To Raise or Not Raise the Garden Bed – That is the Question

Raised beds are all the rage, right now, and for good reason.  They look amazing, keep the garden looking neat and tidy, are easy to keep weed-free (especially if you’re starting with soil and amendments from the garden center),  can be elevated, making it easier for  people with back problems/disabilities, can be portable, can extend the growing season by allowing the soil to warm up faster in the spring,  and can result in higher food production rates.

Out at My Happy Homestead, I have a few raised beds that I garden in.

I prefer to grow lettuce and other short-rooted veggies in my 6″ tall raised beds.

lettuce bed

I have an orchard of semi-dwarf fruit trees that I’m growing inside of raised beds.   I love the look that the beds create –  the trees are actually planted in deep holes in the ground, then the boxes are built around the trees and filled in with compost, garden soil, and topped off with dry leaves.  (I’m experimenting with permaculture techniques in this area, planting in other edibles and herbs underneath the canopy of the trees and inside of the boxes to add beauty and create a sustainable landscape).

stone fruit garden

Mini raised beds are used for our Harvest @ Home garden rental service.

early spring crops 003

And, here is a newly constructed, deep, raised bed that hubby just put together for me…

raised bed

I’ve planted it out with melons.  I love how it acts as a garden “room” divider, setting this area of the backyard off from other surrounding areas.   Yes, raised garden beds add definite aesthetic value to the garden – another great benefit I forgot to mention earlier.  Also, it’s physically less demanding to construct these raised beds (at least I think it is) than it is to double-dig a traditional garden bed.

However, there are a few drawbacks when it comes to growing in raised beds, too.

First of all, it can be quite costly.  By the time you pay for all of the wood, garden soil, and other (in my opinion) necessities, like chicken wire (to gopher-proof the bottom) and weed barrier, you’ll need to grow quite a bit of food to re-coop your costs.  To save money, look for salvaged, or scrap wood.  I’ve found a lot of free wood on Craigslist, and by putting out requests to friends and family.  Just make sure that the wood is untreated and free of paint or varnish if you’re going to be using it for raising food.

Also, when the temperatures heat up, it can dry out rather quickly.  If you live in an area that experiences hot, dry weather in the summer, like I do, plants that are growing in raised beds may become stressed from overheating and lack of water.  To remedy this, you may need to water more often (sometimes more than once per day).  I’ve found that setting my raised beds in areas of the garden that get afternoon shade, mulching deeply with straw hay or dead leaves, and providing shade cloth for beds that get all-day sun helps to conserve water and keep the plants from getting quite as stressed.  Choosing plants that are more drought tolerant (like canteloupe and eggplant) is also a good thing to keep in mind when planning what to grow in your raised beds, especially if you are worried about how heat will affect your fruits and vegetables.  If you are curious, the Veggie Gardener has a list of 12 drought tolerant fruits and vegetables to help you make the right choice.

Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that some fruits and veggies just aren’t meant to be grown above ground.  According to an Ohio University fact sheet, “since the root system is restricted by the size of the container, some plants may produce smaller fruit, and some vegetables don’t grow well in containers.  Vegetables that grow well in containers are those with a confined habit of growth, such as salad greens, spinach, eggplant, Swiss chard, beets, radish, carrots, peppers, bush beans, determinate tomatoes, bush varieties of summer squash and cucumbers, green onions, and many herbs. It isn’t that other vegetables can’t be grown, but that they may not be as suitable for container culture. ”  For me, the veggie that I just won’t grow in raised beds or containers is the potato.   Yes, I know that growing potatoes above ground, in boxes, barrels, and bags is totally “in” right now, but I’ve had absolutely no success growing potatoes this way.  Mine always seem to do much better growing in the coolness of the underground, so that’s where they’ll stay.

So, back to the question:  to raise or not raise the garden bed?  In the end, I believe raised beds serve a wonderful purpose in the garden, and I think everyone should have, at least, one to grow and experiment in.

Want to know more about raised bed gardening?  A standard on the subject is All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew .  A great article on the topic of container gardening can be found at Ohio State University online.  I particularly appreciate the chart, at the end, that matches plant varieties with container sizes – perfect for helping determine the best varieties to grow in containers and the depth which each  plant requires to thrive in that kind of environment.


The Top 9 Things I Learned From My Garden This Year

One of my favorite experiences, this year,  has been creating a large backyard garden, nurturing it, and watching it grow.

Now that it’s nearing winter, and there’s not much to do out there, I thought I’d take a moment and reflect back on the year and all of the things I learned from it.   Here we go…

1.  I learned that I need to grow more of the vegetables that we actually eat and less of the types I’m just enamored with growing.

