Vegetable Gardening in a Raised Bed
Anyone who has tried to dig a garden bed out of our clayey Michigan soil knows that it takes an almost Herculean effort to make it thrive. There is a solution: raised beds. They have so many advantages that raised beds are the only way I grow my vegetables.
First of all, you don't waste your time fighting that losing battle against poor soil, because you are filling your raised bed with perfect soil from the get-go. Raised beds dry out quicker in the spring, and the soil warms faster. You can make them whatever size works for you. Also, with very little work after the initial construction, you will have beautiful, light, fluffy, nutrient-rich soil to plant in year after year.
The success of your raised bed depends on large part upon where you put the bed. Your raised veggie garden should be in full sun--at least eight hours per day. Ideally, the site should also be near a water supply, garden shed, and your compost pile (you do have one, right? Don't worry. We'll be covering that topic soon enough!)
The materials you use to build your raised bed will depend largely upon your personal taste and your budget. Mine are built of six inch wide pine boards. They won't last forever, but building a garden out of pressure treated lumber is a really, really bad idea. If you have a larger budget, cedar boards are a good choice, since they are more resistant to rot than pine is. Of course, stone or brick would make a great bed, too, but they will cost you more. The advantage is that you will never have to worry about rot. There are plenty of people who don't build any kind of an enclosure, simply raking their soil into flat mounds with sloping sides to shed excess water. I'm not a fan of this method because I like my soil contained. Also, the structure gives you a nice place to sit while you're weeding or planting.
Preparing the Site
This is the most work you'll ever have to do on your raised bed, I promise. If your bed is going in an area that was established lawn, as most beds do, you'll have to clear the grass. The easiest way to do this is with a straight-head shovel. It takes a bit of work, but that's the hard part, and it is done. After the grass has been removed, use a garden fork to loosen the soil. There is no need to go crazy digging here. Why make it harder than it needs to be? Just stick the fork in the ground as deeply as you can, give it a wiggle, pull it out, and repeat. That's it. Gardening doesn't have to be torture.
After loosening the soil at the bottom, it's time to put your structure in place. If you chose wood, construct your frame (being sure to use galvanized screws so they don't rust,) and set it in. If you chose stone, bricks, or cement block, go ahead and construct it now. The best advice I can give here is to construct your bed as levelly as possible. To level it, just add or remove soil underneath the structure until it is level. You want everything nice and even. If your bed is sloping, it's not going to be pretty when you water. Picture your very own miniature Tahquemenon Falls...
Filling the Bed
Now that you have your perfectly sited, sturdily constructed, wonderfully level bed, you have to fill it with something! My personal preference is to fill the entire bed with compost. I never have enough on hand, so I buy the bagged compost they sell at Lowe's and Home Depot. It does the job wonderfully. It is light, fluffy, full of nutrients.... perfect for growing everything from carrots to spinach. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using topsoil. It's less expensive, and, given some slow-release fertilizer and the addition of some organic matter (shredded leaves, grass clippings) in time, it will be just as good as the compost. However, if you are impatient for results, I'd go with the straight compost, or a compost/topsoil mix.
Now comes the fun part: planting time. You can put your transplants, or direct-sow into the bed. The beauty of it is, you don't even really need any tools besides the ones at the ends of your arms. The soil, whether compost or amended topsoil, will be so light and fluffy that planting will be a dream.
After you have your transplants in, you will want to add a couple of inches of mulch. It will help keep the soil moist, and you'll spend a lot less time weeding. If you have direct-sown seeds, wait until they are established before you mulch. I personally prefer cypress mulch, but everything from cedar chips, to cocoa hulls, to grass clippings will work wonderfully. It's really up to you and what you want your garden to look like.
Here is where the true beauty of a raised bed comes in. At the end of the season, just rough up the soil, maybe mix in some shredded leaves that you have raked up from around your property. Throw in a handful of slow-release fertilizer, and you're done. Come spring, all you have to do is add some more compost if your soil has settled a lot over the winter, rake it smooth, and plant away. And because raised beds warm and dry out faster than regular beds, you'll be planting even earlier than before.
I hope you'll give this method a try. It is a lot less daunting to plant a garden every year if you don't have to spend so much time preparing a bed. I spent less than twenty minutes prepping my two four by eight beds before I planted this spring. As a result, I could focus on the enjoyment of simply planting seeds, listening to the birds, and feeling the cool air on my skin. Now, that's gardening! ITGO