Raised beds: keep the fun; lose the pain in your back
One of the best ways to tell whether or not you are a "seasoned" gardener is when you bend down to weed, you wonder if you can get back up.
If that is the case, consider raised beds for your garden. How high you raise them is up to you. You can construct a flat seating area around the perimeter of the bed – something like an old fashioned sand box – so you can sit on the side to garden. Whether you are seated or standing, raised beds make gardening easier for any experience gardener to pass along your knowledge to the next generation.
Some types to consider.
Simple raised beds: A simple raised bed is usually from four to eight feet long by four feet wide, raised at least one foot high or even more. It is easy to reach two feet into the middle of a four foot width, so don’t make the beds any wider than that. Find a site for your bed that offers at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day near a source of water. Raised beds tend to dry out more quickly than a traditional garden, and you don’t want to haul water either.
Beds can be made of treated lumber, plastic, cinder blocks, or steel. Even that old feeding trough from an auction or garage sale can serve the purpose.
Several manufactured types can be purchased from garden supply stores or catalogs, or you can construct them yourself from plans. One advantage of raised beds is that they can be more densely planted than conventional gardens with spaces between rows. Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring so seeds will germinate earlier than if planted in the ground. You can construct a cover for your raised bed that you can open and close using plastic to protect plants from cold temperature in spring and fall or using spun bond fabric to protect plants from damaging insects. Just remember that pollination needs to occur, so the plants cannot be covered with fabric throughout the season, just when pests are targeting the plants. You might even consider using bird netting or screen to keep birds and other critters out of the bed.
Lasagna gardens: A variation of the simple raised bed is a lasagna garden. The lasagna technique is based on the "hugel" (the German word for hill or mound) where layers of organic matter are spread in a layer on the ground to break down into growing media.
Starting with wet newspaper or cardboard to cover the soil or grass, Patricia Lanza, author of the book on lasagna gardening, advises adding alternate layers of two to three inches of sphagnum peat moss with four to six inches of organic matter like shredded leaves, grass clippings, compost, shredded garden debris (no noxious weeds or material with weed seeds), sawdust, straw or animal manures. When the layered raised bed is 18-24 inches high, the lasagna is ready to break down to great growing media. You can construct lasagna gardens in the fall and winter and be ready to plant in spring.
Square foot gardens: The square foot gardening system was developed by Mel Bartholemew – an efficiency expert – who divided a four-by-four foot garden into one-foot squares using a grid atop a raised bed. The boxes are spaced 3 feet apart and are filled with a third compost, peat moss and coarse vermiculite. Each square is planted with different vegetables or flowers using one, four, nine or 16 plants per square foot depending on plant size. Once you finish harvesting a square, add compost and replant it with a new and different crop.
Garden bags: A variation on the raised bed is a hanging plastic bag often used in greenhouse production of cut flowers, strawberries and tomatoes and are also used as hanging baskets for ornamentals. Gardeners in Britain have planted directly into plastic bags of potting soil to grow crops on steps and patios. New double layer polypropylene fabric bags that "breathe" and avoid heat build-up or overwatering have been developed and are available from several companies. Different sized bags are available for peppers, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes (small and jumbo), carrots, salad, garlic and even beans. The bags are filled with potting media and can be used with tomato or veggie cages for support. Whether it is a raised bed or a bag, there are many different types of gardens nowadays and it is easy to find the best ones for your age and energy level. And don’t worry – old gardeners never die, they just throw in the trowel.
Thanks to Marilyn Odneal, who, as always, bent over backwards to source much of this story from her post at the MSU Research Station in Mountain Grove. – The Editor.