Raised Beds

by Kate

A version of this article originally appeared in The Addison Independent on May 20, 2010.

Raised Beds in front of the studio

Every May we stand, looking at six raised beds in a part of the yard that was a driveway when we bought the house. The first thing we did that April, 1996, was move a ten foot high arborvitae hedge that ran between a little garage and the house to the far side of the driveway, to create a sheltered, south-facing spot for a vegetable garden.

To the excitement of two boys, then five and eight, the man who moved the hedge came to Middlebury all the way from Newport, Vermont, hauling a goose-necked trailer on which perched a bobcat with a cone-shaped tree digger on the front. As the driver settled into the cab to drive the rig off the trailer, loud music suddenly erupted from two speakers on the side of the bobcat. “What’s that?” yelled the boys. “I like to work to music,” the driver shouted, as Puccini’s “Tosca” poured forth, each aria soaring above the houses in the neighborhood. The machine twirled back and forth across the driveway, first toward the hedge, digging down four feet, then scooping the tall green columns up, one at a time, each with a cone shaped root ball below, then dancing across the gravel to settle the cones gently into their new site.

Three hours later, suddenly quiet, the hedge was moved and we had a place in which to build our raised beds.

“We’ll have many patches to share — for all of us. Which part do you want to plant?” This was what we had all been waiting for.  Young children love the magic of putting seeds into the ground and waiting to see what comes up; they know it is a miracle without our telling them.  Beans bust out of the soil quickly and twirl up posts. Baby carrots and radishes can be plucked out of the ground, wiped off with fingers and eaten on the spot. Peas pop out of pods.  Zucchini turn into baseball bats. In late August, there’s corn to be husked, picked only just as water comes to a boil.

As a child, I spent hours in a vegetable garden in Connecticut, planting the seeds in late May, weeding beside my mother (or lying on my back, looking up at the clouds), or running down to pick the corn when she put the water on to boil.  We had been loaned a patch of dirt in what had been an estate garden for the grand mansion next door, now occupied by a very old widow.  Ringed with fruit trees, the ghost of a semicircular kitchen garden was fenced with grape vines and long rows of dipping yellow lilies.  The remnants of four huge beds sprawled, separated by wide grass paths with an old well in the middle, now filled with stones. One of the beds was filled with a forest of asparagus fronds, but at age five, when we first went to plant, I didn’t know what asparagus was.

In a yard as small as ours, just three tenths of an acrea, and most of that is covered by the house, raised beds are the way to go. Drainage, vital for healthy plants, is good.  You can plant many more plants in a raised bed than in a flat garden. It is easier to tend because of the height.  And you can organize the soils and the plants by variously amending the soils in the different beds depending on what you plant.

We planned the dimensions and lay out of the beds on graph paper.  I needed to be able to reach the plants easily without walking on the soil so it would not be compacted.  Then, after plotting out the beds with measuring tape and string, we dug down 12 – 15 inches in each rectangle, removing either gravel from the old driveway, or sod from the former lawn. We nailed together rough-cut fir boards for the sides, 2 X 12’s, 7 and 8 feet long, and placed the rectangles on the ground. We shoveled topsoil into the four (now seemingly enormous) holes. Then we top-dressed the beds with composted sheep manure from a friend’s farm in Addison.

We top-dress the beds every year with ground up leaves from our yard, compost from the kitchen along with garden clippings. We also add ashes from the woodstove from time to time, or lime to sweeten the soil. We added sand to a bed designated for herbs, many of which prefer somewhat less rich soil.

That first year garden, fifteen years ago, was miraculous. There were no pests, no rodents, no bugs, no woodchuck  (they all arrived the second year). The garden was new, and the word had not gotten out.  The amount of produce, using a square foot gardening system, was astonishing.

The boys are no longer home, come planting time. But Charles, who is studying ethno-botany, planted seeds this winter inside his college’s greenhouse. He rang up the other day to say he’d just plucked a couple fresh radishes out of the soil on his way to class.O

Raised Beds Basics:

Site:  Try for a spot that gets lots of sun, and where water does NOT collect. My beds face south. They are sheltered (which makes it warmer), and the ground gently slopes to the south, which is ideal. Ask yourself the following questions: how near is a water source? Are there big trees nearby, whose roots will compete for moisture and nutrients? How much sunlight do you have?

Size:  Walking on soil compacts it. So design a bed that you can easily access. Four feet is ideal. Mine are  7feet by 8 feet, and I sometimes lay a board across to walk on.

Paths:  Some people have lawns between their beds – so design a path that is wide enough for your mower. My friend Margy removed the topsoil from the paths, and filled them with wood chips. Barbara’s paths are filled with gravel, and her beds come in a variety of shapes. Last year, my husband and I laid blue stone between our raised beds.

Facts:

The soil in raised beds warms up faster, so your vegetables get a head start.

Raised beds are easier to tend.

Raised beds dry out faster, so monitor them carefully for watering. Ideally, you should mulch, but that is a topic for another day.

Different beds can contain different soils, depending on what you want to plant.

Raised beds can be planted intensively, but watch out: don’t over – plant!

Not all vegetables work well in a raised bed, like corn, squash and pumpkins: they need more space. They go in flat beds, which are in the ground.

If you haven’t gardened before, start small. We started with four smaller beds and now have six large ones.  Some people have both raised beds and flat beds).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: