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.

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: