What to Know About Raised Bed Gardens

Raised gardens are becoming quite popular. As more people find themselves renting property or living in high rise apartment buildings, they have little or no access to garden space. There are many reasons why using raised gardens are desired over tilling the soil for those who wish to have smaller gardens and are limited on space in which to do so. At the same time, those who desire bigger yields are often dissatisfied with the limits of raised gardens. The choice is ultimately yours but I will try to point out some of the pros and cons of this type of garden so that you may decide for yourself.

Plants need air as much as they need good soil and water, and that is often difficult when planted in garden rows as soil becomes packed down with the frequent traffic that is necessary to properly maintain a traditional garden bed. By using a raised garden, which is designed to be worked from without rather than within, there is little fear of compacting the soil around the plants. At the same time many lifelong gardeners feel the inability to walk around in their gardens is a disadvantage in itself and prefer to be able to do so. This is often a matter of preference rather than practicality but a valid opposition just the same.

You can actually plant more plants in the same amount of square footage in a raised bed because there is no need for rows. You should also be aware that plants in raised beds often tend to grow larger than plants in traditional garden rows. That being said you should resist the urge to over plant within the raised garden bed, as this will eliminate that slight benefit. Many traditional gardeners have seen the results of overcrowding in these beds and feel that their way of doing this is much butter.

One huge benefit to raised beds for summer gardens in areas that are nearly saturated with excess moisture is that raised beds allow much better drainage than traditional row gardening. This is one thing that the average gardener will not argue with unless he lives in an area in which this isn’t much of a problem. Most gardeners in the south though, where there is a great deal of humidity and moisture will agree that proper drainage is a problem.

Raised beds are much easier on your back. By being above ground, raised gardens offer easier access for planting, weeding, planting, and investigating for signs of pests. Another great thing about raised gardens is that they are not as quick to cool as the earth, which renders them more productive and with longer growing seasons that most gardens that are placed in the ground.

For those who have unusually shaped yards or growing areas, raised gardens allow the opportunity to have a beautiful summer garden in almost any shape you can build the box for. This means you are not limited to rows, as many gardens tend to be and that you have a few more options for aesthetics when planning and growing your summer garden.

The downside to raised summer gardens is that they are difficult to dismantle and nearly impossible to till. This means you must do all the working of the soil by hand and many gardeners do not fully appreciate the beauty of that process. The most important thing however, is that you choose a summer garden system that works for you. You may find that combining the two provides the best results and is a great use of your time or that you prefer one over the other. There really is no wrong answer only the one that is wrong for you.

Six Tips To Start Organic Gardening

Organic gardening is the way of growing vegetables and fruits with the use of things only found in nature.

Why would one want to indulge in organic gardening?

1. One can easily make compost from garden and kitchen waste matter. Though this is a bit more time-consuming than buying prepared chemical pesticides and fertilizers, it certainly helps to put garbage to good use and so saves the environment.

2. Organic farming does not use chemicals that may have an adverse affect on your health. This is especially important when growing vegetables. Chemical companies tell us that the chemicals we use are safe if used according to direction, but research shows that even tiny amounts of poisons absorbed through the skin can cause such things as cancer, especially in children.

On the average, a child consumes four to five times more cancer-causing pesticides from foods than an adult. This can lead to various diseases later on in the child’s life. With organic gardening, these incidents are lessened.

Remember, pesticides contain toxins that have only one purpose – to kill living things.

3. Less harm to the environment. Poisons are often washed into our waterways, causing death to the native fish and polluting their habitat.

4. Organic farming practices help prevent the loss of topsoil through erosion.
The Soil Conservation Service says that an estimated 30 – 32 billion tons of soil erodes from United States farmlands every year.

5. Cost savings. One does not need to buy costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides with organic gardening. Many organic recipes for the control of pest and disease come straight from the kitchen cupboard. Sometimes other plants can be grown as companions to the main crop. An example of this is the marigold, which helps to repel aphids from vegetables.

Mixing 1 tablespoon of liquid dishwashing soap and 1 cup of cooking oil can make a cheap garden pest spray. Put 3 tablespoons of this mixture in 1 quart of water and spray on plants.

6. A simple mulch of pine needles will help to suppress the growth of weeds as well as keeping the moisture in.

Organic gardening practices help to keep the environment safe for future generations.

