Thursday, January 1, 2015

Raised Bed Planning

To Raise or Not to Raise:  That is the question

Recently one of my gardening/blogging friends asked me “is there anything about gardening in raised beds that sucks relative to growing in rows in much larger plots?”  My first response was “Potatoes”.  But it’s a valid question and one I’ve given thought to over the years.  If I had a Do-Over, what would I do differently?  Today is New Years and with that (and this stack of mail order seed catalogs) the 2015 garden planning begins.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  It’s Newton’s Third Law of Physics.  There is no such thing as a completely positive experience.  There is always downside.  Always.  I love gardening in raised beds.  I hate trying to put potatoes in them.  There.  That’s my equal and opposite reaction.  Not that it’s a deal breaker.  It just has its limitations.  Honestly, the best way to grow potatoes is in pots.  Or a stack of old tires.  But even that has drawbacks.  So first, let’s revisit the positives of gardening in raised beds.

A tidy bed edged with 4"x 4" ties with gravel paths will cut down on
work and expense and be aesthetically pleasing

First and foremost, raised beds offer a longer growing season.  In the spring the improved drainage will ensure that your soil is warm and dry weeks if not months before everyone else’s.  And, you don’t have to wait for those windows of opportunity to haul out the tiller and/or tractor to prepare your soil.  When you clear your beds in the fall, you are preparing them for spring.  All you have to do is tip toe out there on some warm, sunny day and poke a few seeds in the ground.  It’s as easy as that!  And because you don’t have to get the tractor onto the sodden, muddy, frozen ground you also don’t have to worry about taking down or putting up any fencing like we used to do when we used the tractor to till.  The beds and their protection are permanent fixtures.

Tim brings the tiller out to the potato patch each spring and wonders
why it is not working as well as when we stored it away.  It never fails.

A very close second to the longer growing season is no paths to maintain.  Let’s face it.  In a traditional row style garden there is about 3 times as much space devoted to path than to row.  This means you are spending most of your time defending soil which is not working for you.  You plant two rows, and in between is 3 or 4 feet of trodden down, compacted, weedy, likely muddy, soil which has to be weeded all season, and then uncompacted for next year. 

Not only are my seedlings getting a good start, the weeds in the paths are flourishing

And why are all these weeds flourishing in the paths?  Because you are watering and fertilizing them.  That’s right, you are wasting time, effort, and money feeding your weeds and then pulling them back out!  Duh!  Having your plants rounded up into neat beds, and planted close together means you only have to maintain the soil right in and around your plants.  And that is where your water and fertilizers or soil amendments will be concentrated.  There is quite simply a fraction of the manual labor, cost and time spent on raised beds as opposed to traditional row cropping.

In the fall, a layer of chopped leaves is weighed down by a layer of composted horse manure.
New growth of garlic pokes through.

Another benefit of raised beds is the ease of lasagna gardening.  Because you are not walking on your soil, and fertilizing weeds growing in it, you never have to fluff the soil or grind up the weeds and turn them under.  This means that over time you will have fewer and fewer weeds.  And more and more earth worms (because you aren’t destroying their tunnels).  Because you never really have to turn your soil, you just keep adding layers of organic soil amendments, feeding your worms, blocking your weeds, and going on your merry way.  And because you are not continually tilling your soil, and you are rounding it up into structured beds, you get less erosion.  If you have to garden on a slope, you can lay out and construct tiers or terraces to work with the lay of the land and even turn a useless piece into a productive garden.

So those are the benefits.  What are the challenges?  Well. Permanence is your challenge.  Along with space limitations.  Plan poorly, and you have to live with it for awhile.  So it is very important to plan well.

#1.  How much space do you need?  This is where square foot gardening concepts come into play.  A tomato plant requires at least one square foot of space.  However, if you plant indeterminate varieties one foot apart, you may find you have over crowded them.  A pepper plant requires one square foot of space.  Intersperse your tomatoes and peppers and the relative height of the plants reduces your crowding.  If you generally plant a 10 foot row of bush beans, remember that you can plant two or three "rows" 6 to 8 inches apart and get twice as many beans into the same length.

#2. What will your bed dimensions be?  Don’t make the beds any wider than twice the length of your reach.  This means about 4 feet.  But if you use 6” x 6” material, and you make your bed 4 feet wide, you will only get a 3 foot width of growing space.  Consider for a moment trying to hill potatoes in a 3 foot wide space.  Adding soil and then having to remove it again at harvest... Ahh!  See?  It sucks.

