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Need a garden tomorrow?

Raised beds: The right idea in the right place at almost any time

Once the monsoons ended, most gardeners happily dived into the soil, planting seeds or transplants, decorating landscapes with annuals. It’s been hard to beat the past couple of weeks for getting growing.

 A wonderful vacation took me away for a couple of weeks and the press of life kept me out of the garden for another. I am now just getting my hands into the dirt. What was my first task? Weeding, gardening’s necessary evil. I finally threw in the towel on planting seeds and bought my vegetables and herbs. It isn’t too late. I’m lucky, because my beds are ready to go.

 But what about those who want to have a garden and only see a stretch of turf grass to dig up? Is this season already lost? I had this conversation with two groups that want to get their first community garden in the ground but thought they were too late. They are not; raised beds keep this season within reach.

All you need to make a workable and healthy raised bed garden is some cardboard, a few 2-by-8-by-8-feet boards, braces and fasteners and good soil. That and a little elbow grease will have your plants in place this weekend. However, time is precious. Many vegetables need at least 60 days to produce. Plant too far into June and the late summer light might not be strong enough to ripen some varieties that need longer growing seasons.

Besides their relative simplicity,  raised beds eliminate concern about poor soil. By building your garden on top of your lawn (or driveway, for that matter), you don’t have to worry about your soil’s history. Better, you save your back from digging.

 There are a bazillion ways to build a raised bed garden. My beds are bordered and raised with rocks. A friend has built hers with cement blocks turned on their sides laid out to form wedges. The larger plants go in the triangular middle where there is a lot of space. Smaller plants, particularly herbs that need to be contained,  such as mint or oregano, are planted into the little holes in the sides. Each year she adds another wedge or two. Pretty soon she’ll have a circular raised-bed garden. The only caveat to cement is to test the soil every year; cement is very alkali.

Any container can be a raised bed. You can use brick, garden stone, wood, straw bales (yes, really) – anything that will raise the level of the planting medium above groundlevel. Research has shown that yields are at least double in a raised bed than in a traditional row-in-the-ground garden; the soil gets warmer more quickly and drains better.

Also, because it is raised, your garden is less likely to be walked on. You may think you leave a light footprint on the Earth, but soil compaction is the most serious abiotic problem a garden can face.

Building your raised bed

For our purposes we are going to build a very boring but very functional 4-feet by 8-feet rectangle raised bed out of 2-by-8-by-8 boards. There are more complicated versions, but they take longer, and we are trying to get something built this weekend.

  • The first thing to do put down two layers of flattened cardboard boxes where your beds will be. One layer might be enough but two will keep weeds at bay for more than one season. They – the boxes and your sod – will eventually break down into soil, but by then you’ll have two or three seasons of nearly weed-free gardening. And cardboard is plentiful. Most stores have oodles of boxes, and it doesn’t matter that they are already broken down. That’s how you want them. I have seen raised beds built on asphalt using this method; it works, and the plants grow. Honest.
  • For one rectangle you will need three 8-foot boards: two will be used full length, one will be sawed in half and placed at either end of the 8-footers. Do not buy creosote or arsenic-treated lumber; the chemicals could leach into the soil and into your food. There is lumber preserved with a copper solution that is safe. If you go that route, be sure to buy galvanized or stainless-steel fasteners because the copper will corrode standard nails or screws. Talk to the folks at ’s lumber yard on Cleveland-Massillon Road. They will be sure you get the right stuff.
  • You will need corner braces and fasteners, nails or long screws to keep the corners together and at right angles. Do not make your garden any wider than 4 feet. Otherwise you will not be able to work the center easily from the sides, and you will be tempted to step into it to get to the other side. Remember, we do not walk in our gardens. Ever.
  •  If you are making more than one rectangle, be sure there is enough space between the beds for you and your wheelbarrow, about 2½ to 3 feet. If you want a garden longer than eight feet, be my guest. Just figure out how many more feet of lumber you will need.
  • With the cardboard down and frame in place on top, the final ingredient is the soil. Topsoil alone isn’t enough. You need a mixture – about half soil and half  organic matter, preferably leaf humus or peat moss and manure composted for a season or two.  and the Gardener of Bath are great places to start looking. Some sources suggest about one-third inorganic matter – perlite or vermiculite – to keep the soil crumbly. Try this web site: It is specific for container gardening but has some great soil recipes.

 Voila! You have saved your gardening season. While you’re ordering soil, browse for plants. You’ll need them soon. Happy gardening.

Here are some other good sites for raised bed gardening:

Travis Michael June 09, 2011 at 04:19 PM
Vermiculite is a great soil, but many are unaware of it's history. Before proper surveys were done, this material used to be routinely contaminated with asbestos - http://www.asbestos.net/ - a cancer causing mineral. Luckily this problem is now gone. Regards, TM
Sarah Vradenburg June 10, 2011 at 01:47 AM
Thank you, Travis.

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