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Raised Bed Gardening by Lisa Vitello

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    Since we were “suburb born” rookies when we first made our move to the country, we have gleaned from a lot of different resources to educate ourselves regarding the skills required to grow food.  What we often found ourselves doing was taking a little knowledge here and a little there and then practicing those ideas in our garden.  Some practices we have continued through the years and others we chucked.

     One of the really useful things we learned was the concept of intensive planting.  In his book How to Grow More Vegetables(than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine), author John Jeavons opened our eyes to the fact that one doesn’t have to necessarily follow the recommended spacing instructions on the seed packages.  By growing plants in a raised bed which has been prepared for optimum production, you truly can grow more than you ever thought possible.

     Jeavons champions the double dig method of prepared raised beds.  This involves digging out a 12” layer of soil, setting it aside, loosening another 12” layer beneath that, and then replacing the first layer, combining it with compost and other organic matter.  While this does indeed create an incredibly rich environment for plant growth, it is extremely labor intensive.  We tried it and quickly realized that to grow the large garden we envisioned would take more energy and time than either of us possessed.

     We came up with a compromise of sorts.  Guy built raised bed frames out of redwood, ranging in size from 6x4x12 to 20x4x8, depending on what we wanted to grow in them.  We placed these over ground that we had rototilled and amended with compost, fertilizer and other minerals such as green sand and bone meal.  We added store bought soil mix.  Our favorite brand here on the North Coast is Organic Gardener, produced on McClellan Mountain, just east of us.  Ask your local nursery what they would recommend for your area.

     Store bought planting mix can be expensive.  What we have done over the years is created a couple of new raised beds each season.  That way, it is not a huge expense all at once.  We also till up a large plot, adding steer manure and minerals, for our big crops like corn, green beans and tomatoes.

     Because we grow a very large garden, we try to start many of our plants from seed.  However, for a first time garden with just a couple of raised beds, purchasing starts won’t be too much of an expense.  While you are at the nursery, browse around for catalogs or brochures on local growing conditions.  Most nurseries will have these available.  These ought to give you a good idea of what grows well in your area and when to plant.  Don’t be afraid to ask nursery employees questions.  Most of them are there because they enjoy gardening and can be a gold mine of knowledge.

     Whether or not you have a lot of space to grow a garden – try starting out with just one 20x4x8’ raised bed.  You will be amazed at how much you will be able to reap from such a small space!  You can even grow quite a bit in smaller containers, like half whiskey barrels and large pots.

     Let’s take the example of that 20 foot bed.  Below is an illustration of what you might be able to plant in it: 
You could allot three feet for the lettuce and other salad veggies, four feet each for the bush beans, zucchini and strawberries and another three foot section for the snap peas.  That leaves you with six inches of space between each section.

     The peas can be planted as seeds in the early spring.  Buy the type that will climb up poles rather than the bush variety.  That way, they will go up instead of spreading out and taking up too much room in your bed.  One quick and easy way to create a natural “trellis” for your climbing peas is to use cut branches from trees.  If you don’t have any, ask someone you know who has trees to trim.  They will probably be glad to get some of the cuttings off of their hands.

     The lettuce, green onions and other salad greens like parsley can be bought as starts and also planted in the early spring.  Spinach can be sown as seed right in the bed.  Strawberry plants can also be put in at this time.  Wait until later in the springtime to put in the green beans and zucchini as seeds.

     Remember, you can plant closer together than normally indicated on the seed package or plant information.  When plants grow closer together, the leaves from each plant touch the other ones, creating shade underneath.  Weeds cannot grow as profusely in that shade.  This works best if you plant in a triangle pattern, rather than the typical straight rows, as shown below:

    Therefore, if the lettuce planting instructions say 12 inches apart, place them eight inches apart instead.  If the seed instructions say to thin the seedlings so they are three inches apart, thin them two inches apart, and so on.  As long as you have prepared nutrient rich soil in that bed and fertilize the plants, they will do just fine.

     For those of you who are really short on space, you can still enjoy the pleasure of eating your own, homegrown food by planting a small salad garden in a half whiskey barrel.  These barrels are normally available at your local nursery, but I’ve seen them for sale in local classifieds and usually at a much lower price.  So it pays to check around.

     The most important thing to remember when planting in a barrel is that you must be sure to drill a couple of holes in the bottom for water drainage before you fill it with dirt.  These barrels were made to hold liquid and unless you give the water a way to drain, it will stay in the barrel and drown your plants.  Trust me; we learned this the hard way.

        Fill the barrel with planting soil, leaving about six inches of space at the top.  Sprinkle some all-purpose organic vegetable fertilizer over it and work it in a little.  For this mini-garden, we recommend one cherry tomato plant in the middle. Plant several varieties of lettuce around the cherry tomato, then green onions and herbs like parsley and cilantro around that.

     If you live in an area with very hot summers, be sure to look for lettuce varieties that resist bolting (going to seed).  Keep the lettuce, onions, and herbs going all summer long by cutting off what you want at the base rather than pulling out the entire plant.  New growth will come back again and again.

     Don’t wait for the perfect time or the ideal growing situation.  Just try planting some veggies in the ground somewhere and see what happens.  Our first garden was in the backyard of our Southern California tract home.  We had no idea what we were doing – just tilled up the grass and threw seeds in.  God blessed our fledgling efforts with a very bountiful garden that year and we have been hooked ever since.  We learn something new every growing season.    

Editor's Note:
Lisa Vitello, editor of New Harvest Homestead Newsletter, invites you to subscribe to her newsletter.  You will receive a complimentary copy of Breakfasts for Busy Moms - Kicking the Breakfast Cereal Habit, by Marilyn Moll for new subscriptions.  This is a $6.97 value.

Lisa will speaking about gardening February 7, 2008 during our regularly scheduled free Continuing Education for Moms Seminar.  To receive contact details, email


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