Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2010
Regional Report

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Building raised beds from a kit can be relatively easy.

Raise Those Beds

Sometimes Mother Nature throws us a curve. On second thought, it's really that we've messed with Mother Nature and things are the worse for it. So we adapt, with projects such as building raised beds for vegetable gardens.

Left on its own in an ideal environment, soil would normally become more healthy and humus-like - as it does in woodlands and forests. Native plant populations would be strong and well-balanced, providing food and shelter for critters from minuscule insects to four-legged mammals.

Unfortunately, natural systems are way out of balance. The hard reality- literally and figuratively- is that soils in residential areas tend to be poor, devoid of nutrients and compressed into nearly impenetrable clay or layers of stone mixed with construction debris. On top, invasive plant species take over too easily.

Why Raised Beds?
We're constructing three raised beds because growing vegetables in this backyard location hasn't been very successful. The area is home to lesser celandine (an invasive species, aka fig buttercup), grass weeds, and a turf grass mix that leaves packed, gray soil in its wake.

Lesser celandine is a very persistent pest plant with multiple bulblets and tubers. It's an early spring ephemeral with a pretty yellow flower people like. It is an alien thug though, forming large, dense patches that displace other plants, including vegetables, turf grass and precious natives.

We removed most of the lesser celandine that the owner had heaped into a mound of soil. We also dug deeply to lift off miscellaneous swathes including bulblets and tubers as best we could. We bagged plant bits and infested soil in plastic to reduce possibility of spread.

Preparing for the Soil Mix
To further clear the base soil inside the bed frames, we pulled out weed grasses, then flame-weeded other grasses and vegetation.

The three kits of notched cedar planks (4' X 12' x 16.5") were packaged in cardboard. We used that cardboard as weed control (rather than layers of newspaper) inside the frames to cover the base soil.

On the Level
Putting the planks together was relatively easy, thanks to the enclosed drawing, clearly designated hardware, and simple, sensible design. The trickiest aspect of construction was building level frames on gently sloping terrain. Through trial and error, we realized it was best to first make the frame by connecting all four sides of three plank layers, then adjust so the 12' long sides were level, sliding stones or bricks or wood slats under the frame to center the level's bubble. We stapled metal flashing to the wood to reduce potential rot and keep soil and water inside the frame.

Getting Our Fill
Fortunately, the township offers excellent, processed-on-site FREE leaf mold for pickup. Each bed got half rich composted leaves and half good topsoil amended with composted mushroom soil. We mixed in alfalfa meal and a slow-release mineral fertilizer for immediate and longer-term nutrients.

For the finishing touch, we flameweeded paths between the beds, then shoveled on four inches of free, township-processed woodchips for weed control and comfortable, mud-free walking and gardening.

Next installment: Planting Veggies and Keeping Rabbits Out of the Lettuce.

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