Raised Bed Gardening, part 2

April 2, 2012

Growing Your Own Food

raised bed gardening

Probably the best known system of raised bed gardening is Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method.  About 30 years ago, he began to question why “traditional” gardening is done in particular ways, especially ones that he felt were unnecessarily time, space, or labor intensive.  He met with a fair amount of resistance when he would ask “Why do you do it that way?” but he persisted with his notions that gardening didn’t have to be that hard.

After years of experimenting, he wrote his original book on the topic.  A few years ago, he released a newer version that he says even further simplifies gardening and almost guarantees success, even for the first-timer.  In it, he explains all the reasons why he thinks raised bed gardening is a superior method.  For the sake of brevity, I will try to condense them here.

Tenets of the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) Method:

1.  You start with “good soil” rather than spending years “developing” it.

2.  No wasted space–  you don’t weed the aisles and every bit of the growing area is utilized.

3.  Fewer seeds/plants needed to produce a robust harvest.

4.  The whole crop doesn’t have to mature at once–  you can successively plant  for harvest throughout the growing season.

5.  “Gardens” can be anywhere you want them, especially close to the kitchen or water source.  They can be split up into many 4 x 4 sections wherever you have open space.

6.  Small plots can produce lots of food.  He says that SF gardens will produce as much as the traditional “row” gardens, but in 20% of the space.

7.  SFG in raised beds is much easier for people with joint trouble or other challenges to be able to plant and maintain.  No tilling, “double-digging,” or other difficult physical exertion.

8.  Gardening could even be “portable” with solid bottom boxes that could be put on tabletops or wheels.

His points are all both interesting and promising, though I am a bit skeptical of a few claims.  First, I don’t see the point in planting “space hogs” in raised beds, especially if you only have a few beds.  Winter squash and melons run for 20 feet or more sometimes, so they don’t seem like good candidates.

veggiesMr. Bartholomew says you should trellis them, but the supports would have to be mighty high, sturdy, and well-anchored to support those heavy fruits.  Then they would cast a lot of shade on whatever you may have wanted to grow to the north of them.  That could be used to your advantage, but you’d have to plan ahead.  Sunflowers would have to be planted in the northern most box and one box would not accommodate many plants.

Corn and beans also need quite a bit of room if you want to get more than a couple meals out of them.  Our goal is to grow a surplus for storage, not just a sampling for the summer.  For this reason, we plan to reserve the new raised beds for smaller more productive plants and put the “space hogs” and “skyscrapers” in the old garden space.  I hope to use the Three Sisters method of companion planting to reduce the need for fertilizing and weeding.  Flowers like zinnias (our little ones love to grow them) and sunflowers will probably get spots there too.

Mr. Bartholomew has a very specific recipe for what should go into those raised beds.  His “Mel’s Mix” calls for 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite.  He insists this is key to success.  Simplified, the peat moss holds moisture, the compost provides the nutrition, and the vermiculite keeps the soil light so there is plenty of room for root growth.  (In addition, you never step into the beds or otherwise compact the soil).

I’m sure he is right about the benefits of using this particular mixture of soil.  Practically and economically speaking though, it’s not that easy to create.

Four cubic foot bags of peat moss is readily available in most garden areas of stores.  The rest is is pretty tough.  His prescription requires 5 different kinds of compost (for example, compost from mushrooms, cow manure, plant waste, etc.)  I haven’t found any one place that carries that many types.  (If you are not sure of the origin of the “organic humus,” read the fine print on the bag-  I am finding that what big box stores carry locally is mostly waste from the factory farming of chickens- manure, “feather meal,” etc.).  The reason for the mixture of compost types is so that the nutrients provided will cover the gamut of the plants’ needs.  If all the compost if from one source, it will be unbalanced.

In addition, I am finding vermiculite in the amounts I would need to be exorbitantly expensive if available at all.

Mr. Bartholomew also insists that the beds be divided physically on top with some sort of lattice work to make individual “square feet.”   In his method, every SF should be planted with something different.  These are details I don’t feel inclined to fool with.  With some things like radishes, I probably don’t want more than 16 maturing in a week or two’s time because I would only be using them for fresh eating.  Many other things (like pickling cucumbers and tomatoes for sauce) I would need many of at once.