~ I grow an abundant supply of many different varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables – many for their unique looks, exotic names, and interesting histories.  I learned, this year, that we don’t consume them all equally, though.  So, over the winter, I’m going to be re-examining my garden plan, and redesigning it so that it better reflects our actual diet — more carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, and fruits/fewer squashes, cabbages, cucumbers, and eggplant.    Waste not, want not.

2.  I learned that I need to better plan the harvest.

~ While I incorporated succession planting into this year’s garden, I still had too many items coming into harvest all at once.  To regulate this, next year, I’ll be planting more early, mid, and late season varieties (I’ll be paying much more attention to the “days ’till harvest” when I order my seeds), and I’ll be sowing fewer seeds at more regular intervals than I did this year.  Hopefully, this will give us a more steady, year-round harvest.

3.  I learned that I need to pick fruits more often and as soon as they are ready.

~ If you’ve ever grown zucchini squash, you know what I’m talking about.  One day, it’s the perfect size, tender and ripe for picking.  The next day it’s the size and feel of a wooden baseball bat!  This happened to me with more vegetables than I care to remember:  green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce – just to name a few.  Next year, I’ll know:  whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll pick that tomorrow”, I’d better pick it right then and there, or suffer the consequences of producing overripe, bitter, mushy, woody, or spoiled fruit that’s more fit for the compost bin than our dinner plates.

4.  I learned that straw mulch really is the best solution for weeds.

~ Wow!  Can you see the difference between the areas of my garden where I applied straw mulch or no mulch at all?  The results speak for themselves…

5.  I learned to ask myself, “Are some crops really worth growing?”

~ We love corn, and consume a lot of grains and beans.  So, last year, I devoted a large portion of my garden to growing them.  They were very easy to grow, but some of the varieties didn’t produce very well, and harvesting some of the smaller beans and grain crops was extremely labor-intensive and time consuming!  For example, after three hours of hard, dirty work, we managed to harvest only a pint full of French lentil beans.  I must admit that the taste of these beans was out-of-this-world amazing, but I just don’t think they were worth the cost of production.   At just $7 an hour, it would have cost us over $100 in labor alone to produce one pound!  At the grocery store, I can purchase the same amount for a little over a dollar.  Although I did cherish the family time we spent together, and the knowledge and appreciation we gained for old-fashioned harvesting; even though these are the plants we really should be growing the most of for self-sufficiency, unless we invest in a mechanical harvester, I don’t think I’ll be growing many of these crops next year.

6.  I learned that I want to plant even more flowers to attract lots of beneficial insects and boost pollination.

~ Half of my garden was filled with native, volunteer sunflowers this year.  Boy!  Were the bees buzzing in that area!  I’m sure there will be a lot more that pop up in those areas again, next year.  I’m already planning on growing corn there – a crop that needs a lot of bees for good, uniform pollination.  I also found some large packs of native wildflowers, on clearance, at a local feed store that I’m going to introduce into the garden, next spring.  Insect predators watch out… You’re days are numbered!

7.  I learned that I need to give my tomatoes more room to grow.

~ Although I scatter tomatoes here and there, throughout the garden, (this seems to really help with horn worm control), since I mostly grow indeterminate varieties (ones that keep growing until freezing temperatures), I need to give them more space so that they are easier to harvest.  Tomatoes that were difficult to get to simply didn’t get harvested, and were wasted.  Next year, I am going to build larger cages for them to grow in and leave a couple feet of space around them so that I really have enough room to maneuver in and around them and not so much of the harvest goes to waste.

8.  I learned that large gardens are a lot of work!

~ Gardening on a grand scale is definitely not for the fainthearted, especially when you grow organically, and do everything by hand.  There are always seeds to sow, crops to harvest, beds to maintain, hoses and sprinklers to move, gophers to trap, and a seemingly endless list of other chores to do.  It can be physically demanding, at times, and can consume a lot of my time.  But, it is a labor of love, and no matter how much work it requires, the benefits I receive from it, I’ve learned, far outweigh the costs.

9.  I learned to treat my garden as a grocery store, and not a museum.

~ Although I designed my garden to be aesthetically pleasing, it’s main purpose is to supply our family with food.  I’ve struggled, at times, with harvesting plants – knowing that doing so will subtract from the overall beauty of the garden until new crops grow in their place.  Viewing the garden as a grocery store helps me to maintain my focus on the main reason why I grow fruits and vegetables:  to provide our family with fresh, organically grown produce and to help us live a more economical, self-sufficient life.