Basics for Raised Bed Gardening: Simple Growing Tips for Beginners and Experts

Horticulture Heaven

Raised garden beds which some refer to as garden boxes are ideal for growing small amounts of veggies or flowers. They keep out unwanted weeds, prevent soil compaction from high foot traffic, have good drainage and can even help with pest control such as slugs, rabbits and dogs. The sides of the beds keep your well-balanced soil from erosion or being washed away in bad weather. It can even lengthen your growing season as the soil above ground gets warmer sooner and drains better above ground. This is truly horticulture heaven.

Another benefit that I personally love is this gardening style is much easier on your back.  You’ll have to do way less bending and reduced time on your knees.  Many raised bed boxes include a little plank for sitting for even more gardening comfort.  Also, because there are way less weeds with raised bed gardens you aren’t spending the time stooped over.

Raised garden beds are available in a variety of different materials, often made from recycled or very inexpensive materials or can be purchased as ready made kits. Simple to assemble and ready to use kits from EarthEasy.com.

Benefits to Raised Bed Gardens:

  • Less Weeds
  • Less Bending Over
  • Less Kneeling
  • Better Soil Quality and Control
  • No Soil Loss through Erosion or Leaching
  • Mulch Stays Put
  • Looks Beautiful and Organized
  • Higher Yield Crops
  • Urban Dwellers  Can Transform Balconies to Horticulture Heaven

Best Soil to Use in Raised Bed Gardens

Often you can start with your own topsoil for the base of your soil.  This will cut down on the expense of buying the soil to fill your garden bed. Make sure you do a soil test first so you know your soil’s pH.  Rainy, woodsy areas usually have more acidic soil, while droughty regions are likely to be alkaline.  If you live in the Midwest near the prairies, your soil may be close to a neutral pH.  Having a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 is ideal for vegetables. Note: Five pounds of lime per 100 square feet will raise your pH by 1. The best way to balance your pH is by adding compost as this acts as a pH buffer. Most garden vegetables will grow in soils that have a pH of from 5.5 to 7.0 with potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and carrots, all like lower pH’s of from 5.5 to 7.0. Vegetables like beans, peas, spinach, leeks, and cabbage, like higher pH’s of from 6.5 to 7.0. All your hard work spent in the garden will be wasted without good soil conditions.

Option 1: The Simple Blend:

Screen your topsoil (or buy a truckload of screened topsoil) and mix it thoroughly with equal parts screened compost (kitchen, mushroom, manure, and/or fish).  You can choose to discard the top layer of your soil to avoid weed and grass contamination.  Put a tarp in the bed of a pickup, get a shovel and ask around for good sources of clean local compost in bulk, as the cost of bags will mount quickly in larger beds.  Fill your planters or beds with this basic mixture and add more compost every year in early spring.

 Option 2: The Luxury Blend:

For small container gardens, or if you want to go all-out and ensure your beds start out absolutely weed-free, you can choose to start from scratch with 100% purchased materials.  Your plants will thrive in this mixture that resembles potting soil, containing no garden-variety “dirt” at all: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 varied composts.  For larger planters, you can adjust this to one quarter each vermiculite and peat, with the remaining half comprised of compost.  Perlite or coconut coir can substitute for vermiculite — these aerating and water-retaining mediums are particularly important for smaller containers, where the structure of the vessel can create compaction and moisture problems.

Option 3: The Lasagna Method:

Are you building extra-tall raised beds?  Do you live near deciduous trees or have a good-sized lawn?  Waist-high beds can be wonderful to garden, but filling the entire bed with good soil is very pricey.  Leaves and grass clippings are great bulk organic materials which can be layered into the lower regions of tall raised beds, where they will slowly compost over time into rich soil.  Aim for two parts shredded leaves to one part grass clippings.  Add grass clippings in thin layers to prevent matting. Straw (not hay, which contains seeds), wood chips, or shredded bark could be included as well.  Once the beds are full to within 6-12 inches of the top, add a compostable barrier such as untreated cardboard (it prevents your good soil from sifting down too quickly) and then fill the remainder with your chosen soil mix.  Next year, you will find the soil level has sunk due to the decomposition and settling of the lower layers, so you will have plenty of room to add a fresh layer of compost on top!  Eventually, the lower layers can be turned over and used as a soil amendment.  If working with extra-deep containers instead of raised beds, you can add an inert “filler” to the bottom of the container, such as bricks, milk jugs, or stones.  Cover the filler with landscape fabric, which will enable drainage but prevent soil loss, before adding your chosen soil mix. (Eartheasy Blog excerpt)

If you use topsoil that has lots of clay in it so that it doesn’t drain well, you can add some coarse sand to the mix to get a soil that will drain well. Mix all the soil ingredients well with a shovel before putting it the raised bed. When you make the bed, remove all the existing vegetation and break up the soil layer if it is hard and compacted.  (For Beds that don’t have a bottom in them) Put down a layer of cardboard or several layers of newspaper over the existing soil so you won’t be bothered by deep rooted weeds coming up in the bed. You can even line the bottom with some screen wire to stop digging rodents from getting into the bed.

Good Soil Should be King of Your Gardening Efforts

A store bought organic fertilizer is the safest way to go for the beginning gardener.  Here is a list of the  essential nutrients for your garden to flourish:

Nitrogen is found by legume cover crops, composted manure, fish fertilizer or alfalfa meal. Phosphorus can come from rock phosphate and bone meal. Potassium is found in kelp meal or green sand. Calcium will be supplied by lime or gypsum. Glacial rock dust provides calcium along with other important minerals and will raise the pH of your soil. Epsom salts increase magnesium levels of your soil but doesn’t effect the pH.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as gardening and you won’t be worried about pesticides, GMO’s or any other non-sense with your home grown veggies.  So get your hands dirty and enjoy your beautiful and bountiful garden!

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