Since I have had trouble locating vermiculite for a reasonable price (even online) and it doesn’t offer any needed nutrients, I think we will have to proceed without it.  I have only been able to find 4 types of bagged commercial compost, but we have our own to add from the rabbits, kitchen waste, etc.

Overall, I am looking forward to (mostly) trying this new way of growing food in raised beds, but with the difficulty and expense to get started, I’m not sure I can go so far as to “recommend” it yet.  Preparedness-minded people always have to make careful decisions about how and where to spend their money.  Though I realize these beds should be seen as a long-term investment that will pay dividends in years to come, they are a bit pricey to get started with, at least if you go by Mel’s prescription.

I’ll let you know how the season goes and pass along any lessons we learn along the way.  Please share your own experiences too.

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13 Comments on “Raised Bed Gardening, part 2”

  1. Carolyn McBride Says:

    I have both of Mel’s books, and I think they’re great, but…I also approach his idea of “good soil” with some reservations. I think the best soil is one that the gardener has helped build up over years with the addition of homemade compost and leaf mold. Why would someone NOT compost if they could? Is there any other, better way to give back to the soil? I don’t think so. Peat moss is great, but every time a gardener buys peat moss, which is expensive, we’re supporting stripping another area of it’s resources. The benefits one gains can be gained through use of compost. Not only that, but compost is free, involves one in their garden in a whole new way and allows us to put back what we take away. Peat…just can’t claim that.
    So I agree with your great post. Looking forward to seeing how your beds do this year.
    (Psst, you might want to check my blog for a small nod to yours)


    • Laura Says:

      Thanks so much Carolyn!

      I agree with all you said. In the newer book, he defends the use of peat moss by saying that you are essentially “saving” it by using 80% less than you’d need in a traditional garden and that it never needs to be added again after the first year because you don’t till it under. Those arguments allow me to use it relatively guilt-free to get started this year.

      We do compost, though our system needs some work. We’ve tried worm compost but have mostly succeeded in killing a lot of worms. Our “regular” compost is continuously raided by chickens, but at least they turn it for us. We do not have enough sitting ready to fill our beds this year, so again, I’m having to allow myself to buy it. (Doesn’t it just seem wrong to BUY manure and industry waste products, which is essentially what bagged compost is?!).

      I was working in our new beds yesterday with my little ones. I had carefully tried to kill the grass and then put down thicknesses of newspaper before filling the beds. I was greatly annoyed to see weeds sprouting the soil mix. I’m not certain if they have somehow grown through, the weed seeds were in the bagged mix, or whether chickens dropped them in. Even though we fenced, I have found ducks, chickens, and a goat in there repeatedly!! The goat promptly ate the tops off of quite a few plants and completely killed some others. Sigh… I hate that goat!


  2. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Hi Laura! I grew two of the SFG’s last summer and had pretty good results for someone who’s never gardened before, but I agree with you soil assessment. It was expensive to use his soil formula and this year I’m going to do it a little different. Instead of his formula I went down to the local green house and asked what they use for their starts and soil. The guy pointed at a bag of soil (can’t remember the name off the top of my head) so I bought a bag and will do my starts in that. I’ll probably have a few SFGs this year, but I’m also planning on a traditional rowed garden as a comparison.


    • Carolyn McBride Says:

      I’m planning on doing the same thing, Jarhead. Most especially with tomatoes. I figure they are an easy control crop for the experiment and with the crew we have to feed, I’ll need a whole bunch!
      Laura, I wonder if it came in the soil mix. I’ve had that happen in my houseplants, and I know they didn’t get outdoor time that year. Unless you bake the soil before you use it, you just never know. And I’m not big on baking my soil. As for the goat….small voltage electric fencing?


      • Laura Says:

        Having pulled the weeds out of the beds, I too am inclined to think the weed seeds came in the mix. Though they are not quite surface weeds, neither are they rooted down into the the previous soil level. They are a very pale green and weak at this point fortunately. They have been easy to remove thus far.

        As for that goat- I’m thinking barbecue! We didn’t intend to keep him this long anyway. Some local Mexican farm workers have stopped by occasionally with their interpreter to pick out a buck for their feasts- birthdays, Christmas, etc. I can’t imagine why they would want a stinky buck for a backyard roast, but that’s the tradition apparently. Where are they when we need them? 🙂 That buck is leaving this property permanently one way or another- soon! We need to replant fruit trees and there is no point while he is still here.

        We’ve tried electric fencing with our brush goats. Even with the most powerful charger you can buy, they’d just get a running start and jump through. The wire would slide over their horns and then they’d be in mid-air when their backs passed through and wouldn’t be grounded well enough to shock them. We put the goats in their assigned “work area” and an hour later, they are lounging on our porch or scratching their heads on our fruit trees hard enough to rub all the bark off or push them over!

        We are making progress refencing using all heavy-duty woven wire, but it’s slow work. Clearing the thick brambles where this needs to be done is why we had them to start with, but they won’t stay put to do their jobs! We plan to get a Nubian doe or two after the new fence is completed. Then, in a couple years, we can breed them and have milk and/or sell offspring to recoup our investment in them.

        Thanks for the suggestions.


    • Laura Says:

      Thanks for the comment. If you find out the brand name of what you used, I’d be interested in knowing. I’m trying to stay away from chemical fertilizers in what I buy, but otherwise, if there is a ready-made mixture the greenhouse growers use, it would be worth looking for here.


  3. Ursula Haigh Says:

    A more sustainable substitute for the peat moss is Coir.
    Coir is coconut dust. It is made from the short fibers that are left over after harvesting the husk for other uses, such as rope and brushes. Coir holds water well and can stay moist longer than peat. It also decomposes more slowly and therefore will not need replenishing as quickly. Can be obtained or ordered through your local garden center.
    A Vermiculite substitute is wood chips, not to be confused with Beauty Bark!
    If you have a chipper shredder, you are a lucky person!
    Some utility companies will gladly let you take the chips that they would dispose of or a tree trimming company. I stopped to ask a company a few years ago that was in the neighborhood trimming trees and they were happy to drop it a few blocks away for free!


    • Laura Says:

      Very interesting! I’ve never seen coir locally- maybe it’s because we are pretty far from where coconuts grow.

      We bought a used chipper, but it was not in working order at the time. We are still waiting for it to be fixed. Then we do plan to make great use of it. We have several acres of woods and there is a nearly unlimited amount of downed wood we could chip for mulch since the trees are pretty old and tall at this point. Branches come down regularly in storms.

      When the power company trimmed our trees several years ago, we did ask for all the shredded stuff to be left. The kids thought those mounds were the greatest playset of all! It was amazing how quickly they did decompose though. We used some of the stuff as mulch and the chickens spread a lot of it around looking for sumptuous morsels within, but it seemed to just disappear before long. There is a very complex system of roots growing through the remainder that reminds me of what I read about mushroom mycelia, only on a macro scale. I’d gladly take some more if I knew what it contained.

      Our utility district also sprays indiscriminately without the owner’s permission. We once caught two guys walking the length our our power lines spraying everything beneath! We stopped them, but apparently you have to express your objection in writing in advance to prevent it- and then they may check their records before the next time around, but then again, they may forget. Every time I saw their path of destruction that year, I was mad all over again.


    • tim Says:

      Never use wood products in your soil composition because in the decomposition process they ferment into wood alcohol (methyl) that is bad for veggies and fruits. Coir is good cause it releases potassium when decomposing but also releases salts as it is harvested near ocean water (or washed with sea water hence “salts”). Start your own compost with yard waste and food scraps! If in the Pac NW, there is a company called Harvest Moon that sells great soil in “the white bags”!


  4. Ursula Haigh Says:

    Just wanted to share this wonderful link, it confirms my comment regarding the use of wood chips as a valuable mulch!
    Beauty bark is NOT what I am referring to.
    Hope this helps Tim to understand the difference in materials. 🙂



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