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Raising the Garden… Bed


I had a classic case of garden envy.

About three years ago on a Saturday afternoon my neighbors started piling cinderblocks, two deep, in a rectangle in their backyard. Later, they filled the area in with dirt. Then surrounded it with attractive white lattice work.

My husband and I had no idea what they were up to until a few weeks later when noticeable green tips started to break through the soil. In a short time, the area was filled with thriving tomatoes, peppers and a variety of greens.

I was jealous.

Growing up, my family always had a large garden, providing us with fresh vegetables from spring through fall. My mother canned, preserved and froze.

The first year my husband and I were married, we also had a sizeable garden but then we moved to a quiet little neighborhood. Our yard just didn’t lend itself to a quarter-acre spread.
So this raised vegetable garden of my neighbors intrigued me.

Last summer, my husband and I hauled blocks, mixed soil with composted horse manure and placed our lattice work. It was a long and draining weekend’s worth of work but in no time at all we had a lush, green garden with nuclear-sized tomatoes.

I’ll never go back to traditional gardening again.

Benefits of raised gardens

imageRaised vegetable gardens are a growing trend among backyard farmers. 

Elevated beds are easier to maintain since they are accessible on all sides. There is less need for bending or stooping when planting, weeding, watering and picking.

Raised beds save on space and allow crops to grow closer together, which results in less weed growth. The beds can also be as small or large as needed and gardeners can have as many as space allows.

Occasionally one bed grows into two then three then four and more.

John Lunsford of Edwardsville has 11 raised gardens, ranging from six feet long to 25 feet long.

A Northern Neck Master Gardener and caretaker of the community garden, an educational tool for students at the Northern Neck Farm Museum, Lunsford says designing and bulding a raised bed can be a simple weekend project.

How to build

Lunsford has five beds that are 25 feet by 8 feet, five others that are 6 feet by 6 feet and one that’s 12 feet by 8 feet. Most are 6 inches high. One, specifically for growing carrots and leeks, is 18 inches high.

His beds are made of timbers.

“My timbers are pressure treated. Now if you use pressure treated, you should line the sides with plastic or weed cloth to keep the soil away from the treated lumber. If you’ve got blocks handy and you’re going to have a small bed, by all means use the blocks. It all depends on how long you want to keep the bed and how high you want them,” said Lunsford.

Wood, concrete blocks, bricks and stones are all used in raised beds.

Wood is the most commonly used siding for the beds. Untreated lumber won’t last as long but treated lumber, according to Lunsford, needs to have some sort of barrier between it and the soil. Chemicals that are used to treat the wood can seep into the soil and harm plants.

Beds are typically laid in rectangular shapes.

For easier access, beds should be about three or four feet wide. That allows for easy access to all areas of the bed, including the center.

“For older people, the beds should be higher and narrower,” said Lunsford. “So you don’t want to go any wider than four feet.”

The beds should also be at least six to 12 inches deep for root growth. Carrots and leeks need to be buried much deeper and require at least 18 inches.

Keeping the bed height at six inches and making them wider allows for the use of a rototiller for weeding, according to Lunsford.

Picking a location

imageSoil is key when making a raised garden, said Lunsford.

His beds contain a mix of topsoil, peat moss and compost, which Lunsford makes in three compost bins.

The soil is really the most important part. It needs to be loose, friable soil,” he said.

Manure is a good fertilizer, according to Lunsford. But it should be composted, never fresh.

The proper location will offer adequate sunlight and water. The best spot is an area of the yard that gets between five to eight hours of full sun a day.

Raised beds dry out quickly.

“Because you have so much drainage, you need to water more often,” said Lunsford.

But water is not wasted. With raised beds versus traditional gardens, the area needing water is obviously smaller.

Soaker houses are a better option than sprinklers.

Choosing plants

Just about any vegetable that can be grown in a traditional garden can be grown in a raised bed, with the exception of corn, said Lunsford.

“If you’re just going to have a few vegetables, [raised beds] are ideal,” he said.

The beds are perfect for lettuce, squash, leafy greens, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

“I have a lot of stuff so I rotate my crops from one bed to another each year,” said Lunsford, who last year had 57 different varieties of vegetables in his gardens. “I had a whole bed of peppers and a whole bed of tomatoes.”

He grows all of his vegetables from seed in a green house on the back of his home.

posted 03.25.2010

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