Originally published in Seasonal Guide, April 12, 2012
Build that raised bed…
by Caroline Spear
Start your vegetable garden early in spring with little soil preparation and almost no weeding during the growing season, and bend over less while gardening. Sound good? All you need is raised beds.
The soil in raised beds dries out sooner than the ground does in spring, and warms earlier since it is exposed to the sun around four sides. It doesn’t compact because the beds are meant to be built no wider than 4 feet so you can reach the middle without walking in them. Perching on the sides of the beds saves wear and tear on your back, and even if you don’t perch, the soil in the beds is closer to you than the ground is!
Raised beds save garden space since many crops can be grown closer together. Closely spaced plants shade out weeds and hold in moisture. For example, carrots can be planted in a 3”x3” grid instead of in rows 16 inches apart.
If there’s no snow on the ground in your area, you can start now by sheet composting where you’d like your beds to be come spring. Choose a spot that will get at least six hours of sun a day and orient your bed with the long side to the south for maximum exposure for all plants. Instead of digging out the grass, lay down a sheet compost—a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard—and weight it down with rocks or boards. The rain and snow will wet the sheet and start to rot the grass underneath. You’ll build your raised bed on top of this.
Come nicer weather, put together your raised bed. It can be constructed of cement blocks or saw logs or lumber such as cedar or redwood for longer life; just don’t use pressure treated wood since the chemicals leach into the soil and you’ll end up eating them in your vegetables. You’re looking for anything that can hold soil in a box shape that is 6 to 12 inches deep, or deeper if you want to bend over even less. Google “raised vegetable beds” for lots of info on specific ways to build a raised bed from lumber.
The deeper the bed, the more soil and compost you’ll need to fill it. You can mix potting soil and compost together, or purchase topsoil and compost. Using your own compost, you’ll improve this mix by adding an inch each year and digging it in lightly.
…now grow your own pizza, salsa, pickles, stir fry…
Now that you’ve got new gardens, what will you grow?
Start with growing your own pizza toppings, like tomatoes, basil and oregano. Make your own salsa: grow tomatoes, scallions, peppers and cilantro. Love pesto? Grow basil (lots of it) and garlic. For stir fry, think scallions, garlic, carrots, celery (it’s easy), snow peas, bok choy. How about pickles? Grow cucumbers (and other vegetables you like pickled, like cauliflower), onions, dill and garlic. The kids aren’t that fond of vegetables? Engage them by buying seeds together, then planting and watching for growth, weeding and mulching and watering. By harvest time, “their” vegetables just might get eaten with gusto!
Whatever you grow, involve the kids (radishes are the most kid-friendly vegetable, producing in just a month) and have fun. Enjoy your time out of doors, be careful not to overdo, and savor the fruits of your labors. Happy gardening!
Caroline Spear of Stonington is an amateur gardener in Zone 5B. She has worked for Penobscot Bay Press in a variety of capacities for more than 20 years and writes the Green Thumbs gardening column.