I have to admit that I was a reluctant convert to raised bed gardening. I grew up gardening in tilled soil and I loved it. I loved the smell of freshly turned dirt and I enjoyed plowing and rotor-tilling. I always grew good crops that way and well, “if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it” has been my motto. Then we moved our family and cattle herd to the St. Lawrence valley, in the Thousand Island region of northern NY. The new farm lays very low and the soil is heavy clay. Clay ground can grow fantastic crops but our farm is wet, and wet clay is a vegetable growers worst nightmare. After several less than successful (dare I say completely failed) attempts at gardening on the new farm, we took the leap and started using some raised beds. The results were fantastic and we have been busy building more. I have become completely sold on intensively planted raised beds for the production of our annual crops. Let me tell you why…
Our biggest obstacle to growing vegetables was the poor drainage of our land combined with the very short growing season. Sometimes it would be the middle of June before we could even think about tilling soil, sometimes the end of June, and sometimes we just gave up waiting and had to “mud the seeds in”. Moving the crops “above sea level” has opened up tons of opportunities we didn’t have before. Since building the raised beds we can actually plant peas and onions in April, something we could never imagine doing before.
Intensively planted raised beds have the potential to grow more food per square foot than conventional gardening. This can be accomplished by filling the beds with very fertile materials produced on the farm and incorporating vertical gardening methods. Some people claim that intensively planted raised beds are not sustainable and have to rely on outside fertility. This is hogwash. If you have animals on your homestead, all the fertility you need can be produced right on your own place through the production of high quality compost. Our beds are filled with composted manure and hay and then topped off with the same every spring. By growing your annual crops in a smaller space you free up more land for perennial trees and shrubs, pasture, and other uses.
Above is the process simplified. We lay newspaper on the bottom of the bed and fill with composted manure and hay. We plant our seedlings and then step back and watch them grow!
Easy To Adapt To Vertical Methods
Lately, we have been adding a trellis along the long edge of one side of each raised bed. This is accomplished by screwing a 4ft 1X1 at each end and then attaching the trellis to these upright posts. I’ve been using woven wire fence because we have some laying around, but you could use wire, snow fence, cattle panels, or store bought trellis material. Doing this allows me to plant a row of climbing crops on the edge of each bed and plant the rest of the bed to other crops. Adding vertically grown crops such as cucumbers, pole beans, peas, spaghetti squash, or indeterminate tomatoes can increase the productivity of raised beds to unbelievable levels. For more information on vertical gardening, see Fell’s excellent book Vertical Gardening: Grow Up, Not Out, for More Vegetables and Flowers in Much Less Space
Here is an example of how I incorporate a trellis in a raised bed. This had just been planted and gives a good view of the wire. The upright posts on the ends are ripped 2X4’s. The wire is woven wire sheep fence. The T-post was driven in the center for added support. I planted a row of cucumbers along the wire and after they could be harvested from the back side of the bed.
Easy To Implement Season Extenders
Raised beds make season extending options easy to adopt. The entire bed can be transformed into a mini green house with some conduit and plastic sheeting. We have just begun to experiment with all the ways to incorporate season extension into our beds, but having four corners and something solid to attach hoops to is a big plus!
Although it took me a while to adopt raised beds, I must say that it was the best thing we ever did. It not only took care of our drainage problems, it opened up many other opportunities as well. If you’ve never tried gardening with raised beds, I encourage you to build one and experiment with it. You just might love them as much as I do.