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How-To: Raised Garden Beds

Christine Mitchell Adams April 24, 2015

Spring is officially here, and with warmer days comes a renewed appetite for fresh vegetables and herbs. Installing a raised garden bed at your rural or urban home is a great way to grow your own produce year-round.  And beyond providing you with delicious chemical-free food, you’ll find that maintaining your new garden is a pretty pleasant and rewarding activity. We got in touch with a couple pros for a comprehensive guide on how to start and maintain your own raised garden bed(s).

Just a couple of Holly's raised garden beds at her home in Maine

Holly Jose has a renowned green thumb and tends to some of the most beautiful and lush gardens near her home in coastal ME. She attributes her father and Barbara Damrosch’s book, The Garden Primer, as the main sources of her vast gardening knowledge. Here are some tricks she uses with her own large raised beds.

-Whether you have limited or ample space to build your bed on, the size of the frame is key. If you make the bed too wide, you have to climb in to tend to it. Four feet wide is perfect and it is nice to have a path wide enough for your wheelbarrow.

-Place new bark mulch between the rows of your beds every other year. Every spring, add compost to replenish, and sometimes bone meal. In the fall, Holly also covers all the beds with seaweed, which is packed with nutrients. 

-Rotate where you place plant varieties as some plants deplete the soil. Holly makes a little drawing of her plant placement each year so she can keep track.

-Try straw, not hay, for mulch. You can add pine needles as well and some more seaweed.

-If you find slugs meddling with your lettuce, place crushed mussel shells around the plants. Slugs hate crawling over the shells. They feel pain too!

-Don’t bother investing in row covers. If you think the night is going to be cold, recycle the black plastic pots and pop them on anything you think may get nipped.

-If you live in a colder state, like Holly is, hold off planting anything tender such as peas and mesclun until May.

-Don’t be afraid to pack your bed to the brim with plants. More plants means less room for weeds.

- Mulch helps keep the moisture in which is important as raised beds dry out sooner than a traditional row garden. Holly keeps a few cans and milk jugs of it around. 

Green City Growers' raised garden beds

Jessie Banhazl, CEO and founder of Green City Growers in Somerville, MA, has been helping urban-based businesses and individuals install and kick start their raised-beds since 2008. GCG has since worked with over 6,000 people to create raised garden beds for homes, schools, and businesses. Here she shares some essential tips to keep in mind for your urban gardening.

-If you’re going to buy a frame kit do not use pressure treated wood, the treatment can leak into the soil. A lot of recycled wood is pressure treated so be careful of this. GCG uses Douglas fir for their frames and they treat it with a non-toxic wood stabilizer.

-An urban dweller should be aware of the toxicity of their soil. Lead contamination is common in urban areas. Be sure to place weed block (spun polyester fabric) and hardware cloth (similar to chicken wire) at the bottom of the raised-bed. You can also call your local extension office to get your soil tested.

-The quality of the soil you use for your raised-bed is very important. GCG uses a mix they make themselves. In an urban setting, it can be difficult to get your hands on enough top quality soil yourself (unless you own a pick-up truck). You can also purchase a ton of potting soil. Jessie recommends Coast of Maine organic potting soil if you go that route.

-For successful growing, you need at least 12in of soil. And at least 18in of soil for perennials. Anything less, and your plants will not thrive.

-Because raised-beds dry out quicker and have a different dew point than an in-ground garden, you can start planting earlier and it will freeze later.

-The best part of a raised bed is you can grow food on anything! Raised-beds can be placed on top of any surface, including concrete, rooftops, and gravel. 

-Raised-beds can also be built at any height, making it easy to customize it to your needs. GCG has built handicap-accessible raised-beds for clients with a variety of physical constraints.

-If you need a helping hand through the process, GCG has created a helpful national list of resources

Do you keep raised garden beds at your home? Share your own tips and suggestions in the comments!

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