Elevate Your Harvest: How To Build Raised Garden Beds And Get The Most From Your Garden
I am a big fan of using raised beds for gardening. My family has built and used them in the past, and each time we do I feel like we get better and better at it. I like using raised beds for a number of reasons, but the two that top that list are that they help the garden look very orderly and neat, and they’re easy to get to and to keep weeded.
With raised garden beds you also have the advantage of creating and perfecting the soil right from the start. Since it won’t get walked on, the soil will remain loose and airy at all times, something plants and their developing roots need to grow. It also benefits from excellent drainage. But perhaps I am forgetting my absolute favorite reason to use raised garden beds…which is that you can extend your gardening season well into the fall, start harvesting much earlier in the spring, and even overwinter some vegetables. You can create a harvest the whole year through. Yum.
To learn about four-season gardening, I highly suggest Elliot Coleman’s books, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Some of the vegetables we’ve had luck with growing year-round, and plan on working with this winter are winter density lettuce, giant winter spinach, evergreen hardy bunching onions, curly vates kale (but really, any kale would be fine), wild arugula and chard. There are others, too; raised gardens open up a whole new world of gardening.
Building the Beds
When we moved to our new house this past spring there were some really nice thick pine boards in the basement; we used them to make two raised garden beds. When we build more beds, we’ll most likely get the same thick cut of wood, except we’ll use cedar, which is naturally rot- and insect-resistant. Depending on what you have lying around, you can always repurpose or reuse some materials as long as they haven’t been treated with harsh chemicals that could leach into your healthy, growing food.
To build the beds, my husband, Jason, made some cuts and pieced the wood together, screwing in each corner twice and bracing it with a triangular scrap of wood at the bottom. Our board lengths were 12 foot 3 inches each, so each finished bed ended up measuring 12 foot 3 inches long by 4½ feet wide, and approximately 12 inches deep. Jason also took a two-by-four and braced the bottom center of each bed, just to help keep it from bowing out after we added the soil and fill. In the past we hadn’t done that, and after a couple years the beds got a little misshapen. I doubt that would happen with these beds since the wood is so thick, but we decided to do it anyway as a precaution.
Next, I layered. Going with a no-till approach to these garden beds, we got to put lots and lots of cardboard boxes left over from our move to good use. I started cutting cardboard and covered the ground inside each garden bed, directly on top of the grass. I was happy to preserve some of those boxes in some way. They are riddled with drawings and writings of my children, and using them this way seems like a happier solution than burning them. They’ll still just decompose and break down into the earth, but I like that better than the thought of fire, which seems like destruction to me. I don’t know how I can be sentimental about things like this, but sometimes I just am.
At one point my children came out and thought these boxes must be for them to play in, right? Nope, move over…it was time to add some hay. Jason brought a truckload of old hay from a nearby farm’s chicken barn. Chicken poop has a really high nitrogen content and typically should be fully composted before using it in the garden. While I don’t think that the chicken poop mixed in with the hay was completely decomposed—and it was definitely not composted— we did not add a concentrated amount. It was old, and I don’t think it will cause a problem simply by being included with a layer of the hay on the bottom of the soil. By the time any roots grow down to that level, if they do at all, the poop should be well decomposed.