Raised Bed Gardening, part 1

March 26, 2012

Growing Your Own Food

raising your own food for self sufficiency

Every year since we’ve owned our farm, we’ve delightedly tilled up the soil and lovingly poked seeds into the ground, envisioning the beautiful garden to come.  We’ve put up fencing and marked the rows.  We’ve cultivated the aisles.  We’ve hoed and hoed and hoed between the seedlings.  We’ve fertilized and picked off bugs and trellised cucumbers, and so on and so on.  And every year, it has been a great struggle.

Our problems have run the gamut and are probably familiar to anyone who has started a garden before-  some years the weather has been very uncooperative (once we had a late frost 15 days later than usual and several summers of drought), the bugs have been merciless, the wildlife has taken its share (one year the deer got all but 2 melons), but the weeds have been our main downfall.

We always started out with neat tidy rows of plants popping up where we wanted them.  In no time though, the weed seeds sprouted or the Johnson grass tubers we missed made whole new plants.  We formed plans of attack- everyone has X number of rows to weed each day or certain crops to tend to- but still they got ahead of us.  We’d get several days of rain in a row and the task would be enormous when we could get back in to work.  Slowly, the weeds would overwhelm us and we’d get hopelessly behind.  That was in large part because, if you really look at the area of the garden, much more of it was devoted to non-food growing areas than for crops!

The traditional method of row gardening makes sense if you raise acres and acres of a single crop and use machines to do most of the work.  But for those of us who are interested in raising the greatest amount of food with the least effort and in the smallest spaces would probably find much more success with raised bed gardening.

With this plan, the planting area is narrow enough to be reached easily from all sides, but every bit of soil is put towards growing food.  You don’t have all the wasted space of walkways and aisles, both of which have to be kept weeded as well as the rows of plants themselves.

In addition, rather than just taking what you get with that dirt plot that was “lawn” a couple of months ago, you are actually creating spaces that have the most nutritious, well-balanced soil possible.

We purchased kits of pre-formed frames for raised beds (we decided we could not make them any cheaper).  They came in 4 x 4 and 4 x8 foot dimensions.  So far, we have put up 8 of the larger size since we not only want to grow a lot of surplus food to “put up,” but we also want to establish beds of medicinal plants as well as herbs for cooking.

I’ve spent a while reading books about raised bed gardening and becoming convinced that this must be a better system.  I’ve begun purchasing and mixing the soil “ingredients” that will go inside them.  This has been a premature spring and I have been itching to tuck plants and seedlings into the new beds, but I’ve had some trouble locating one ingredient I intended to use.  In addition, that really late freeze we got one year has me a bit scared.  I should note though, that raised beds will be much easier to protect from frosts than long rows.

Periodically, throughout the growing season, I will give updates about our experiences as well as give reviews and recommendations for books you may want to read yourself.

Do you already use a raised bed system?  Do you think it is a better way to garden?  Please share your experiences in the comments section.  

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29 Comments on “Raised Bed Gardening, part 1”

  1. northernhomesteader Says:

    We are about to start gardens for the first time… Raised beds and/or a permaculture/guild/food forest approach is what we are debating back and forth. I am leaning towards the guild approach as it sounds like the plants may actually “take care” of each other to some extent…which is just fine by me!


    • Laura Says:

      Sounds great! I recently learned about hugelkultur too and we are interested in following up on that idea maybe for next year. For a while now, I have been trying to do some beneficial companion planting, but this year I will be even more deliberate about it, both from a bug deterrent standpoint as well as a grow-better-side-by-side standpoint.

      Let us know how it’s goes for you this year.


  2. Steve S Says:

    We’ve on our third year doing raised beds, and we’ve found it to be the best for our specific circumstances. The best place for a garden in our yard is also the lowest place, so drainage is a big issue, as well as the extremely clay soil we have. We’re starting our fourth season with our raised beds, and each year we’ve increased the size by at least 30%.

