Sunday, April 17, 2011

Making Raised Beds

Making raised beds

Last year at this time I was busy making raised beds for my garden – my first garden since moving to this property in October 2009, and my first real garden in fourteen years.  I grew up with traditional gardens; spade up or rototill the soil in the spring when it can be worked, plant in long narrow rows with wide paths, and spend the growing season fighting the weeds.  I grew up with that method but wasn’t happy with it.  With Fibromyalgia, I knew that the only way I could have a garden is if I didn’t have to get down on my hands and knees and bend over all the time.  For years I read about square foot gardening and raised bed gardening.  With this property, and at this time in my life, I knew it was time to put all I had read into practice.

How high to build the raised beds?
Most raised bed gardeners will tell you that only twelve inches of raised bed is needed – that may be true, but it wasn’t tall enough for me.  I knew it would take more height to get to the level of comfort I wanted – no bending and no getting down on my knees.  So I made the beds using cedar fence boards – for the berry canes I went two boards high – about 10 – 12 inches high.  But for the other beds, I went 3-4 boards, or 16-22” high.  (Six inch cedar fence boards are really about 5.5 inches wide).

Starting from scratch with an ordinary yard
Here is what the yard looked like before I started building the beds ( and after my daughter and son-in-law chainsawed down the hedge that was shading the whole back yard):

Chain link fence went to a good home, and I hid the fence posts
Here is the same view after I had the front yard beds built for the raspberries and was working on the back yard beds:
Metal fence posts are now clad with cedar for tomato supports

How I built the raised garden beds
These beds are 6' by 3' - all cedar, with a cedar 2 x 4 in each corner, and two 2x2's on each side.  I put them where they needed to be, dug a hole with a hand trowel in each corner, sunk the corner posts till the cedar boards hit the ground, leveled as best I could, then dug a hole inside where the 2x2's would go, pounded them in, screwed the boards to the posts, and then starting putting dirt in.  After the first couple of boxes, we found it was easier to unscrew the boards from the narrow ends and wheelbarrow in the dirt until we ran out of room, screw back on the boards and finish filling up.  I used deck screws (for longevity) in all the boxes.   I know the cedar will start to deteriorate after awhile, but this way, I can just unscrew the boards that need replaced and put new ones on.
Set corners in ground, level, add dirt, then screw on ends

Front yard:Raspberries, Currants, Marionberries, Strawberries, Herbs, Apple tree
Choosing what to put where
This shows our dirt we had delivered, the raspberry/currant/marionberry beds in the background, then the strawberry bed in the middle front there, my rosemary and apple tree (I grew from a seed) to the right, and the beds to the left would become peas, carrots and tomatoes.  Notice the metal posts here and there -  more on those in another blog.

Pie Pumpkins take over the front ( and were great in muffins, bread and pies)
Setting supports for the Raspberry Beds
Another view of the raspberry beds, and the pic above this one is looking at the front beds about September - when the two pumpkin plants I put in the corner of the rosemary box were taking over the aisle space.

Two months later - so much abundance!
Raspberries after they started producing.  I think my granddaughter ate most of what was produced.  We had raspberries up till early November.

 This shows the tomato bed in detail (I planted them way too close together, and had to move the marigolds out because they were overshadowed) - this was right after I planted them and before I put on the row cover - which saved my tomatoes from the torrential downpours we had last year and gave me a great harvest:
We were also inundated with cucumbers, salad mix (mesclun) and radishes

Advantages of Raised Bed Gardening
The reward for all this work came for me last summer when I could take either my little stool or a resin chair, and sit and do all my planting, weeding, harvesting sitting down or standing.  No bending over and no getting on my knees.  Sure, I had to do that while I was making the beds, but I was building for the future.  Already, I know that I can’t do now what I did then, so am glad I did all the building a year ago.

My other reason for finally doing raised beds is that I have a lot of experience in amending soil – too much experience.  My parents had a property with a lot of clay and it took almost ten years, tons of rotted manure, leaves and grass clippings before the soil was really fit to produce anything.  My first house in southeast Portland used to be part of the Columbia river bed – I think we took about four pickup loads of rocks to the landfill from the garden space.  And it was too sandy to really hold water – it also needed a lot of compost.  Every time I moved I found that I had to amend the soil in order to garden, and that takes time and a lot of backbreaking work.  I didn’t have the time or the energy with this garden.
The cost of purchasing soil mix
In a raised bed, you can use your own soil if it is good, but if it isn’t you can get good soil, or compost, and mix it in as you fill up the beds.  I was fortunate to have a supplier of a topsoil/compost mix less than a quarter mile away ($25 a cubic yard for the mix). I had the choice of picking it up myself a half-cubic yard at a time ( all my little truck will hold) or having it delivered.  I chose to have it delivered, which cost me $20 – well worth the price for the wear and tear it saved on my truck (and on me!).  They could also blow it in, like they do barkdust, and I would have done that, but we had such a wet spring last year and the soil was so heavy, that they couldn’t do that.  So I just had it dumped in a spot near the garden and then my son-in-law did most of the shoveling and dumping the soil into the beds.

We did test the soil when we got it, and sprinkled on some lime and some other amendments, working it into the soil as it was shoveled into the beds.   I knew this was the right approach to take this spring when I went out in February to plant peas – there must be 7 – 10 worms per square foot!  They love this soil.  Soon, it will be full of earthworm castings, giving us even more nutrients.   Next post, I will share how we protected the beds from the horrid weather of 2010 and actually got a tomato crop when others were failing.  Also, will share what modifications I made this spring to improve on my designs.
How much does it cost to make a raised bed?
If you don't have the money to get the materials for raised beds, don't let that deter you - plan on planting something anyway!  But even if you get one bed done a month, in a year you will have the beds you need for the future.  Having a garden is all about planning for what you are going to be doing over the next 5- 7 years.  I paid about $1.65 for an 6' 2x4, $1.35 for a  6' 2x2, got a deal on the cedar fence planks - between 99 cents and $1.29 ( some were kind of bad but I could use at least 1/2 of the board).  I used 9 fence boards for each bed (3 high), so the cost per bed was roughly $13 - $14.  I looked for sales at lumber yards ( this time of spring is good for sales as they want last years stock gone) and spread the cost over a couple of months.  I had budgeted $50 a month for the garden when I moved in October 2009, so had some money for the initial outlay.

It is not too late to start building your raised beds!

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