Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Raised garden beds let you be creative in growing vegetables and enjoy easier maintenance.

Build Your Garden Upwards

When my family settled on the western slope of Colorado, they knew the site they chose was rocky, but the view and lay of the land was ideal. As the farmhouse went up, the magnitude of the situation became apparent. A layer of sandstone rock was inches beneath the soil surface on the property.

In those days they didn't have modern earth-moving equipment to make way for the water lines; it was all done by hand labor. Combining rock with areas of clay, the area around the house posed a challenge for gardening. With determination and sweat, my grandmother worked hard to make it happen. Over the years she added rotted chicken manure, cow manure, composted hay, and other sources of organic matter. Her garden produced an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which were canned. Root crops stored in the root cellar.

If, like my grandmother, you have troublesome soil, be it rocky, hard clay, or fast-draining sand, try gardening in raised beds. They can be built from native stone, bricks, cinder blocks, lumber, even bales of hay -- whatever materials are handy.

One of the advantages of raised beds is that they let you create your own soil from scratch. You needn't buy topsoil that is variable in quality, but can use native soil amended with compost and well-rotted manures. Compost is generally less costly and provides for a richer soil for fruits and vegetables. Leaves that have been shredded; lawn clippings (from lawns not treated with pesticides of any kind); tender, young, non-seeding weeds; and vegetable scraps from the kitchen can all go into a compost pile or pit.

Locate your raised be in an area that receives at least six hours of full sun daily. If it's not a square of rectangular garden, then informally outline the space with a garden hose to suit your style. Even if you're replacing lawn areas, you don't have to dig up the grass. Cut the sod into small pieces and turn it upside down. This is the no-till method of soil preparation.

Be sure to water the area thoroughly and once soaked, spread a three to four inch layer of straw or grass hay over the entire bed. Then, water well again. This layer acts as a barrier against weed and grass re-growth and will turn enrich the soil with organic matter as it decomposes.

Spread soil on top of the straw layer; use native fill soil or good topsoil mix at the rate of two yards per 75 square feet. Next, add 40 to 50 pounds of compost or rotted manure per 75 square feet. Incorporate the organics four to six inches deep and allow time for decomposition to occur, about three to four weeks. So now is the time to get started with the no-till raised beds.

When planting season arrives, you will be ready to plant your raised gardens. Since the soil mix may still be a bit hot from composting processes, it is best to set out transplants the first year. Years following you can safely plant seeds.

During growing season, soil micro-and macro-organisms will aid in the decomposition of the organic materials and use up nitrogen. Each gardening season add extra sources of nitrogen such as composted chicken manure, a good compost, or rotted cow manure.

The increased depth of soil in raised beds promotes healthier root growth and good drainage. The rich composted materials help to retain moisture and nourish the plants. Mulch your raised beds with straw and leaf mulch to keep weeds from invading. The mulches will eventually add more organics to the soil in the beds.

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