Raised Bed Setup Cuts Rain's Effect
by Joyce Schillen
November 10, 1999

I’ve been whining about the endless rain and gray clouds for weeks now. The perennials have been looking lush, if a bit slow to bloom; but I was worried about the rest of the garden.

Finally — over Memorial Day weekend, we got the veggies and annual flowers into the ground. All it took was a half day without rain falling on our faces and we were able to do it. Why? Raised beds.

If ever a spring season made me appreciate anew the value of raised beds, this one was it.

Raised beds have several advantages. Mounded soil drains better than the soil at grade, and good drainage does more than anything else to keep roots and seeds from rotting in wet ground. In addition, soil in raised beds warms up faster in the spring so you can plant earlier, and spring growth is more rapid in warmer soil.

If you are cursed with second-rate soil, raised beds are a practical solution. Our garden consists of bottomless cedar boxes built on top of native red clay that is riddled with rocks, The soil was loosened as much as possible, and the boxes filled with new soil mix, a combination of garden-quality top soil, sand, and copious amounts of organic matter.

Along with growing good plants, these raised beds with their rigid sides keep the garden from sliding down the slope, they prevent irrigation runoff, and they look pretty good, too.

Raised beds make gardening easier for people in wheelchairs or who have physical conditions that limit bending and stooping, because even a 12-inch rise makes plants easier to reach.

To construct the simplest raised beds without going to the trouble of building sides around them, rototill or hand turn the area and roughly outline the beds. A common dimension for free-standing raised beds is 36 inches wide on the top surface, with sides sloping down to a base that is 48 inches wide. Four feet is about as wide as you can make raised beds and still be able to reach the center for harvesting. Length may vary.

Take about six inches depth of soil from the surface of what will become pathways and toss it on top of the beds. Be sure your pathways are wide enough to accommodate a garden cart or wheelbarrow. Next, add soil amendments, dig it all in, and rake the planting surface smooth and flat.

Structures that surround raised beds can be formed by boards, rocks, stones, bricks, concrete blocks, or whatever your imagination and practicality can come up with. Avoid materials such as pressure-treated lumber that’s impregnated with chemicals which retard plant growth. Concrete, too, can affect plants by raising soil pH, so keep that in mind.

Most of the raised beds in my garden are rectangles constructed with cedar sides, but one is formed from native stones laid into a circle. This bed is considerably warmer than the others because the stones collect heat during the day and release it at night. The plants there bloom and mature several weeks earlier than those in the other beds.

Rigid sides can create special shapes, and they can form an edge to sit or kneel upon while planting, weeding, thinning and harvesting. They also help you extend the growing season and keep out pests by providing a place to attach hoops for supporting plastic or floating row covers.

But best of all, in raised beds the soil dries out sufficiently to plant during even the rainiest of weather.

This week’s tips:

•Tired of plant labels fading over summer? Use a paint pen, available at art and craft stores.

•Keep slugs under control by spraying them directly with a mixture of half-and-half ammonia and water. It’s better for the plants and soil than salt, and deadly to slugs.

•Don’t forget to plant an extra row or two to share with people who need it.

•Pray for sunshine. There’s nothing quite like a little photosynthesis to keep plants healthy and growing.

Joyce Schillen --

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