Why We Use Raised Beds For Our Annual Crops

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…

Drainage

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.

Productivity

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.

Why We Use Raised Beds

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

Why We Use Raised Beds

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!

Summary

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.


9 thoughts on “Why We Use Raised Beds For Our Annual Crops

  • April 28, 2015 at 12:44 am
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    Really enjoyed the article Scott and it reminded me of some of the failures I’ve had over the years trying to garden until I began raising my veggies in raised garden beds. Now, I’m finally getting the hang of gardening ( and canning ). There is so much to learn.

    I have three raised bed gardens the largest being 12′ X 12′. I’m kind of a lazy gardner though. During the winter time I throw my uneaten veggies and fruit into the 3 gardens to compost and then let mother nature break down the compost and till it back into the soil in the spring.

    My question is why do you put the newspaper at the bottom of the bed? I take the newspaper and spread it on the top of the already established soils and throw a couple of inches of dirt over the paper to control weeds and retain moisture during the hot summer months in Ohio. Just curious.

    We also have a clay issue and because of that clay layer, the ground is constantly wet. The raised beds certainly take care of that issue!

    Best!

    Snake Plisken

    Reply
    • April 28, 2015 at 3:55 am
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      Hi Snake, thanks for the comments. I put the newspaper in the bottom in an effort to keep the grass and weeds from pushing up through the compost. The deeper ones I don’t always bother. I’ve done some with and some without and I’m not sure it whether it makes a difference or not, but if I some paper available I lay it down.

      Reply
  • April 28, 2015 at 11:27 am
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    No weeds.
    I just added new soil to both my raised beds. I pulled maybe two dandelion weeds/flowers.
    I started with one wood, then added the next year one with blocks.
    Blocks allow the holes for my marigolds that deter insects.

    This year I even added a trellis made from old wood and kite string to one end nailed to the wood for my cucumbers.

    Reply
    • April 28, 2015 at 11:58 pm
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      I also plant marigolds on the corners of my raised beds JJ. Not only do they look good but supposedly chase off many bugs that like to eat our gardens.

      One thing I’m really excited about is that I found a praying mantis cacoon ( sp) on one of my tomato plants last fall and have carefully stored it in a mason jar out of the weather on the front porch. I suspect they’ll start hatching in the next few warm weeks and I’ll turn them loose so they can roam the yard and garden. They are murder on the insects in the yard and garden plus they are one of the coolest bugs ever,

      I found my first wasp today and i don’t bother them ( unless they become a problem ) because they too eat all kinds of garden eating insects.

      I need to do a little more research though. I use NEEM, which is Tea Tree oil based to fight off any fungus and keep harmful bugs off the plants but I need to make sure it isn’t toxic to the helpful bugs.

      Best,

      Snake Plisken

      Reply
  • April 28, 2015 at 11:29 am
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    Block raised beds are my way to go from here on out; I need larger?? Just add a few blocks.

    Reply
  • April 28, 2015 at 7:19 pm
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    Thanks for the article, it was very informative.

    I just have two questions. What kind of wood should be used for the beds, pressure treated? Also, is the newspaper ok to use in something my family and I will eat? As a cancer survivor, I just want it to be as safe as possible.

    Thanks again!!!

    Reply
    • April 28, 2015 at 8:25 pm
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      John, we just use non treated lumber because the pressure treated stuff will leach into the plants. If you can get hardwood, it will last longer. I have one bed made with oak that will probably be around for a long time. I just made a 10X4 this evening out of spruce 2X6s. It won’t last forever but I haven’t got a lot of cash at the moment and my scrap pile is depleted 😉 As far as newspaper, I’m not aware of any health risks related to it. You could always just peel off the sod and skip the paper. Sometimes I haven’t done either but there are a few weeds here that will push their way up though a foot of compost!

      Reply
  • April 29, 2015 at 5:20 pm
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    I’m still looking for seeds like that munchin in blue!!! 🙂

    Reply
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