground to reduce bending or kneeling, or elevated much higher on legs to eliminate bending and kneeling altogether.  This reduction in physical effort required to garden might also make it easier for children to participate in gardening with adults.

Another advantage of raised bed gardening is that a raised bed can offer you some creative ways to use a small or odd-shaped space.  Raised beds can be customized to the size of the space you are using, and can be arranged and designed to make the most of a particular area, especially where traditional in-ground gardens aren’t possible.  For example, on slopes, several small raised beds could be stacked like stairs down a slope, creating different tiers for gardening.  Different shapes and materials could be used to stack beds in unique formations for a tall and visually-striking garden.  In fact, gardeners have used just about everything to build raised gardens.  Old crates, barrels, furniture, found rocks, cans, tires, buckets, fences, and wood pallets can be combined in exciting ways to make gardening easier for you and create quite a conversation piece for your yard.  Raised beds can help you recycle old objects, enhance the interest and beauty of your landscape, and help you take advantage of tight spaces.  What isn’t to like?

There are a few other perks of having a bed that isn’t built right in the ground.  For renters or those not expecting to stay in one place for very long, raised beds can be disassembled and taken with you when you leave a property.  Renters, in particular, can benefit from raised beds that don’t make serious alterations to the grounds that might make the owner unhappy.  Raised beds also have the capacity to make your growing season longer—cold frames or protective covers can be purchased or built to fit snugly over a raised bed to keep plants warm and safe from frost, allowing you to enjoy them longer. 

If you would like to give raised bed gardening a try, here are a few tips to help you get the most from your garden:

  • If you are building a raised bed in response to a rodent or pest problem, putting your raised bed directly on the ground may require that you put a protective layer between your garden soil and the ground.  A chew-proof steel mesh would make a suitable deterrent to digging pests while still allowing worms to pass through into your garden.  Those with root problems may want to use a protective to keep weeds or the roots of nearby plants out of the garden soil.
  • Protect your raised bed soil in the winter by purchasing or fashioning a cover, or sow a cover crop to keep soil from eroding.  Cover crops may be tilled into the soil to provide added nutrients for the next growing season.
  • Use mulch and compost for added weed protection and water retention in your raised bed.  They have a tendency to become dry quickly.
  • Be sure that the materials you are using to build your raised bed are sturdy or reinforced.  The weight of the soil can cause damage to the frame over time.
  • Take advantage of the warm soil in your raised bed.  Purchase a cold frame to start your planting early and extend it into the cooler months.

Visit MasterGardening.com for more information about raised bed gardening, and to check out our selection of raised garden beds and accessories—we would love to help you get started!

 

Photos

Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.