A lower maintenance way to grow food
Written by Niki Jabbour
Why garden in raised beds?
Raised bed gardening has become incredibly popular the past few years with both food and flower gardeners. Why? Raised beds offer many advantages. They warm up earlier in spring, offer excellent drainage, reduce soil compaction, and create a tidy, stylish garden.
My vegetable garden is made up of twenty raised beds and I have far fewer weeds than I did in my former in-ground garden. I also appreciate that my 4 by 8 foot and 4 by 10 foot beds are the perfect size for season extenders like mini hoop tunnels. These allow me to plant vegetables like Asian Delight pak choi and Sandy lettuce earlier in the spring and harvest longer into autumn and even winter.
While there are many advantages to raised beds, there are a few drawbacks to consider. First, there is the initial cost of materials which can be pricey depending on what you decide to use. Also, building a raised bed from lumber takes basic construction skills. However, many garden supply companies offer pre-fabricated raised beds or raised bed kits that come with metal corners and all hardware for constructing wooden beds.
The best size for a raised bed:
The size of the raised bed depends on several factors including available space, budget, what you wish to grow, and the existing soil. A 4 by 8 foot bed is one of the more popular sizes with 8 foot long boards standard at the hardware store.
For my beds, I used untreated, locally hewn hemlock boards. Hemlock is rot-resistant and long-lasting, but raised beds can also be built with cedar or pine boards. I’ve also made informal raised beds from logs and rocks, and have seen very beautiful beds edged with concrete blocks, bricks and other materials. The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to build a raised bed.
My hemlock beds are sixteen inches deep, mainly because the existing soil was poor and weedy and I wanted to ensure a good volume of soil for my vegetables. I also like the fact my beds are high enough that I can comfortably sit on the side to tend my crops.
If your existing soil is decent, you can build a shorter bed, perhaps six or eight inches tall. Be sure to remove grass and weeds before building the bed. If you don’t want to dig it up, you can can smother grass by placing cardboard or several sheets of newspaper at the bottom of the bed.
Soil for raised beds:
To discourage weeds, I did lay cardboard sheets beneath each of my beds before they were filled with a mixture of good garden soil and compost. If you don’t want to buy garden soil, you can build your own by layering kitchen and garden waste with compost, coffee grounds, chopped leaves, and other organic materials. It will take six months or more for the materials to break down.
To maintain fertility, I top-dress my beds with two inches of compost, aged manure, or leaf mold each spring and use organic fertilizers to feed the soil food web.
Favorite plants for raised beds:
I grow a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers in my raised bed garden and had great luck with many All-America Selections winners bred for vigor, compact growth, and yield.
Here are a few of my favorites:
This exciting new mini cucumber is perfect for raised beds with each plant yielding up to forty crisp baby-sized fruits. I use wire A-frame cucumber trellises in my garden to support the six-foot tall plants. Expect an early harvest with the first cucumbers ready to pick just six weeks from seeding. Sow a second crop four to six weeks after the first seeding for a late summer harvest.
Dolce Fresca was introduced only five years ago but it’s already a classic in my garden. I plant this compact variety along the edges of my raised beds to form a living edge and provide me with aromatic basil from early summer through mid-autumn. Each plant grows just 14 inches tall but offers dense growth for a generous harvest.
A few years ago, I tucked a few extra seedlings of Patio Choice Yellow tomato along the edges of my raised beds. The result was that by mid-summer, I was harvesting handfuls of the sweet fruits every single day. The plants are incredibly productive and can produce over one hundred tomatoes each! To grow them upright, use tomato cages to support the eighteen inch tall plants. This variety is also perfect for containers.
I’ve been growing Mascotte, a green bush bean in containers and raised beds for years. The plants grow just sixteen inches tall making them a good choice for small space gardens. And if you only have a single raised bed, you can still enjoy a bumper crop of tender beans by including a row of Mascotte.
The main pathway in my raised bed is bordered with nasturtiums. I love how they add bold color to the garden, but also attract pollinators and beneficial insects. I knew I had to grow Baby Rose in my raised beds. It’s the most compact nasturtium I’ve ever planted with the deep blue-green leaves growing just a foot tall. And once the flowers emerge, the plants are smothered with baby-sized bright pink flowers. Gorgeous!
The trio of Big Duck Gold, Big Duck Orange, and Big Duck Yellow marigolds offer big blooms and bright color to raised bed gardens. I like to tuck them between my vegetables as the fifteen inch tall plants stay compact and don’t overcrowd my crops. And while the plants are small in stature, the flowers are BIG with four-inch wide blooms that are produced continuously until frost.
This low-maintenance variety is great for raised beds as the large plants grow three feet tall, but are bred to be strong and don’t need support. They’re also productive and early to crop, yielding an abundance of three inch long sweet, bright yellow peppers about 70 days after transplanting.
When growing in raised beds, particularly high beds, you don’t want to grow varieties that grow super tall. It’s far easier to tend and harvest from bush tomato plants like Celano. This award-winning variety grows just forty-inches tall, but don’t let the modest size fool you as the plants bear a heavy crop of red grape tomatoes with a super-sweet flavor.
If you are starting with poor soil conditions, consider making your raised bed 16 inches high.
“This post is provided as an education/inspirational service of All-America Selections. Please credit and link to All-America Selections when using all or parts of this article.”