Build a better garden with raised beds

Most everyone I speak with has worked in, or at least seen a row garden. These are the standard, in-ground gardens, in which plants are grown in well-defined rows, with paths left between the rows to allow access for cultivating and harvesting. While row gardens have been the standard for centuries, planning and planting a garden in which so much area is worked up only to remain unused is, as I see it, exceedingly inefficient, especially in situations where valuable gardening space is limited. I believe there’s a better way.

Raised bed gardens are designed for walking around, not in. A properly planned raised bed will be just wide enough to allow a gardener to easily reach to the center of the bed, while working from the sides. This allows more plants to be grown in a smaller area, resulting in more production per square foot of garden. In fact, by some estimates, yields can be two to three times as much in a raised bed garden than in a standard garden of equal size.

Staying out of the bed also means that gardeners need not worry about soil compaction, which can reduce crop yields by as much as 50 percent. (Water, air and roots all have difficulty moving through soil that has been compressed by tractors, tillers or human feet.) And access areas between raised beds may be left in sod, mulched or covered with crushed stone, patio stone, or brick, so there’s no need to worry about mud or muddy feet, even when working in rainy weather.

Raised beds also make it possible to turn otherwise unusable sites into areas of fertile, well-drained soil by allowing plant roots to develop in areas above water-logged or compacted zones. In fact, by using raised beds, gardeners can produce an abundance of nourishing, flavorful vegetables and/or beautiful, vigorous flowers in areas one might never have thought possible, adding both beauty and value to your property. Attractive landscapes can be created using raised beds in areas of heavy, poorly drained soils, or where low spots that are subject to ponding or excessive erosion from runoff make conventional gardening impossible. And raised bed terracing can turn non-productive hillsides into bountiful, aesthetically pleasing garden sites. It’s even possible to garden on top of pavement or on a patio.

In the spring, raised beds will warm up markedly more quickly than the ground does. And, if properly constructed, they will dry out considerably faster than the ground does after a rain. In addition, raised beds can be designed so that they can be covered to keep rain off of plants and soil, when we experience too much rain. Covers can also be used to extend the growing season and to deter pests and diseases.

What’s more, soil conditions in raised bed gardens are much more easily controlled than soil conditions in in-ground gardens. You can fill newly built raised bed structures with soil mixtures that have been prepared ahead of time to offer superior structure, drainage and nutrient-holding capacity, or to meet the special needs of a challenging or exacting crop. Soil is the foundation of every garden and any experienced gardener will tell you that it’s much easier to begin with superior quality soil than it is to try to improve poor soil. Starting with the best soil possible will support better root growth and ultimately result in higher food crop yields and lush growth of ornamentals.

Having permanent bed structures makes it easy to integrate decorations, such as trellises and fences, into the design, too. And by trellising large vining plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupes, raised bed gardeners can maximize their use of garden space.

Raised beds can be a blessing for persons with limited mobility or for those who must garden from a wheelchair. Unlike row gardens, beds can be elevated to a height that makes it possible to tend gardens without having to bend. Raised bed gardens may even be designed to include benches built into the framework or as “table” gardens, allowing elderly gardeners and those with limited mobility, or who use walkers, to sit comfortably and even socialize while easily tending their gardens. With raised bed gardening, there is no reason that anyone who wants to enjoy the pleasures of caring for a garden and eventually harvesting fresh homegrown vegetables and flowers need not do so.

If you would like to learn more about raised-bed gardening and construction, you can attend a free raised bed gardening workshop being offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County in cooperation with Bonesteels’ Gardening Center in North Bangor.

The availability and expense of construction material depends greatly upon the desired appearance of the final product in the landscape. Generally, wood-based products are less expensive than masonry materials such as concrete blocks, bricks, or quarry stones. But I’ve seen fieldstone used in place of lumber and the result was quite striking. Resourceful gardeners may even be able to find used bricks or blocks at little or no cost.

Although pressure-treated lumber and landscape timbers are extremely popular, there remains considerable debate about the safety of using pressure treated wood for constructing raised bed food gardens. Therefore, I would recommend not using pressure treated lumber for fruit or vegetable gardens.

A better alternative is wood that is naturally decay resistant such as cedar, hemlock or tamarack. These woods are extremely durable and they can be found locally. Easy to assemble raised bed kits made from locally sourced northern white cedar will be available for purchase at the workshop. The finished product should last for many years.

Recycled plastic lumber is yet another alternative to consider.