    There are more up-front costs with the raised beds, but the payoff is both in the ease of harvesting and the lack of need for weeding & tilling.

    We do have strawberries not in the raised beds, and we’ll be planting corn and some beans for the second year in a row outside of the beds.


    • Laura Says:

      I am really looking forward to less weeding and wasting of water to keep the plants hydrated. Our old garden plot was across the driveway and about 3 hose lengths from the house. It took hours to water by hand or was very unevenly watered by sprinkler.

      I have been a bit skeptical of the claims that you can effectively grow corn, beans, pumpkins, etc in raised beds. They are such space hogs that I can’t believe it is a good use of the small plots. We also plan to use our old garden to grow the Three Sisters (the Native American term for combining corn, beans, and pumpkins/winter squash). They help each other out. The corn acts as support for pole beans, the beans put needed nitrogen into the soil for the corn, and the pumpkins/squash form a living mulch to keep the soil a little cooler/damper and shade out the emergent weed seeds.

      Thanks for the comment.


  3. Trudy Says:

    Good post. I have never had a green thumb, even when I buy plants already established I manage to kill them. I do need to keep trying though. I think raised beds may even be an answer to people with back problems who may have a problem with kneeling and bending. Nice article.


    • Laura Says:

      Thanks for the compliment.

      According to the Square Foot Gardening author Mel Bartholomew, raised beds can even be off the ground and still work. Essentially, you build a box with a bottom in it and fill with the growing mix.

      The regular beds would involve some bending and so on, but much less strain than the traditional method.


  4. Ursula Says:

    What is the ingredient that you want to add but are having trouble locating?
    Perhaps someone here can help locate it, after all that’s what having blog friends are for right? !


    • Laura Says:

      Good point! Maybe someone out there knows where to look.

      I’ll elaborate more on it in the next installment but the official “recipe” used in Square Foot Gardening (at least the All New & Improved version recently released) calls for 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite. It’s fine grade vermiculite I am having trouble finding. Big box stores carry it in small size bags, but it’s too expensive to buy it that way since you need so much (if I remember correctly, each of our 4 x 8 frames is supposed to get 3 cubic feet of vermiculite).

      I’ve called our local feed store/garden center and they can no longer find a source for the 4 cubic foot bags. I looked online and few places carry it anymore. The best price I found was $280 + $80 shipping. WOW- those would be some expensive veggies!! Especially when you factor in the cost of the peat moss, the frames, the fencing we put up…

      I’m going to keep looking, but we may just have to proceed without it.

      Thanks for the suggestion, Ursula!


  5. bob avery Says:

    I use raised beds,I made the boxes myself. Most of my beds are 22″ high by 10′ long and 3′ wide,I have a total of 11 beds. After the boxes are built I put about 6″ of leaves in the bottom,then i use about 12″ of mixed soil and aged dirt from a local dairy,I then put a bag of miracle grow and mix it with topsoil to plant the seeds in.
    Semms to work for me,we have poor soil here(sugar sand) ,have plenty of strawberries,lettuce ,beans,summer squash,collards,peas,cukes,peppers,eggplants,okra. I also made 4′ square boxes to plant trees in,have 3 peachs,3 plums,3 pears,and 5 apples. The peach trees are loaded with small peachs,cant wait for them to get ripe.

    Idont put bottoms in boxes


    • Laura Says:

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve had success using a simpler mix than what the SFG method calls for. Thanks for sharing your experience.


  6. Cheryl Says:

    Last year was my first year doing raised beds. We made our raised beds instead of buying them. I saw some small ones at Lowes for $99 each. Yikes! Instead we bought the lumber and made our own much cheaper. I believe our end result was $26 dollars per box for lumber. We have sandy soil so I filled the beds with bagged top soil and manure, I had to add more for this spring. Now that the boxes are it’s easier this year.

    I have a question for you veteran gardeners out there. My squash did beautiful until they bloomed and the stems started turning to gel. I read something about a worm that gets in the stem. I pulled them one by one hoping to save the others. No luck. Can you tell me what it is and how to get rid of it if it happens this year?



