I am a big fan of using raised beds for gardening. My family has built and used them in the past, and each time we do I feel like we get better and better at it. I like using raised beds for a number of reasons, but the two that top that list are that they help the garden look very orderly and neat, and they’re easy to get to and to keep weeded.
With raised garden beds you also have the advantage of creating and perfecting the soil right from the start. Since it won’t get walked on, the soil will remain loose and airy at all times, something plants and their developing roots need to grow. It also benefits from excellent drainage. But perhaps I am forgetting my absolute favorite reason to use raised garden beds…which is that you can extend your gardening season well into the fall, start harvesting much earlier in the spring, and even overwinter some vegetables. You can create a harvest the whole year through. Yum.
To learn about four-season gardening, I highly suggest Elliot Coleman’s books, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Some of the vegetables we’ve had luck with growing year-round, and plan on working with this winter are winter density lettuce, giant winter spinach, evergreen hardy bunching onions, curly vates kale (but really, any kale would be fine), wild arugula and chard. There are others, too; raised gardens open up a whole new world of gardening.
Building the Beds
When we moved to our new house this past spring there were some really nice thick pine boards in the basement; we used them to make two raised garden beds. When we build more beds, we’ll most likely get the same thick cut of wood, except we’ll use cedar, which is naturally rot- and insect-resistant. Depending on what you have lying around, you can always repurpose or reuse some materials as long as they haven’t been treated with harsh chemicals that could leach into your healthy, growing food.
To build the beds, my husband, Jason, made some cuts and pieced the wood together, screwing in each corner twice and bracing it with a triangular scrap of wood at the bottom. Our board lengths were 12 foot 3 inches each, so each finished bed ended up measuring 12 foot 3 inches long by 4½ feet wide, and approximately 12 inches deep. Jason also took a two-by-four and braced the bottom center of each bed, just to help keep it from bowing out after we added the soil and fill. In the past we hadn’t done that, and after a couple years the beds got a little misshapen. I doubt that would happen with these beds since the wood is so thick, but we decided to do it anyway as a precaution.
Next, I layered. Going with a no-till approach to these garden beds, we got to put lots and lots of cardboard boxes left over from our move to good use. I started cutting cardboard and covered the ground inside each garden bed, directly on top of the grass. I was happy to preserve some of those boxes in some way. They are riddled with drawings and writings of my children, and using them this way seems like a happier solution than burning them. They’ll still just decompose and break down into the earth, but I like that better than the thought of fire, which seems like destruction to me. I don’t know how I can be sentimental about things like this, but sometimes I just am.
At one point my children came out and thought these boxes must be for them to play in, right? Nope, move over…it was time to add some hay. Jason brought a truckload of old hay from a nearby farm’s chicken barn. Chicken poop has a really high nitrogen content and typically should be fully composted before using it in the garden. While I don’t think that the chicken poop mixed in with the hay was completely decomposed—and it was definitely not composted— we did not add a concentrated amount. It was old, and I don’t think it will cause a problem simply by being included with a layer of the hay on the bottom of the soil. By the time any roots grow down to that level, if they do at all, the poop should be well decomposed.
After the layers of cardboard and hay, Jason shoveled in a screened topsoil/composted manure mix. Next time we might add some peat in as well, just for girth. Since raised garden beds typically stay where you initially place them, it is a good idea to make sure the soil within them is packed full of organic, healthy stuff. This creates less work down the road.
Raising the Roof
After the beds were filled came the exciting part…putting on the hoops! We moved all of our PVC hoops from our old gardens and just reused them. For a raised garden bed approximately 12 by 4 feet, you will need five 8-foot lengths of 1/2-inch PVC piping to arch correctly across it. In the past we just stuck pieces of rebar or garden staking that fit into the pipes right on the insides of our garden beds and slipped the piping over it. But with little ones who might think these PVC arches look good to swing on, we decided to go a sturdier route. Jason picked up some little metal brackets (they probably have a name, but if they do I don’t know what it is) at the hardware store and evenly attached them alongside the beds. The PVC piping easily slips into them and stays put. It also makes it easy to remove the piping when we need to.
Since we live in a valley, and the winds can be pretty strong, we wanted to stabilize the PVC framing just a little bit more. Jason cut another length of piping and screwed it into each of the PVC arches. Now it is very secure.
We got right to planting in these mini greenhouses. The first bed is entirely Lacianto dinosaur kale. The second bed consists of Ripbor F1 kale and improved rainbow mix chard. That’s a lot of greens, but I say, the more, the merrier! We used greenhouse plastic to cover the hoops. We extended the sheeting past the garden bed, wrapping it in and folding it over to make sure everything was enclosed securely, and weighted the edges down with heavy rocks and chopped wood. This way it can withstand wind and the weight of snow throughout the winter.
When it gets cold enough, we also put frost blankets right on top of the beds. The frost blankets boost the temperatures about 4 to 5 degrees, which isn’t a lot, but does keep the plants a bit warmer and protects them from the frost. The goal of this setup is to keep the elements a good two feet off of the plants, allowing them plenty of room to flourish.
Each year, our gardening skills evolve just a little bit more. Through trial and error, we manage to learn some new things about ourselves, the way we work best, and what works best in our gardening space each and every year. With each cycle, we get closer to understanding a piece of self-sustainability…and gain an understanding of how and what to do again the following season. For us, these raised beds are just the beginning.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #36.
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