April showers bring May flowers and…the gardening itch. If you have the longing for homegrown produce, but the traditional garden plot holds no appeal, give raised beds a try.
Raised garden beds, also known as garden boxes, are exactly what they sound like — a frame of soil sitting atop the ground, creating a small, defined garden plot with its soil surface raised above ground level.
You can immediately see how this would be helpful for those with back issues or arthritis. The frames allow them to sit down while tending to their garden. Raised beds are also touted for preventing soil compaction, improving soil fertility, providing good drainage, and reducing pests and weeds. Sounds too good to be true, right?
That’s what I thought.
From Necessity to Nicety.
My husband and I are both farm kids, growing up during the 1980s farm crisis. Our families both tended to large gardens to supply a great deal of each year’s produce.
Gardening wasn’t a nicety; it was a necessity. In my childhood home, we ate fresh fruits and vegetables from spring, summer, and fall garden plantings. We grew extra for canning, freezing, and dehydrating produce for winter meals.
Now that we’re grown up, the economy is different and so is our lifestyle. We don’t need a huge garden to have enough food for the family. Yet, we would rather eat homegrown than store-bought produce. And we enjoy passing on the wonder and excitement of growing plants to our children.
Before we had kids, my husband tended to a large garden with a variety of vegetables. He had seasonal plantings for spring, summer, and fall. We had a small orchard and vineyard. I helped out here and there, but it was more his hobby and he did well. He had dreams of adding more to his main garden plot, rows of sweet corn, perennial plantings, and more fruit trees.
After three kids and two moves, our garden looks a lot different. For one thing, it’s been scaled down quite a lot. And the other thing, it’s in raised beds.
When we moved to our home here — where we plan to be until we die of old age — we took up the previous homeowner’s garden spot. We had a lot of trouble for a lot of years. The soil was compacted and didn’t seem to grow much of anything but weeds. So we mixed in composted manure to improve the soil fertility, which only seemed to help the weeds. By mid-summer, the garden was so overrun with bindweed and crabgrass that we mowed it off.
That’s a terrible feeling of failure: to run your lawnmower over your garden.
We also battled squash bugs and cucumber beetles year after year. These little varmints feed on squash plants, and the like, spreading deadly plant diseases. The bugs don’t just move on, though, as they overwinter on plant debris.
Exasperated, we took a year off from gardening and visited local farmers markets instead, which was a great alternative. But we missed growing our own produce.
That’s when I heard about raised garden beds.
I was a bit of a skeptic, so it was a leap of faith to try it out. My husband made several 4-by-8-feet wooden frames, 16 inches deep. The bottom of the garden bed is left open to promote good drainage and moisture conservation.
We laid down a thick layer of old newspapers over the entire original garden spot. This was to be our natural weed barrier. We then laid down the wooden frames. We made six frames, so we positioned them with enough of a pathway between the frames so we could get a wheelbarrow down. On the pathways, we covered the newspaper weed barrier with a couple inches of wood chips.
Part of the reason why raised beds work so well is because of the soil mix inside the frames. You can buy commercial planting mix, but we prefer to mix our own.
We bought weed-free topsoil from a local business. The topsoil was mixed with sand to help moisture conservation and reduce compaction. We mixed in composted manure to boost soil fertility. Composted pine needles from our pine trees balanced the soil pH.
While we did some experimentation with the soil mix, we learned what happens when we mix in too much composted manure: lots of leaves, but no produce. Our base information came from a variety of reading materials online and off.
To top it off, once the soil mix was in the frame, we laid down soaker hoses for watering as needed.
Each of our three children claimed a raised bed, leaving the other three frames for my husband. I was primarily interested in observing how these raised beds worked for the season.
From Skeptic to Fan
They worked great! We didn’t have any problems with pests or diseases, and weed control was a cinch. The plants produced well, and it was easy to clean up after the growing season was done.
I was particularly happy with how aesthetically pleasing the whole sight was through the season. Many of our neighbors and farm-fresh egg customers commented on how nice the garden looked. Mowing it off was the last thing on my mind.
We have since increased our number of frames in the main garden. We have added perennial raised beds for asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. This year, we are trying a raised bed with our annual flowers.
Turns out that despite all the hype about raised garden beds, there is a lot of truth in it. And it may be so for you, too.