    • Laura Says:

      Great Cheryl!

      Those Lowe’s kits are pricey! The raised bed frame kits we bought came from Sam’s Club and I think they were about $50 a piece for 4 x 8’s They are made of some kind of plastic composite material so they shouldn’t rot over time. That was one of the selling points for us- not having to replace them in a few years or be concerned about pressure treating chemicals leaching into the food. Overall, I’d prefer a natural material, but we have so many other maintenance concerns that we decided to go with the plastic-type ones and hopefully eliminate one in the garden.

      To spread out the cost some, we purchased the kits last year and began to plan our placement of them, but we put off buying all the dirt for them until this year.

      As far as the squash demons- I have struggled with them every year, I think. As I understand it, that problem is caused by the “squash vine borer.” They are very hard to eradicate because they literally eat a hole into the hollow stalks/vines and kill the plant from the inside out.

      I have heard a couple different ways to treat them. One person told me that if you wrap the newly sprouted vines with aluminum foil, it will prevent them from getting in. I don’t know how long the plant can take having the foil on- I haven’t tried that yet. Another way is to plant a couple weeks later than usual. The theory there is that if the insects have no food in your garden when they emerge, they will either head to someone else’s or starve before your plants come up. I’m going with that one this year.

      One other thing I’ve noticed (and the only reason we got any winter squash/pumpkins last year) is that some kinds of vines will continuously root along their length anywhere they can find soil. I encouraged our vines to run way out from the garden and watered along the length of them so they survived. By September, the heart of every plant were dead, but from about mid-way to the end, there were fruits.

      I know I should pull up and burn all the dead plant parts at the end of the season, but somehow it never gets done. That would help kill off any eggs or larvae left that would return the following summer.

      Hope it goes well this year!


      • Cheryl Says:

        Thanks Laura!
        My 11 yr. old son that loves all things survival just informed me I should plant radishes around them. Something about it keeps the vermin away.


        • Laura Says:

          I forgot to even mention companion planting!

          There are many plants that either benefit the growth of the neighbor or deter a kind of pest. Now that I check one of my books, I see your son is right. It says that radishes will deter striped cucumber beetles- just leave them in the ground to flower. Nasturtiums will deter squash bugs. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything listed for vine borers. If I hear/read of something, I’ll post back here again.

          My friend Melissa takes toothpicks and periodically pierces through the vines. Maybe they prevent the borers’ passage and further damage, but she says she gets a sadistic pleasure out of the possibility that she might skewer them in the process anyway.


  7. poormansprepper Says:

    My sister has been gardening this way for the last 20 years, well sort of…

    She composes all year round and at the beginning of our growing season she makes her beds, in her case they are just mounds of dirt each mount area is dug own 2” into the natural soil of the yard and mixed in with the compost (very much in the American Indian Style) and plats her crops. At the end of the year she rakes out the mounds.

    Next year rinse and repeat (but in different locations, for crop rotation and soil maintenance). As I said she has been doing this for the past 20 years in her back yard. The soil that is there now is like plant growing black gold! She still uses the mounds but if you drop a seed anywhere in her yard it will take off like wild fire!!

    (Great post as always)



    • Laura Says:

      That is a really interesting method! What is the reason for raking out the mounds at the end of the season? To disturb the bad beasties that may overwinter? To add more compost?

      Thanks for the compliment. I’ve got the explanation of the Square Foot Gardening method scheduled for tomorrow.


      • poormansprepper Says:

        The thought on raking out the mounds is to improve the overall soil quality of the area, in that 20 years her back yard has raised up at least 6-7 inches, and as I said it is all growing gold!



        • James Says:

          For areas of sloping ground, or bad soil, you just cannot beat a raised bed garden system for productivity or ease of use. Yes it maight take a bit of effort to build in the first place, but it re-pays itself many times over; both with the abundant harvest and the time saved weeding a traditional plot 🙂


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