Raised Bed Gardening
by Irving H. Baxter of Potsdam, NY
We gave up on gardening for a while. Like so many other places, our home had only one suitable location for a garden. The other areas on our property didn’t have good sunlight exposure or conflicted with other uses. Nope. It had to be on the south side of the house or nowhere. For a long time it was nowhere, for in addition to ample sunlight and convenient access, the site was blessed by quack grass only a duck would love, more clay than your average ceramics factory and stones that would put any rock quarry to shame.
Being the stubborn sort, I tried it anyway for a few years. Clay soil can be amended; stones can be picked and removed. We added compost and picked rocks until the cows came home and left again, but still the plow wouldn’t cut in, and the tiller bounced off it like a rubber ball on a concrete playground. Carrots had gnarled, twisted roots that were more in the air than in the soil. The tomatoes and other pre-started plants did fairly well, as long as we chiseled out a bucket sized hole and filled it with compost to plant in. Of course, in a wet year, it was like walking a greased slide, and in dry years it was a baked ceramic parking lot. Eventually even my stubbornness had to admit defeat. We smoothed the top as best we could with rakes and bulldozer, leveled the rocks into a semi-smooth surface, and let the quack grass have its way with our lovely southern exposure and hiked to the store for our fresh vegetables.
A few years passed, and I kept looking at that perfect, sunlit garden site and watched the price and quality of fresh veggies skyrocket. I knew there had to be a way. Researched in all the gardening books I could find and skimming through every gardening magazine on the newsstand lead me in only one direction. That soil (to describe it charitably) had to go. My first thought was to have a front end loader and other machines of mass destruction come in and take away the top foot of so-called soil, and replace it with the sandy loam so glowingly described by gardening gurus. Pricing this option yielded a massive case of sticker shock. Removing the old soil(?) could be afforded with difficulty, but replacing it with the perfect topsoil cost a king’s ransom!
My mind whirled (and threatened to turn into butter) as I tried to reduce the cost and still get the job done. Why waste good soil on walkways? I would simply mound the purchased dirt into windrows and plant there. Good idea. Patting myself on the back, I recalculated the cost. Hmmmmmm. Better, but still too hard on the budget. Maybe if I only had the top six inches removed — WAIT! Why have ANY removed? I could kill the quack grass with plastic sheeting and pile the dirt in wide neat rows. Still – the rain will spread it out. The kids and dogs will stomp it flat. Better contain it a bit. Boards along the edges soon became wooden boxes to hold the precious soil tightly in neatly organized containers, container gardening was something there was a multitude of information about.
As is usually the case with me and my bright ideas, I got the cart before the horse. I had found a person who would sell me good topsoil at a substantial discount. Figuring I better hurry before it was gone, I ordered two dump truck loads. Within days, two massive piles of friable, deep black garden soil sat next to the crab grass orchard we were going to make into a showplace. Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked far enough ahead to see the need for materials to build these raised beds from, so we hurriedly started gathering whatever planks and posts I could get my hands on. It was a motley selection, but hammer and saw soon had our first seven beds built. Four feet wide, by eight feet long by one foot deep, each was calculated to hold (for the most part) one kind of vegetable. Seven beds was equal to seven vegetables, with the exception of the lettuce bed that also held radishes, kohlrabi, green onions and other salad ingredients. For obvious reasons, we called that one the salad bed.
The planting part was still in the future as we finished nailing the planks to the 4×4 corner posts, leveled them roughly and passed out shovels to begin moving the multi-ton piles of rich loam into the beds. Although interested and willing helpers during the construction phase, our five sons soon discovered homework that simply had to be done right then, chores that needed to be done just then, and other mandatory reasons they couldn’t help dear old dad in the garden. Being the father of five boys, I had earned a Master’s Degree in Applied Threats & Coercion, and soon put this problem in our past. I considered threats of violence and loss of privileges, but settled on simple old-fashioned bribery. A crisp five-dollar bill to each of them when we were done, and the dirt was flying by sentence end. Cautioning them not to waste the soil, I slid back casually and assumed my rightful role as supervisor, leaning on my shovel to keep it from falling over.
Worried that the evil quack grass would grow up through our new soil and take over the beds as well as it had the rest of the garden site, I had lined the bottom of each bed with heavy plastic sheeting to smother it out. In retrospect, I did it wrong. Twelve inches of fresh soil is enough to kill the weeds, and the plastic would have been better used on the sidewalls of the bed. Being raised up into the wind, the beds dried at a rapid pace. When other gardeners were watering weekly, I had to water every other day to maintain adequate moisture levels.
To skip ahead, those first seven beds had a few problems, but were nonetheless the best garden we had grown to date. The tomatoes grew spectacularly and ripened on time. Carrots grew long and straight. The peppers did well after a shaky start, and the other vegetables did well above average. No doubt was left in our minds. This was the ONLY way to garden. Not only was production well beyond expectations, our backs no longer ached for days after working in the garden, nor was there a profusion of weeds everywhere we looked. To fit in all the plants we had, the spacing recommendations on the seed packs were thrown out the windows, and we stuffed plants and seeds in every spare inch. This led to our most dramatic discovery – intensive cultivation, or living mulch as it’s also known. I have now found out that this is a poorly kept secret and has been used for centuries in China and France (and doubtless other places as well). By carpeting the growing space with desired plants, weeds simply cannot compete for food, water and sunlight once the vegetables get a good start. We weed quite a bit the first few weeks to give the seedlings a chance, but hardly any after that. Even here, the raised bed system works with you by allowing the gardener to sit on the edge and pull weeds comfortably, or kneel alongside the bed and using the side to support the body while reaching and yanking the pesky green vermin.