Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
July, 2008
Regional Report

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Raised beds of vegetables can be as pretty as an ornamental garden, plus the bounty is delicious!

Raising Up Vegetables

One disadvantage of being a "professional gardener" is it's hard to relax around an unkempt garden. My fingers twitch, resisting the urge to pull every weed and move daylilies from shade to sun. No judgment here, just instinct. So garden tours can be stressful as well as inspirational.

Enter the tidy, attractive, raised bed vegetable garden that was the first sight on a recent visit to several private gardens north of Philadelphia. What a relief! I didn't want to lift a hand except to nibble young beet greens and pull an onion. Built along the property's driveway and near the kitchen, this collection of four 5-sided raised beds surrounded a classical fountain.

Wood or composite sides? Hard to tell. The beds' neutral borders and the wide, white/gray/tan gravel paths gave a spacious feel. Plenty of room to put baskets for collecting beans, chard, and lettuce.

Why Raised Beds?
Garden beds 12 to 24 inches above ground make for easier reaching, working, and harvesting. Experts recommend beds making raised beds 3 to 4 feet wide so plants are within arm's reach. Soil in a well-made and well-maintained raised bed is 8 to 12 degrees warmer than in-ground soil. Crops grow more quickly; vegetables are ready for eating sooner.

City gardeners say raised beds are the only way to grow food crops on lots cluttered with building debris or contaminated with who-knows-what -- lead, construction material, manufacturing chemicals. Suburban and country gardeners who've tried to muscle their way through dense clay, stone patches, or hard pan take to raised beds for their ease.

We of a certain age are contriving ways to make our raised beds even taller; 24- to 30-inch sides mean less bending.

In a raised bed, the gardener controls the soil mix. I like one-third mushroom soil, humus, and compost; or humus, leaf mold, and aged manure. There's limited space for weeds, especially if you plant a cover crop or green mulch such as clover. There's also less room and need -- meaning less expense -- for mulch.

A raised bed built of stone, concrete, or composite material may need the occasional readjustment. Untreated wood (pine is preferred) will need replacement every five or six years.

Planting Raised Beds
Vegetables need full sun so select a site with a southern exposure. Use the space to your best advantage. Doing a rough sketch and planning ahead are especially helpful in light of limited room. You can plant in rows or create triangles or squares to group plants with similar watering needs.

Put tall vegetables such as tomatoes and trellised vining crops on the north side so they don't shade other plants. Interplant cool- and warm-weather crops. That way summer veggies -- maturing beans, tomatoes, and squash -- fill in after spring crops of lettuce, radishes, spinach, and peas have reached their prime and are in the compost pile. Train winter squash vines around corn and trellised pole beans.

Come August, replace frazzled bean and cucumber plants with cool-season broccoli seedlings, Brussels sprouts, and new sowings of spinach and lettuce seeds. Bon appetite!

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