Careful mapping out of crop requirements allows you to maximize planting.
Here bean and cucumbers coexist peacefully
and later in the summer, the sunflowers in the center
have grown tall enough to support the climbing vines.

#3.  What will your rotation be?  To make crop rotation planning easier for the rest of your life, figure out how many crop types you will plant and then build beds in multiples of that number.  Vegetables are divided into 6 main families.  By avoiding planting the same family in the same spot two years in a row, you limit the establishment of diseases that destroy those crops, as well as avoid stripping your soil of whatever nutrients that crop uses most of.  I grow mainly Solanaceous (Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes), Legumes (Beans and Peas) and Cucurbits (Cucumbers,melons, squash, pumpkins, watermelons).  So I need at least 3 beds, or 6 or 9. I grow two beds of each type, so my minimum is 6 beds. Additionally you should allow at least 4 years between repeating crops, not 3 like I usually get.  Ideally, I would have at least 8 beds allowing me to rest one bed a year, and keep up my rotation. 

Cucumbers,melons, squash, pumpkins, watermelons
Beans, peas
Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes
Chive, garlic, leek, onion, shallot
Carrots, parsley, dill, fennel,coriander, parsnip
Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage,cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips

#4.  Are all of your beds really going to be equal?  To further complicate my rotation, not all of my beds get the same amount of sun.  Because of the placement of the garden shed on the east, and a partial tree line on the west, the southern row of beds gets about 2 hours a day less sun than the northern row of beds.  Hhhmmmmpppfff… 

Foliage color shows me that the blood meal added to the right side of the bed
should have been added to the left side as well.
And you will find “dead zones” in your soil.  No matter how carefully you amend, you will periodically find an area in your beds that isn’t producing as well as it should.  Or you might get a pest issue in one bed and need to spend a season solarizing it or resting it.  Plan more beds than you think you need!

Remember, not all of your beds have to be identical.  If I had a do-over I would build three different sizes of beds.  I would have a few half sized beds for herbs, or onions or cut flowers or just experiments.  Sure, you can plant half a bed, but having half sized beds appeals more to my planning and asthetics.  I would have double size beds for crops that require more space like potatoes or melons.  We have added two double size beds after the fact and they are outside of the garden fence.  This means we have to have alternate methods of deer/rabbit defense.  That is usually in the form of a crop cover.  Easy enough for low uniform height crops like beans or even potatoes, but not feasible for tall items like tomatoes or pole beans.  Which means the unprotected beds have their own rotation.

Tall hog panel fencing can be reinforced at the bottom with hardware cloth
which will keep out smaller pests like woodchucks and rabbits.
Speaking of fencing.  Fence the whole thing.  The bigger the better! Our garden shed is outside our fence.  Which isn’t a big deal, but when you leave the garden shed on the way back to the house, it would be easier to know you have just shut the garden gate behind you rather than remember if you shut the garden gate 10 minutes ago when you left the garden on the way to the shed.  And those nice pots of petunias by the shed door?  Not protected.  Cold frame?  Not protected.  You can’t leave the lid open during the heat of the day and be sure that Bambi isn’t going to wander by and stop for a snack.   Patio?  Not protected. I can’t leave a bunch of flats of seedlings in the partial shade of the patio because there could be hoof prints through them by tomorrow.  Apple trees?  Not protected.  You catch my drift.  Put a large perimeter fence around your entire gardening world.  You won’t regret it.

This 8' x 8' bed gives me the space and flexibility to more easily maintain crops
such as potatoes and melons, but since it is outside the fence it forces me to be creative protecting my
crops from deer and rabbits

So this is my Do-Over Raised Bed Planning list:
1.       Build a couple more beds than you think you will need.
2.       Don’t lock into one dimension, or even shape.  Give yourself some flexibility.
3.       Fence in as large an area as you can afford.

4.       Study you sun patterns very carefully and remember that any structures or plantings you add in the future may affect them.

      There are a few things I would do differently, now that I've lived with it for awhile, but one thing I will never do is go back to rottotilling and rows style gardening.  I'm a raised bed convert through and through.

Footnote: One thing I failed to mention is the material chosen for the walkways.  It probably deserves it's own blog.  We have landscape fabric covered in gravel.  It is clean and easy to maintain.  Weeds (and tomatoes... and cat nip... and pansies) do grow in it but they are easily removed one by one or en masse with a metal rake.  The gravel collects and holds heat which is great in a cooler climate like western NY, but may be too much in the deep south where added heat is not a benefit.