Saturday, March 20, 2010

Raised Vegetable Beds

This weekend, the snow and rain had finally left us, and it was time to finally build the raised beds for our kitchen garden. First a few questions about raised beds.

Finished bed in place

Why bother with raised beds? Why not just plant in the level ground?
This is my first year planting in raised beds. In prior years, I double-dug the soil in my vegetable beds. Double-digging is a great way to prepare your soil for growing vegetables, and I've had good success with it. But I'd kind of run out of space in my existing beds. Knowing that I was going to be taking over a section of the yard for growing vegetables, I wanted to give my growing area a bit more definition. I also have small children and a crazed mutt running around, and I wanted to minimize the chances of veggies getting trampled. I also, like much of Maryland, have very clayey soil, so the improved drainage of a raised bed really appealed to me. Because you are never standing on the soil, you never compact it. And there is somewhat better pest and weed control, being raised a bit off the ground (one foot, in this case). I don't know if I'll be able to keep the bunnies and voles out with these things, but here's hoping.

How do you build raised beds?
I am a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. Or, of taking full advantage of the resources that are out there. In other words, the Pioneer Woman did a fabulous step-by-step tutorial on building raised garden beds, and I just followed that. I could have, I don't know, designed my own or something (I did make mine somewhat longer than hers), but really, I was just as pleased that someone else had already figured it out.

What wood should I use?
Since I am experimenting and didn't want to break the bank, I used regular old untreated pine. You could use cedar, and it would hold up better, but it costs a great deal more. There is quite a controversy about using pressure-treated lumber. Some people suggest that arsenic or other toxic chemicals can be leached into the soil, while others contend that the risk has been blown out of proportion. Since I am going to eat this food, and since I go to ridiculous lengths to garden 100% organically, I decided I didn't even want to think about whether chemicals might or might not be leaching into my carrots. Now, my pine beds will not last forever, but like I say, this is an experiment -- and in any case, I'm not out that much money.

What if I'm building on a slope?
I'm sensitive to this question, because my house is on a slope. Hahahaha, that's putting it mildly. People sometimes break out their climbing gear to get up our driveway. I am building my raised beds on the flattest little section I could find, but it still ain't flat. But here is the key -- you want your bed to be level with the universe, not with the ground. If it's level with the ground and the ground is sloped, then your corners won't be perfectly square and the whole thing won't be quite as stable as it could be. But more importantly, water will pool. You will not get proper drainage. If you level the whole thing out, and there are small gaps at the bottom, these probably won't be a problem once you fill it with dirt. If you have large gaps, you can line the bottom with some kind of landscaping cloth or mesh to hold your dirt in place, while still allowing water to drain out. Do not worry about it looking silly. It would look a lot sillier if it wasn't level.

Gap under corner

So I'm building four raised beds that are each 4 feet by 10 feet, and 12 inches high. One of them is sited in full sun -- that's where the tomatoes and other sun-worshippers will go. One of them will get almost full sun, and two of them will be partially shady. I love that I have a range of different environments for my beds. I have actually had surprisingly good luck with growing vegetables in partial shade, and have found that the best part is they need much less water.

Today I got all the supplies and we got the first bed built. Can I just say, going to the Home Depot and buying lumber is such a rush. There is something so exhilarating about having in your hands the raw materials to build... anything! I can totally see how some folks could get addicted to tools. As much as I love to do things by hand, I am quite appreciative of things like circular saws and cordless drills.

And pickup trucks. Oh man, was I longing for a pickup truck today. I spent forty-five minutes getting my lumber (16 10-foot-long boards and 8 8-foot-long boards) into my car. CAR. Not pickup truck. If I had a pickup truck, I would have been out of there in five minutes and home drinking something ice cold instead of making a fool of myself in the Home Depot parking lot. But I considered it an engineering challenge and was determined. And I did eventually get it all in and get home safely. Somehow.

Tomorrow we will build the other three beds, which will be easy since we've already done it once! Right? Yes!

One down, three to go

And then, we will need dirt. I am going to call our local garden center and have them deliver me some dirt. Good dirt. And then, oh by golly, then I will finally plant my peas. Whew!

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