Raised beds have become more and more popular as the grow your own food movement gathers numbers. They are simple to make, easy to tend and offer several advantages over tilling the ground.
These types of garden beds are great for urban and suburban gardening. They can actually be constructed atop concrete, making them ideal for abandoned lot and rooftop gardens, or when done on the ground, they don’t require tilling the earth, which unleashes weed seeds and destroys soil microorganisms. They also have neat, maintained appearance to keep neighbors appeased.
Additionally, they are also great for the plants and cultivators. The plants within are easier to care for and harvest from, as gardeners don’t have to bend over so far. As well, controlling soil quality and water conditions in raised beds is much less problematic because the soil is chosen and added to the bed and the elevated design makes for better drainage and insect protection.
Even on a large scale, raised double-reach beds (where one-half of the bed is reached from one side, and the other half from the other side) are fantastic for cultivating staple crops like grains, seeds, greens, and legumes.
1. Your Basic Box Bed
The most common raised bed going around is a simple box pattern (four feet by eight feet is pretty standard), typically using lumber (repurposed wood is best) fastened into a rectangle. These can be anywhere from about a foot or two high, and they are filled with a mixture of organic soil and compost. It’s always a great idea to mulch soil with something like straw or wood shavings, as this will reduce the need for watering because it prevents evaporation that would dry the soil out. Another cool feature that can be added to this design are clamps to hold small diameter PVC pipe to create a frost-deterring greenhouse roof for a longer growing season.
2. Sheet-Mulched Garden Bed
This version is great for creating raised beds around existing lawn features like trees. Sheet mulching is done right on top of grass or earth. It begins with a layer of nitrogen-rich material, such as manure, compost, fresh grass clippings, food scraps or a healthy mix. Next, everything is covered with a layer of cardboard boxes or several layers of old newspaper, which will prevent weeds and attract earthworms. Then, a good layer of compost or top soil should be used to weigh the boxes down. After that, wood chips, more cardboard (if weeds might be an issue from the compost/topsoil), and straw should pile up to about four or five inches.
3. Weed-Free Straw Bales
Straw bale gardens are sort of a mix between container gardens and raised beds. Rather than carting in loads of soil or building boxes, straw bales are simply arranged in wherever a grower wants a garden. Straw bales are positioned cut side up then soaked with water to get them decomposing. In a couple of weeks, plants can be added by creating a little bowl within the bale and adding some soil and the seedling. The straw will break down, feeding the plants, and at the end of the season, what remains after the final harvest can be thrown into a compost heap for sustainable use next year or piled as mulch atop permanent garden beds.
4. Work With What You’ve Got
The cheapest way to go about making raised beds is using what materials are around. In the late fall, when gardening materials are falling from the sky, and early spring, when winter has left piles of fallen branches and such behind, are great for this. Rather than lumber, sticks, branches, and tree trunks can be used to form the sides of the raised bed. Then, it can be filled with organic materials like leaves, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, paper, and anything else that’s around. When it’s time to plant, a little opening can be created in the organic material and soil added to plant in. These beds can be beautiful because they allow for utilizing organic contours created in nature rather than the straight edges of milled lumber.
5. The Double Reach Raised Row
For bigger gardens in a more farm-like setting, double-reach raised rows are a great route to go. Measure contour rows to be about three or four feet wide and dig trenches about a shovel deep and wide around the rows, piling the top soil from the trench to create a wide raised row. This will make a doubly thick layer of quality soil for the plants. Even so, a good sprinkling of compost wouldn’t be the worst idea. Mulch the rows with about four inches of straw, seedless hay, shredded leaves, wood shavings or any other suitable material. This will require much less tilling and turning than typical rows, and it will provide substantially more growing space because there won’t be so much wasted area between rows.
Whichever method suits, it should bring with it a great garden experience for newbies and experienced gardeners. It works well in most environments, save for those with very little rainfall, where sunken beds are the better choice because they’ll capture more water. But, that’s for another article.
Image source: Alachua County/Flickr