Raise your garden to the next level

Many people ask me what my best suggestion is for starting a vegetable garden.

Hands down, the first suggestion that comes out of my mouth is to garden in raised beds.

There are just too many benefits to raised beds not to make them a serious part of your garden. For a modest up-front investment of money, time and labor, you can enjoy years of gardening that will fill your meals and pantry with delicious, fresh produce.

Why raised beds?

There are many great reasons why raised beds are a good bet for almost all home gardeners, no matter the size of the garden.

First off, most of West Virginia has heavy clay soil, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a productive garden. Raised beds allow you to garden in good soil that you select — nice and light, filled with compost.

Second, it is much easier to work in a small, raised bed than in a large, plowed garden.

When you garden in a traditional row garden setup, there is a lot of space in the walking rows between your rows of vegetables. Raised beds allow you to place your plants much closer together and eliminate some of that empty space.

Third, by making the garden more compact, you reduce the amount of maintenance needed. You need less fertilizer and other inputs to feed the plants, since you are not broadcasting it over a large area.

For example, last week in my Master Gardener class, we calculated that one of my students would need more than 1,200 pounds of lime to fix the pH in her 14,000-square-foot home garden. Much less would be needed if the garden was more compact in raised beds.

There are some growing benefits to raised beds as well. First, they have good drainage for times that we get too much moisture (such as last year).

This also means that they may need a little extra water in dry periods.

Having the soil elevated also means that it warms up earlier in the spring than a flat, tilled garden. This is good when you are sowing seeds directly in the garden, because germination is dependent on the temperature of the soil. You can get a good one- to two-week head start in a raised bed.

Raised beds also make gardening much easier on your back and much more accessible to people with mobility issues. Raised beds can range from a few inches tall to a few feet tall. Even with a raised bed 10 to 12 inches tall, you can definitely tell a difference in the effort it takes to sow seeds and harvest — it’s much easier if the garden meets you part way up and you don’t have to bend all the way over to work.

Raised-bed basics

There are several ways to approach incorporating raised beds into your garden.

One of the first decisions you will want to consider is the height and width of the bed.

Six inches is the usual minimum height, but raised beds can even be 3 or more feet tall. Just remember that the taller they are, the more soil you need to fill them (which is expensive if you have to buy it).

If you are buying a kit, there are many different sizes available. The basic width of most homemade beds is 4 feet by 8 feet. This design gives a 32-square-foot garden, but still makes it easy to reach into the center without stepping in.

The building material also is an important decision to make.

Treated lumber is one choice that can extend the life of garden beds to eight to 10 years. Many people still assert that making raised vegetable beds from treated lumber is a no-no because of leaching of harmful chemicals. But changes in the lumber industry and current research shows us that this is not the case.

Before 2004, the use of treated lumber was discouraged because it was preserved with arsenic, which in turn would leach into the soil. I don’t know about you, but I know I don’t want arsenic in my garden.

To increase its lifespan, lumber now is treated with a copper compound. Studies are showing that relatively little copper leaches from the wood, and copper is nowhere near as toxic as arsenic.

Treated lumber cannot be used for farms that are certified organic, but that shouldn’t deter home gardeners, even those who wish to grow organically.

Another lumber choice is cedar. It is naturally resistant to fungus and other things that deteriorate wood, so it will last longer than pine lumber.

The trade-off is that it is much more expensive that pine lumber or even treated lumber, so it can really eat into your budget.

The new composite decking lumber that contain plastics also are options that can give you long-lived garden beds.

This material is what is commonly used in raised-bed garden kits that you can but at local stores or from catalogs. These kits remove a lot of the guesswork, measuring and frustration from assembling a raised bed.

The trade-off is that they usually are more expensive than building your own (unless you find a good sale).

The next choice you have to make is what to fill the bed with.

You want to make sure that what you add to the bed has a nice, crumbly texture.

Here’s where you get to make sure the soil is exactly what you need. I would suggest a mix of several different things to make your plants happiest.

A big part of the mix should be compost. You can buy mushroom compost in bags or in bulk truckloads from local garden centers. “Mushroom compost” is just a fancy term for horse manure. This is a good basis for the mix, and could be about one-third to one-half of the mix.

You can also buy “garden soil” in bags or bulk, and you can also incorporate this. But make sure it is a good quality, doesn’t contain debris and is not clay soil itself.

Other good ingredients are peat moss, which really holds moisture and nutrients. People concerned with the sustainability of peat (it is basically nonrenewable) prefer to use coir from the coconut processing industry. It also holds water well. I will caution you to make sure that you get it from a reputable source; if it is not well processed, it can be too salty and damage your soil.

Check out the article at the WV Gazette website.

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