Question: I’m new to gardening and would like to try raised-bed gardening. What should I know to get started?
Answer: Raised bed gardening is one example of intensive gardening. The fundamental goal is to create an ideal plant environment. The benefits of raised bed gardening are better yields with less space, water, soil amendments and labor.
There are a few things that are required before you actually start planting. First, you must have an early, thorough plan for the best use of time and space. Second, you must consider plant interrelationships, nutrient needs, shade tolerance, above and below ground growth patterns and growing seasons.
Raised beds are one of the oldest and most successful methods of gardening. Raised bed gardening has many names: biodynamic/French intensive, bio-intensive, the deep bed system and the wide bed system just to name a few.
If you are interested in learning more, an excellent book to read would be “How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible in Less Space than You Can Imagine” by John Jeavons.
The primary focus for raised bed gardening is to rapidly improve soil structure and fertility. Raised beds avoid soil compaction because you are not stepping on your soil. All the soil amendments are protected within the boundaries of the raised beds and not on the garden paths.
Raised beds can simply be mounded beds of soil. Raised beds can also be a constructed space using wood, stone, bricks or some other type of rigid material. Regardless of which you choose, the width of the bed should be about 2 to 4 feet wide, 2 to 12 inches high and as long as you desire.
The width is important because you want to be able to reach all parts of the bed without stepping into the bed. If the bed is too wide, you will find yourself stepping into the bed, which defeats the purpose.
Getting your soil tested is a wise investment because you can then amend your soil based on science. It may be necessary to add some type of natural fertilizer to the raised bed at some point. Too low of a pH level is bad for the soil, but so is too high a phosphorus level, which is often caused by a prolonged use of large amounts of manure. An annual soil test will take the guessing out of what amendments to add to your raised beds.
Homemade compost is the best choice to fill your raised beds because it contains a wide variety of ingredients, so it gives your plants a wide variety of nutrients. The organic matter in compost also increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.
Once the garden bed is prepared, it is time to decide what to plant and how to lay out the garden. The French Intensive Method allows for the planting of crops so that the leaves of the mature plants will just touch one another. Seed packs and the labels included on the seedlings will provide you with the necessary information about plant spacing.
Intensive planting suppresses weeds, as the leaves of nearby plants fill in and shade the soil.
The location of any raised bed should be near a source of water. If you have just a few raised beds, soaker hoses will work fine. If you have a lot of raised beds, you will probably want to invest in a drip irrigation system.
Another type of a raised bed garden is using small, raised garden boxes that are at least 6 inches deep, separated into a 1-by-1 foot grid pattern. Beginning gardeners may especially like this method because all your attention can be put on one grid at a time.
Mel Bartholomew, the “square foot gardening” expert, recommends filling the boxes with a growing medium made of one-third peat moss, one-third vermiculite and one-third blended compost. Following his method, fertilizer is not added and no soil testing is done. You rely on the compost in the growing medium for nutrients. If this interests you, I would suggest reading “All New Square Foot Gardening” written by Mel Bartholomew.
Raised-bed gardening is a very common way to garden in the Pacific Northwest. Raised beds allow you to concentrate your efforts only on where the plants grow, without wasting compost or water on unplanted areas. This method of gardening results in high-yields, and I would think, high levels of personal satisfaction.