Healthy Strawberries and Tomatoes

Everbearing Strawberries are Pest Free
Everbearing Strawberries are Japanese Beetle Free

Despite a visit from the Japanese Beetles last week (which I removed promptly and drowned in soapy water), the Everbearing Strawberries are producing a fine, sweet crop of fruit.  I have not encountered any more of the voracious pests that can easily destroy a crop overnight.

There will be fresh strawberries for our Sunday morning waffle breakfast tomorrow, along with blueberries from northern Minnesota, a treat from a co-worker.  I added some of the blueberries to our morning oatmeal today, and I doubt that there are better tasting blueberries anywhere.

Unfortunately the tomatoes growing on the plant in the Topsy-Turvy upside down tomato hanger have not fared so well in their fight again blossom-end rot.  Most of the tiny little tomatoes develop black ends before they get larger than my thumb.  I’ve been keeping them evenly watered and it doesn’t seem to have helped much.  I may try adding Tums to the water, as I’ve read that the added calcium can help against BER.

The tomato plants in the raised bed garden are very healthy looking and have not had any BER at all.  I think the soil mixture that I used in the beds and in the upside down tomato hanger were from the same batch of compost, perlite, and peat, so they all got the same start.

Roma Tomatoes Grown in a Raised Bed Garden
Roma Tomatoes Grown in a Raised Bed Garden - No BER Problem Here

Above is a photo of the Roma tomatoes that are growing in the raised bed garden.

Below is  a photo of the Roma tomatoes that are growing in the upside down tomato hanger.

Roma Tomatoes Growing in Upside Down Tomato Hanger
Roma Tomatoes Growing in Upside Down Tomato Hanger Have BER

I’ll have to remember next year, that the Roma tomato plants seem to do better in the raised bed.  Seems the elongated tomatoes are more prone to BER.  Cherry tomatoes might be  a better choice for tomato planters.  Honestly though, in general I think the upside down tomato planter is a little too high maintenance for me.  Tomatoes do wonderfully in raised beds, and as long as I have the room for the gardens, I don’t really see an advantage to the tomato hangers, unless there is no room for a garden.  Even then, I would probably just plant them in pots.

Blossom End Rot on the Upside Down Tomato Plant

Blossom End Rot of Tomatoes
Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes

From a distance, the upside down tomato plant looks like it is thriving.  I’ve been watering every evening that it doesn’t rain.  However, we had above average rainfall in June, and July has been pretty wet so far too.  This evening when I was watering, I noticed that the cute little tomatoes on the upside down tomato plant all had black bottoms.  Although I’ve never seen blossom end rot on such small tomatoes, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

Upside Down Tomato Plant
Upside Down Tomato Hanger

Blossom end rot is usually caused by excessive moisture or inconsistent moisture content in the soil which causes a calcium deficiency.  It has been difficult to keep the plant evenly watered due to all the rain followed by hot, summer days.

Blossom End Rot of Upside Down Tomatoes
Blossom End Rot of Upside Down Tomatoes

Once the fruit is diseased, there’s nothing that can be done, other than to remove them from the plant, which I did.  I’ll have to keep a closer eye on the planter and make sure that it doesn’t dry out too much, or get waterlogged.  It is hanging in an area that gets full sun and plenty of air circulation so I don’t think that’s the problem.  I may try adding a layer of mulch to the inside of the planter to help retain moisture evenly.

Organic Heirloom Tomato Plant
Brandywine Organic Heirloom Tomato Plant Grown in a Raised Bed Garden

The tomato plants that are growing in the raised bed garden are very healthy and have shown no signs of blossom end rot.  It is much easier to keep the moisture content consistent  in the raised beds.

Growing Organic Tomatoes
Organic Tomatoes Grown in a Raised Garden Bed

These Brandywine Heirloom tomatoes look and smell delicious. Can’t wait until they’re ripe and ready for the table!

Honoring the Red, White & Blue

Flying the Flag on the 4th of July
Flying the Flag on the 4th of July

To all fellow Americans – Happy 4th of July!    Whether you’re spending time with family and friends enjoying BBQs, parades, the weekend at the cabin, or just relaxing at home finishing the day with a big bang of fireworks, today is a day that we celebrate our freedom.  I hope that your holiday is memorable, enjoyable, and safe.

