Friday, 19 December 2008

How and Why I got started with Organic Raised Bed Gardening

Posted by Marc from Garden Desk

Paul (a posse ad esse) has recently posted here about his square foot gardening methods and about his raised beds. I'm glad he did because it really got me thinking about my raised bed efforts. Actually it was several weeks ago when he posted video of his garden bed layout that started me thinking. Raised beds and Square Foot Gardening are becoming very popular and common with garden bloggers. For example, Rhonda's raised bed garden looks great.

It is my experience that almost no one I actually know in person gardens this way. Everyone around me here in Kentucky grows vegetables single file in long rows. So why do those of us who use raised beds do so? I have been gardening this way for nearly twenty years and blogging for three years and I have never talked about why I feel this is a superior way to grow vegetables.

Here is a picture of part of my raised bed garden from this past season:

Before I go on a rant about the benefits of raised beds, let me tell you a little story of how I arrived at raised bed, square foot organic gardening.

When I was a child, my mom had a garden with corn, beans and cabbage. She planted them in long rows and part of my chores was to weed those rows. I found the hoe to be clumsy and I often chopped right through a young been or corn plant. The work was hot and monotonous. I vowed that when I grew up, I would never have a vegetable garden! My mom stopped raising a garden when I was in high school (thank goodness) and gardening for me was all but forgotten.

While I was in college my mom re-married and my new Step-Dad decided to have a garden. He chose to locate it in what used to be a large tobacco field that was tended for us by a neighboring farmer. Since the field was much bigger than he needed, and I would be spending the summer with him and my mom, he approached me about vegetable gardening with him. He also wanted to recognize that I was growing up, so instead of getting me to work on his garden he offered to let me have one half to tend on my own. I don't know why I even entertained the thought, but I agreed. I knew nothing about growing vegetables or even which vegetables would grow in our area. I went to the college library to research it and luckily I happened upon a book about organic gardening with French intensive techniques. It was published by Rodale and outlined how to create raised beds with double-digging and mounding up soil from the paths. It described how to use block planting (what Mel Bartholomew calls Square Foot Gardening), trellises, companion planting, succession planting, using compost and other organic techniques. Wow - this book got me excited!

Summer arrived and it was time to start the garden. My step-dad bought a new fancy tiller to prepare his plot. I used my youthful energy to dig a series of raised beds but only used half of my allotted space. He planted long rows of many different veggies; I planted them in blocks. I got a job cutting grass with a landscape service and brought home bags of grass clippings and bags of straw. With these I set up a series of compost heaps and learned how to create finished compost every three weeks. He used chemical fertilizers and pesticides; I used compost. My step-dad weeded with his big tiller; I pulled weeds by hand until the plant leaves touched and shaded out the weeds.

We had two major problems that both of us faced. The first one was rabbits! This location was far away from the house and rabbits began eating everything, especially the green beans. I'm not sure what my step-dad did to combat them, but I utilized a tip from my Rodale book. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) was a hairdresser at the time so she collected all of the hair clippings that the beauty shop swept up. We brought home bags and bags of the hair and spread it all around and in my part of the garden. The human scent actually kept the rabbits away - especially since there were more veggies lined up on the other end of the field without the human scent! My step-dad's beans were eaten by rabbits; my beans were eaten by us!

The second big problem was watering. He bought a fancy pump and hose system to pump water from the creek; I watered with buckets and jugs. He had the advantage here at first - until the drought hit. The creek completely dried up and so did much of his long rows of veggies. I carried milk jugs of water out and placed them in the middle of the beds as drip irrigation. I repeated this technique two years ago and wrote a post with pictures if you are interested.

Now back to my story, my step-dad's garden took up 3/4 of the field and I had the other 1/4 but my side yielded twice as much produce! Not everything I did that year was a success, but seeing the side-by-side comparison was amazing. I was hooked on gardening from then on. Too bad I was almost finished with college at this point. If I had just been starting, I would have switched my major to horticulture.

That year my raised beds were only mounded soil, similar to this Amish garden that I got to visit this summer (but not as pretty, I'm sure):

Now, I use untreated lumber for most of my raised beds and try to grow as much vertically as possible.

I have even been experimenting with using cinder blocks and making the beds deeper.

Wow, this post has become pretty lengthy and I still didn't adequately describe all of the benefits to gardening this way. Tell you what, I'll do just that in my next post. I have some diagrams to show you as well.

I'd like to hear from you - do you grow vegetables in rows, in blocks or in raised beds? I'm not putting down any of the methods. It is important to garden the way that works for you. Next time I will sow you more what works for me, but what about you - what problems do you see with either method? What kind of success (or failure) have you had?