Raised-Bed Backyard Gardens

From greenhorn to green thumb
By Adam Swenson

There are few more simple, pure, and earthy pleasures than tending a small crop and tasting its sweet rewards on a warm evening in late June, the sun on the horizon, the heat dissipating from the summer day. With hands caked in earth, you pick a snap pea and pop it in your mouth. It is the most direct possible connection to one’s food—a pleasure that does not depend on ignorance.

Those readers who are urban (or suburban) dwellers and haven’t gardened before might be intimidated by the wealth of knowledge and skill needed to go from the flicker of an idea to harvest time. Read on: we’re going to answer those questions, still those fears, and have you gardening in no time.

Selecting your space

The most important criterion for growing fruits and vegetables is sunlight: a spot that gets six to eight hours of sun a day is called “full sun.” Four to six hours of sunlight is called partial sun and will work for some things. Look for a spot with southern or western exposure. If there’s a slight downward slope to help with drainage, that’s great, but it’s not essential.

The raised-bed or container garden

With a raised-bed or container garden, you can make your garden as large or small as you want. A raised-bed garden is anything that has at least six inches of dirt on top of the ground below it—that will be enough to smother out grass or any weed seeds in that soil. With a raised-bed, you’re essentially starting from scratch.

Anything can be a raised bed: the border can be a little rock wall, boards nailed together, or chicken wire circled together and tied off. Alternatively, you can just mound up six inches of soil to start with. (If you want to go smaller scale, all of these recommendations will work with planters or even window boxes. Or if you are more of the reuse/recycle mentality, an old tire with the sidewall cut off will work fine. You could also just plant in a five gallon bucket or a Rubbermaid bin— use your imagination and have fun!)

Raised beds should be no more than four feet wide so you can easily reach into the middle without stepping on and compacting the soil. Compacting the soil makes it difficult for the plants to grow roots. If you’re going to have more than one raised bed or container, leave three feet between them if possible to make it easy to walk between them or get a wheelbarrow through.

Pizza garden or a salad garden

One fun twist on the raised bed concept is to group your foods by what you’ll make with them. The University of Kentucky forestry department suggests planting a “pizza garden” that would consist of onions, green peppers, banana peppers, tomatoes, basil, parsley, and oregano—or whatever ingredients are your favorite. There’s no law that says you have to plant in rows!

You can also try a salad garden with green peppers, cucumbers, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and one or two species of leaf lettuce. With head lettuce (iceberg, et al) you get one head for the season. With leaf lettuce—like oak leaf or romaine—you can cut leaves and it will grow more.

Soil: the foundation for healthy plants

What makes for great garden soil is a subject of debate among avid gardeners. The University of Kentucky forestry program suggests a mix of garden soil (you can get it in 50 pound bags from your local garden center), compost, and a porous material like vermiculite in equal portions. In his excellent book, The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer suggests equal parts compost, peat, and topsoil.

There are, of course, no rules for this. If you happen to live in an area with good soil, you can just dig up some dirt, fill your raised beds, and plant in that. The downside to this approach is the likelihood that weed seeds are in the soil, and it will not be as rich as a garden soil/compost/vermiculite mix.

Or, as Florida master gardener Bob Dickey does, you can simply plant right in the compost. If the material has been properly composted, it will be rich in the microbes that help support plant life and all the seeds in the soil would have been killed by the high temperatures at the center of the compost pile—from 130 to 150 degrees!

To compost or not to compost?

There’s an old tongue-in-cheek saying among organic gardeners: “Compost happens.”

Composting is a great way to create your own super-rich growing environment for your plants. Traditional composting can take two to six months to turn a pile into compost: here’s a recipe for very quick compost using beer, cola, ammonia, grass clippings, and dirt.

Drunken Compost

• 1 can of beer (12 oz)

• 1 can cola (12 oz)

• Ammonia (8 oz)

• Grass clippings

• Dirt/compost

Mix beer, cola, and ammonia in a spray bottle that will attach to the end of your garden hose. Start with a layer of dirt in an area that gets at least partial sun. Wet layer of dirt with spray bottle—when you spray on the pile, the hose will be diluting the mixture. Next throw on a layer of grass clippings. Wet with mixture. Add dirt/compost in a thin layer so grass is covered. Wet with mixture. Continue until grass clippings are finished. Make sure after the final layer of grass to add enough dirt to cover—we don’t want the sun bleaching out the grass. Note that you can also add eggshells and kitchen scraps (not meat or dairy) to the pile at any point. Soak mixture and leave for one week. It will compost from the inside out—the inside of the pile will heat to 130 degrees or more, breaking down the plant matter and killing any weed seeds. Turn with a pitchfork after one week to achieve even composting. When it is evenly dark brown and rich with the appearance of good soil, it is ready for your garden. Recipe courtesy of YouTube’s Reaganite 71.

[Editor’s note: for those of you who have objections to using cola and ammonia in your composting, our guess is that sugar water would work well as a substitute for the cola, and you could try organic blood meal, manure, or coffee grounds for the ammonia. If any of you have the gumption to try that and see how it works, drop us a line at editor@naturalsolutionsmag.com to let us know how it went.]

Planting: what and when

What to plant is really a matter of personal preference, but if you’re starting an early season garden, you’ll want to stick with cold-resistant species. Spinach, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, English peas, and kale are a few good choices. Beets are also good and are a “double duty” plant as you can also eat the greens on top in salads or sauté them. Most of these species can be planted about a month before the last expected frost date for your area. (In St. Paul, Minnesota, our last frost is expected on May 21. Those to the south of us will have an earlier date for last frost.) It is helpful to know which zone you are in: your zone takes into account climate and helps you know when to plant specific crops. Here in southern Minnesota, we’re in zone four. Texas ranges from zone six in the very north to zone 10 in the southern tip. You can find your USDA Hardiness Zone at garden.org.

When you plant, follow the instructions on the seed package as to soil depth and watering. In lieu of using water when planting, many master gardeners use “compost tea” which is extremely effective and easy to make. Get a bucket, put a few handfuls of good compost in the bottom, and add water. (If you have city water, let it sit out for a day before you add it. This will dechlorinate the water—chlorine kills microbes and we want all the microbes we can get.)

Let the compost tea sit for a little while: stir it up some. The water will be a dark, murky brown. Put this in your watering can and use that to water your plants—they thrive on it!

Vertical gardening

Vertical gardening is a great way to make the most of a small space. Many vegetable species (tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, zucchini, and summer squash) do very well growing vertically. In The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer advises that you read the packages carefully, looking for vining or pole types instead of bush types.

Just make sure that the plants have something to grow up onto like a tomato cage or chicken wire stretched out and nailed to boards anchored in the ground or screwed into the side of your raised bed. As they’re growing you may need to encourage them (train them) to grow vertically. Once they’ve started going vertical they’ll keep it up.

Harvest time

As fathers have said to sons for generations: “You’ll know when the time’s right.” Enjoy your produce!