Here’s a red, white and blue dessert that celebrates the delicious tastes of fresh picked strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream.

Fresh picked strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream topping.
Fresh picked strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream topping.

Although I’d like to take credit for the fresh strawberries, the plants in my garden are not quite ripe for picking so we stopped at a road-side stand on the way home from my nieces graduation party yesterday and purchased fresh strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe and watermelon (grown in Indiana).

Red, White & Blue Dessert

1 qt. fresh strawberries, washed and trimmed

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup fresh blueberries, washed

Angel food cake

Whipped cream or Cool whip

Mash the strawberries with a fork and add sugar. Mix well.  Slice angel food cake into pieces.  Top with strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream and serve.  Savor the flavor of summer!

Raised Bed Gardens – Why Start One?

raised bed gardens
Raised Bed Gardens

Over the years when I drove by a home that had a raised bed garden, I often wondered why bother? Why didn’t they just till up the ground and plant their vegetables in the earth like humans have been doing for ever? I’m sure the Garden of Eden was not a raised bed garden!

During all of the years that my family was growing (my baby is 20!!!), I planted, tended, and harvested large amounts of vegetables from my massive garden plot -100′ x 50′ at one point. It produced an abundant supply of potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beans, cukes, sweet corn, popcorn, radishes, peas (though they were often eaten before they made it to the table), green beans, kohlrabi, squash . . . you get the idea.

We ate fresh produce from the family garden all summer long, and during winter months, enjoyed preserved vegetables and fruits that were frozen and canned in the fall of the previous summer.

As the kids grew and my work responsibilities became more time consuming, the size of the vegetable garden shrank to a more manageable 50′ x 40′ area and I created a water garden including a pond with a waterfall in the area that was reclaimed. Tending both gardens was often my therapy. My eldest brother once commented on how beautiful my gardens were and I told him it was my therapy. He promptly replied, “You must need a lot of therapy!” At that time my kids were fully grown and venturing out on their own and I was recently divorced and needed a way to keep myself occupied that didn’t cost a lot of money. Gardening for me, has always been a way to forget my troubles.

Beau in the Backyard Pond
Beau in the Backyard Pond, July 2002

Moving yards of mulch one wheelbarrow at a time and hoeing, weeding and cleaning out the pond are as dirty a job as anything I’ve done, including cleaning out the dairy barn on the farm I grew up on. But it is so satisfying and rewarding to be able to reap the rewards of the hard labor and aching muscles after a day in the gardens. And I sleep so much better than after a stressful day of managing computer networks and user requests.

After Steve’s stroke my gardens have gone to seed and weeds. I spend very little time at my home, although I do hope to get them under control at some point. In the meantime, I’m gardening in my new home at Steve’s. We setup two raised bed gardens last spring, and added another last weekend. We chose to do raised beds for a number of reasons. The main one being that there are two massively huge oak trees shading both the front and back lawn. They’re beautiful, but the roots are large and barely below the surface of the ground so digging up the lawn for a garden would be harmful and difficult. With the raised garden beds,
we can locate them in the area that receives the most sun without disturbing the ground and tree roots.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to like having to garden within the confines of a 4’x4′ wood structure. Turns out I love it! They are so easy to prepare, plant, weed (it takes second – truly), and the produce is delicious. It is truly amazing how much is produced from one bed. I follow Mel Bartholomew’s method the All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space which describes in details how to get started. I loaned the book to my neighbor so she could learn about the method, and we installed a 4’x4′ garden in her backyard two weeks ago.

The true beauty of the raised bed gardens is that it frees up my time so that I can give more attention to the water garden and perennial gardens, which I enjoy even more than the vegetable gardening.

Raised Garden Beds are Planted

Planting a raised bed garden is easy and can be done without tilling.

Raised garden bed is planted
This raised garden bed has broccoli, cabbage, green beans, cilantro, and thyme planted.

Normally I do not plant my vegetable sets in the garden until Memorial Day Weekend or later, but given the fact that it was 95 degrees (and the humidity level was about the same) yesterday, I decided to break my rule of thumb and plant the gardens.

Last year I installed two 4’x4′ square foot gardens in Steve’s backyard. Now you should know that I have a 30′ x 50′ plot of garden space in my own backyard at my house, but since I spend very little time there since Steve’s stroke, it has pretty much become a weed patch. Anyway, I absolutely love the raised bed gardens. The reasons are many. Not the least of which is that there is virtually no weeding to be done.

