raised bed gardening
We’re wrapping up our series on Making Gardening Easier with a refinement that can be applied to any of the types of gardening that we’ve discussed — whether traditional farm-style rows or raised bed, container, or straw bale gardening. Vertical gardening can add a whole new dimension to the way you grow vegetables.
The point of vertical gardening is that you grow your garden up, not out. There are a number of advantages to this approach:
- Less space — By growing vertically instead of out horizontally, you can fit more plants into less space. Vertical gardening is a natural add-on to your patio or balcony container gardening, but it also works well with any other form of gardening.
- Less soil and water — People have been using some vertical gardening techniques in traditional row-type gardens for centuries, but when you apply it to container, raised bed, or straw bales gardens, you’ll need only enough soil to grow the plants in and you water a smaller area, too.
- Less weeds, pests, and diseases — Growing your plants up a trellis, mesh fence, or other structure will keep them from dragging on the ground and give the leaves and roots more exposure to air circulation and the sun. This will reduce or eliminate the environment that some garden pests and diseases thrive in, making your plants healthier and more productive.
- Less work (hence making gardening easier) — You don’t have to till and cultivate a large plot of ground to have a successful vertical garden. Or you could, if you wanted to. You make the call. But you can grow a productive garden in very little space, making vertical gardening ideal for city dwellers or for anyone who wants to make the best use of a sunny spot.
There are some plants that are more prone to growing vertically than others. Pole beans come to mind. (Remember Jack and the Beanstalk?) So do peas, cucumbers, grapes, squash, melons, tomatoes, and grapes. Anything that grows on a vine is a natural choice for vertical gardening. These guys will all gravitate toward a stake, cage, trellis, mesh, or chain-link fence. Whatever they can sink their tendrils into. All of these are tasty candidates for your first vertical garden. (Squash and melons in a vertical garden? Yes, it can work!)
Vertical Gardening with a Traditional Row-Type Garden
One of the best ways to integrate vertical gardening with a traditional farm-style row garden is by means of erecting a trellis over one or more rows of the garden. The trellis can be a metal wire fence mesh stretched over a frame, or it could be a lightweight nylon mesh stretched between poles. The trellis could be straight vertical, or it could be an A-frame that allows your plants to grow up at an angle. Any way that you want to do it, just make sure that you’re trellis mesh and frame are strong enough to hold all the food that will be growing on it. Also take into consideration that you’ll want good access to your plants from both sides of the mesh. If you build an A-frame with tight chicken wire for your mesh, you might be constructing a barrier that keeps you from harvesting all of your crop.
Of course, everything that you can do with a traditional garden can also be done with a raised bed garden.
Vertical Gardening with a Straw Bale Garden
In a previous blog with talked about Joel Karsten’s straw bale gardening method. Joel says that one of the keys to a successful straw bale garden is to pair it with vertical gardening. He recommends that you rig up an espalier (yeah, we’re getting fancy with French words now) trellis over your bales. Joel uses sturdy metal stakes at either end of his row of bales and strings wire between the stakes at ten-inch intervals up the length of the stakes. He adds a 2×4 header that he attaches as the top frame on the stakes to keep them from sagging and collapsing inward as weight builds up on the trellis strings.
But what about those edibles that we might call “vertically challenged”? Is there any way to use them in a vertical garden? Lettuce, carrots, broccoli, onions, herbs, and strawberries aren’t exactly good candidates for creeping up a trellis. This is where container gardening fits into your vertical gardening plan.
Low-growing plants can be grown “vertically” by using creative ways to arrange their containers vertically. For instance, you could use the blank space on a garage wall or boundary fence to attach rows of rain gutters. These make great containers for lettuce, herbs, and strawberries. Some people have taken a closet-door shoe caddy with lots of pockets for pairs of shoes, filled each pocket with soil, hung it on a sunny wall, and grown food in it. (While this can be done successfully, some garden supply companies have adopted this approach and made fabric multi-pocketed containers that are designed with the specific goal of creating the best environment for growing plants, not storing shoes.) And don’t limit your concept of vertical to just mean growing upwards. You can grow pole beans or peas in a hanging basket and have the vines spill over the edge of the basket and grow downward.
Vertical gardening is a way for you to let your fertile imagination (pun intended) run wild. With just a little bit of nutrient-rich soil and a sunny spot anywhere in your yard, porch, patio, or driveway, the sky’s the limit.
We found an excellent book on vertical gardening by Chris McLaughlin. She covers growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs vertically with specifics about which varieties work best. There is a very helpful section on vertical gardening structures. A great book for those who are just getting started.
In our last blog, we talked about raised bed gardening. Square Foot Gardening is a refinement of raised bed gardening. It uses high-intensity gardening methods to get the most production out of a modestly-sized raised bed garden plot.
Square Foot Gardening is the brainchild of Mel Bartholomew. Mel is an engineer by training. After retiring, he started gardening the traditional way. Here’s how he described his experience with planting a small garden in rows: “To an engineer [it] was so obviously inefficient, wasteful, and just too much work.” His search for an easier and more efficient way to garden blossomed into a new career. He founded the Square Foot Gardening Foundation to share his methods with the world in the goal of ending world hunger by enabling everyone to grow their own vegetables. His book, All New Square Foot Gardening is both interesting and informative. The book gives you all the details, but his website www.MelBartholomew.com, provides a summary of the process, which can be broken down to into four main steps:
- Build a frame to contain your garden
- Fill the frame with Mel’s recommended mix of soil components
- Overlay the frame with a grid of one-foot squares
- Plant each square foot with its own crop
Traditional farming plants in rows, allowing space between rows for walking. This wastes space – lots of it. In square foot gardening, you plant in the raised beds, allowing space for walking between the beds. You will save space – being able to grow the same amount of produce in about 20% of the space. You will save water – because you won’t water all that space between the beds where you’ll be walking. You’ll save time and effort by not needing to weed all the area that you walk on to prevent the weeds from taking over your planted rows. And you’ll experience all the benefits of raised bed gardening.
The Square Foot Gardening Mindset
If you’ve gardened before, moving to square foot gardening will require some change in your thinking, but you’ll quickly adapt. Gardeners typically think in terms of rows of plants and they lay out their gardens accordingly. In square foot gardening, you’ll be thinking in terms of square foot sections in a 4′ by 4′ grids. Generally, each 4 x 4 grid is broken into sixteen one-square-foot sections for planting (like the one in the picture above). Within each square foot section, you’ll place one type of plant (either seeds or transplants) and you’ll plant 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants in it. Yep, you read that right, you’ll plant as many as 16 plants in some of your squares! For some larger plants such as tomatoes, you’ll use multiple squares for a single plant.
Building Your Raised Beds
In your first year of square foot gardening, you’ll find that less work is required than preparing a traditional garden, but you’ll incur more expense. Instead of spending your springtime preparing your soil by weeding and roto-tilling the dirt, you’ll build raised bed frames and fill them with a custom soil mixture, at least some of which you’ll have to buy. After the initial start-up costs associated with building these beds, you’ll find subsequent years to be easier and less expensive than traditional gardening.
One of the great things about raised bed gardens is that you can place the beds anywhere. Don’t feel limited to the spot in the back corner of your yard that had previously been your garden plot. Of course you’ll want to put it in a sunny place, but because the garden will be in beds, you can put it nearer the house and it’ll look great. Putting it closer to your house will also be an encouragement to go outside and grab some fresh produce to add to your meal! And it usually puts it closer to your water source which – you guessed it – makes your gardening easier and more likely to be done!
Mel recommends creating your beds from wood, but you can use anything that will create the squares – bricks, decorative garden edging, or concrete blocks. Last year was the first year we did any square foot gardening and we opted for concrete blocks. They’re not as pretty as the other alternatives, but we wanted the flexibility of creating some beds that were 4′ x 8′ last year, but changing it up to being 4′ x 4′ this year if that made more sense when 2014 planting season came around. (As it turns out, we’re sticking with the 4′ x 8′ bed.) Also, we knew that we wanted our beds to be two blocks high instead of just one high. While this increased the cost of creating the beds, it was kinder to our backs and we were more comfortable growing root vegetables in it. We’ve always been fans of function trumping form so the concrete blocks won out. But we readily admit that wood beds look much better.
Filling the Raised Beds: Mel’s Mix, a Grid, and Some Plants or Seeds
Once you’ve got your raised bed frames made, you’ll want to fill them with soil. Mel recommends a mixture of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite – equal parts of each, measured by volume, not by weight. You can find all of these ingredients at your local plant nursery. Our nursery delivered everything to us just hours after placing the call to them.
Once your frame is made and you’ve filled it with Mel’s mix (or your own custom soil recipe), an important step remains – you must add the grid to it. It’s not square foot gardening if you don’t have the actual grid in place. You can use furring strips or heavy twine or anything you like, but don’t skip this step. You can’t rely on your ability to eyeball a grid that isn’t actually marked out. Take the time to create the grid and place it in or on your raised bed frame. We used wooden furring strips that cost almost nothing at our local hardware store.
Then comes the planting. The trick is in knowing how many plants each square can accommodate, and that depends on what you’re growing. Mel’s book [INCLUDE LINK] gives tons of details about many vegetables – including info about starting, growing, harvesting, and the all-important number of plants per square foot. If you’re not buying the book, check out this link: [http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net/plant-spacing/].
Here’s the number of plants in each square foot for the plants we planted last year:
- Pole beans – 8 plants per square
- Carrots – 16 plants per square
- Cucumbers – 2 plants per square
- Bell peppers – 1 plant per square
- Potatoes – 1 plant per square
- Tomatoes – 1 plant in 4 squares with a cage
We loved it. The truth is that we don’t really enjoy traditional gardening. If we had more space, that might be the best way to go, but for our in-town backyard, it just doesn’t make much sense. Yet we thoroughly enjoyed our first foray into square foot gardening. The only down side was that we got a late start. Where we live, gardens should be planted in the last two weeks of May. We got our garden planted in mid-June. It severely impacted our harvest because we ran out of growing season before all of our plants were ready to pick, but we still did pretty well. We planted Roma, cherry, and slicing tomatoes, beets, pole beans, cucumbers, carrots, onions, bell peppers, and lettuce. We had lots of tomatoes (many that we picked green and allowed to ripen after we brought them at the end of the season), lots of pole beans, some beets and cucumbers (they were really good). We also had a few carrots and onions. We have absolutely never been successful with peppers and we weren’t successful with them in our raised bed garden. But we’ll try again because I like peppers but they are so expensive in the store. Also, our lettuce didn’t work at all. We had an extremely rainy season, so that may have hurt our lettuce.
We are definitely going to do more square foot gardening this year. Every gardener continues to learn something every season, and we’re eager to put what we learned last year into place for this coming summer. Growing some of your own food is tremendously rewarding. In our predominantly urban culture, vegetable gardening has become a lost art. The time may come when we need to rely upon it as a primary source of food for our families. Don’t wait until you have to know something to start to learn it. We encourage you to start a garden this year, even if you’ve never done it before.
No series on Making Gardening Easier would be complete without a discussion on raised bed gardening. Raised beds are typically frames built in your yard that are filled with planting soil of some sort. These frames can be constructed from a variety of materials and they don’t have to be very deep to grow a lot of food. Six to eight inches is plenty, and many folks have good results with as little as 4 inches of soil.
But how does gardening in shallow box make gardening easier? Let me count the ways:
- Many yards are cursed with poor soil, whether it be that the topsoil is too thin or too sandy or too much clay or whatever. Improving your native soil can be a lot of work. It’s easier to start from scratch. Raised bed gardening doesn’t use the dirt from your backyard. Instead, raised bed gardening allows you to fill your beds with whatever planting medium you want — topsoil, compost, vermiculite, peat moss, and so forth. Dream big. If you have more than one raised bed you can experiment with different mixtures or you can have custom blends for the specific types of plants that you’re growing in each bed.
- Since you’re not growing in your native dirt, you don’t have to till the garden plot. Even a small tiller, though very handy to have, can be expensive. There’s no need to buy or use one to prepare your soil with a raised bed garden. The growing medium that you fill it with will be loose from the very start. And it will stay loose because you build your beds in such a way that you can reach every part of your garden from the outer edge. That means you never walk on your bed, so your soil doesn’t get compacted.
- Raised bed gardening allows you to have a productive garden in places that you never could before. Since you fill your raised bed with your own soil mixture, you can place the frame on a concrete patio or asphalt driveway if you want to. What’s under the frame doesn’t matter. It’s what’s in it that counts.
- Raised bed gardening is ideal for those who have very limited space available for gardening. This is a city dweller’s delight. While most raised bed gardens are 8’ x 4’ or 4’ x 4’, you can make yours whatever size and shape that works best for you. There are many people who have successful raised bed gardens on the balcony of their urban apartment.
- Raised beds make gardening easier by being more productive and efficient. You will be able to grow more food in less space than you could with a traditional garden. The combination of custom soil, optimal placement of the bed for best exposure to the sun and its small size all contribute to high-yield growing.
- Some gardens are plagued by burrowing critters that chow down on your plants from underground. It that’s a problem in your area, you can construct your garden frames with a wire mesh in the bottom that will keep the hungry critters out, but still provide good drainage.
- One of the best ways that raised beds make gardening easier is that it reduces the number of weeds in your garden. If you build your frame on top of a weed blocker that allows for good drainage, you won’t be getting any weeds from the surface of the ground. The fresh soil that you fill your beds with should be free from weeds. That leaves only airborne seeds as a source for weeds, greatly reducing the amount of weeds that you’ll need to deal with in your raised beds.
- The soil in your raised beds will warm up sooner than the regular dirt in your backyard. This means that you can plant earlier. A longer growing season gives you extra time.
- Raised beds make gardening easier by increasing accessibility to the garden. It’s amazing how much easier it is to pull weeds when they are just 6 inches off the ground. If that’s not high enough for you, you can build your frames deeper and add a ledge around the edges of the bed frame that you can sit on while you tend your garden. Still not high enough? Who says you have to plant your raised bed garden on the ground? You can construct (or buy) a raised bed that sits on a platform, making the garden accessible even to people who are wheelchair-bound. Disabled people can continue to enjoy gardening.
Here’s a tip about the materials that you use to make the frames for your raised beds. Don’t succumb to the temptation to use pressure-treated wood. It sounds like it would be a good idea, but treated wood can leach chemicals into your garden that you shouldn’t be ingesting. There are other materials that are rot and insect resistant. Options include cedar, concrete building blocks, brick, and composite vinyl.
Traditional gardening in long rows is great if you have the space for it, but raised bed gardening is a wonderful approach for many other folks —newbies who want to give gardening a try on a small scale, people with limited space, gardeners with physical challenges who can’t bend over very well – or just folks who want to make gardening easier!