You prepare the soil which is a mix of compost, vermiculite or perlite, and peat moss. Plop the seedlings or seeds in sections (I don’t adhere strictly to the square foot method, but it ends up being pretty close), water well, and pretty much just watch it grow.

I do install a “rabbit-proof” (in quotes because I’m not sure there is such a thing but this works pretty well) wire fence around the perimeter of the raised garden beds just in case they decide to mow my garden for me. I must say that the fence worked really well last year. I didn’t have any rabbits in the garden until the fall after everything had been harvested. By that time the fencing had come loose enough at the base that they could crawl under. Tent stakes work well to keep the fence adhered to the ground.

If you plan to use fencing, don’t bother with the green plastic stuff. I’m not sure why they even bother manufacturing that unless it’s to keep baby chicks in. Two years ago Steve and I spent an afternoon installing plastic green fencing around my garden at my house and the next day there were holes chewed in several places – just large enough for the rabbits to get through.

I was ready to start shooting the little critters – which would surely have had the local police and PETA members over within minutes since my house is in the center of downtown. That was before I knew about the used kitty litter trick and the rabbits pretty much destroyed a good portion of my garden that year.

So back to why I love my raised bed gardens. They’re easy to plant, water, weed, keep critters out, and harvest. You can also make little greenhouses out of them in the spring by making a canopy of flexible PVC tubing and plastic sheeting. Cleanup is a breeze in the fall and spring prep is simple too. All I did to prepare them before planting was add more compost from my compost pile, some more peat moss and mixed it well and that was it.

Because the soil is very loose, it drains quickly so I water every evening unless it rains during the day. The harvest of produce from these two little beds last year was amazing. From one 4’x4′ square, we picked 4 heads of broccoli, about 10 eggplants, 8 heads of cabbage and 20 onions. After the broccoli was harvested, I added 5 hosta plants in that space and overwintered them there. And that was just one bed! I grew tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, lavender, thyme, dill, green beans, peas, basil, and cilantro in the other bed.

Male cardinal stops by for a sip from the backyard pond.
Male cardinal stops by for a sip from the backyard pond.

After the planting was done, Steve and I relaxed in the shade by the backyard pond and enjoyed a visit from a male cardinal who stopped by for a sip of water.  It’s such a good feeling to finish the spring planting, and it took less than an hour this year!

Growing Organic Tomatoes

Organic Roma Tomatoes
These tomatoes were grown organically in a raised garden bed.

Tomatoes can be started from seed (be sure to choose an organic or heirloom variety) or plants can be purchased from local nurseries that specialize in organic gardening.

In order to produce an abundant crop, tomato plants should be planted in soil that consists of a rich organic mix of composted material and is well drained.  Tomato plants require plenty of sun (at least 5 hours per day).  Plants should be watered well at the base of plant to keep moisture off of the leaves which can contribute to late blight.

Plants should be set out well after the danger of frost and when soil temperatures are above 50 degrees F.  Plant the roots deep, firmly packing soil up to the bottom of the first leaf of the plant.  You may want to protect the plants by placing empty gallon size milk jugs with the bottom removed over the plant until it is well established.

As plants mature, they require support to keep the tomatoes off the ground.  Tomato cages or stakes can be used for this purpose.

There are some common pests and problems that can harm tomato plants.  Here are some tips on how to treat this problems organically:

Tomato Hornworms and Other Insects

Plant Borage as a companion plant near tomatoes to prevent pests from eating leaves and harming or infecting other vegetables such as eggplant, peppers, and potatoes.  Worms and eggs can be removed by hand from the leaves and stems of the plants. Insecticidal soaps can be applied and are an effective method to rid plants of aphids and other harmful insects.  Many gardeners release lady bugs in their garden, which are a predator to aphids.

Blossom End Rot and Other Diseases

Soil may be lacking calcium. Spray with seaweed extract and keep moisture content of the soil even by covering with a layer of mulch. Row covers can be used to protect plants from cool weather temps.  Keeping the soil built up with compost, dried blood, or fish emulsion will prevent diseases that are due to lack of nitrogen or phosphorus.

Sparse Crop

If plants have grown tall and spindly and are producing very little fruit, pinch off the suckers (growth between the stems).  If they have plenty of blossoms, but are not producing, they have not have been pollinated. Use a Q-tip to brush pollen from one blossom onto the others.

Planting a variety of organic tomato plants will produce an abundance of tomatoes throughout the growing season.  Following these tips will allow for a harvest of healthy, wonderfully delicious tomatoes that the whole family can enjoy in salsas, sauces, or fresh from the vine.  Seeds from this year’s crop can be saved to plant next season for another year of plump juicy tomatoes.

To get started growing organic tomatoes, check out these books by organic gardening experts:

How to grow strawberry plants

Growing strawberries in your backyard garden is a very rewarding experience, and is a fun and healthy activity for the whole family.

Plump Juicy Homegrown Strawberries are a Healthy Treat

Enjoying a handful of plump, juicy strawberries grown in your very own backyard is a real treat. Growing strawberries takes a little more care than some other popular fruits such as rhubarb and tomatoes, but with a few tips, even the beginning gardener can be successful at it.

Types of Plants

There are three basic types of strawberry plants that can be grown in northern gardens. June-bearing produce a large crop in late spring; ever-bearing produce one crop in late spring and one in early fall; and day-neutral strawberry plants produce fruit throughout the season, however the overall production is generally less than the June-bearing variety.

You should work with your local nursery to choose a cultivar that is appropriate for your area, or check the USDA gardening zone and order plants online.

Location

Strawberry plants thrive in an area that receives 8 or more hours of full sun per day. Less sun and the plants will still produce berries, however there won’t be as many, nor will they be as large. The soil should be well-drained and free from soil-borne diseases so you’ll want to choose an area that was not recently used to grow tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, or peppers.

Soil should be slightly acidic (pH between 5-6). A raised bed garden is a great choice for growing strawberries, as it provides proper drainage and the soil can be amended as needed.

Planting

When planting strawberries in a raised bed garden, you can use the hill method, rather than the matted, or space matted system.

When using the hill method, trim off the runners from each plant and space them in rows 12″ apart. If using the matted or space matted system, plant them in rows 3 feet apart, spacing each plant 12″ from the next. The matted system requires no trimming of runners. However the space matted system requires that you trim the majority of the runners and affix them so that they are spaced 12″ apart from other plants.

When planting, trim away any dead roots and plant in a hole deep enough to cover the root system, but leave the top half of the crown of the plant above the soil level. Water well and pack the soil tightly around the middle of the crown.

Care and Harvest

The first year, blossoms should be removed from June-bearing plants to encourage growth of the root system and runners. This will produce a more abundant crop of berries the following year. Ever-bearing and day-neutral plants should have their blossoms removed up until the end of June for fruit production in early to late fall.

Feeding

To encourage an abundance of fruit, strawberry plants need to be watered regularly, but should never sit in water. They should also be well fertilized. If you prefer an organic fertilizer, bone meal and blood meal work well and should be applied monthly throughout the growing season. A regular fertilizer of 10-10-10 at the beginning of the season is another option.

Keeping Pests Away

Strawberry plants are not prone to a lot of disease. However you may want to choose a variety that is certified to be resistant to Verticillium Wilt, since plants that are infected with this must be destroyed.

To protect plants from birds, the strawberries can be covered with bird netting. If rabbits and deer are prevalent in your area, you may also want to install a wire mesh fence around the perimeter of your strawberry patch to keep them from nibbling (or completely destroying) the plants.

Winterizing

At the end of the season, plants should be trimmed of dead foliage and plants should be thinned if runners were allowed to spread. Keep the strawberries well watered until the ground freezes and then cover with mulch to protect them during the winter months.

If proper care is given, you may enjoy an abundance of fresh strawberries for 3-4 years before replacing the plants with fresh stock.

Raised Bed Garden Assembly

Organic compost, peat moss, vermiculite, weed cloth and the frame are already to be assembled.

All of the materials for the garden are assembled
Build the frame and assemble items for soil mixture.A layer of weed cloth prevents weeds from growing up through the garden.
Use a large tarp to mix the compost, peat moss and vermiculite
Use a large tarp to mix the compost, peat moss and vermiculite before adding to the bed.
Add PVC tubing in arches over the bed for support
PVC tubing can be added to provide support for plastic sheeting in cooler weather.
Plant
Add plants and watch them grow.