by Elsie Eide Kelly
Most of us, at some point, have toyed with the idea of doing a raised bed garden. If you’ve ever nailed together four boards, set them on a patch of dirt and filled it with soil, compost, and seeds then you’ve done it! If you watered it, chances are you were able to grow something and experienced success. You can use just about any kind of container or built-up framing to raise some vegetables, but remember to make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom (or no bottom) so that excess water will drain out.
I got the bright idea to use old apple crates, the wooden 4’ by 4’ kind. I found some for a good price and set about collecting them. I was sure that if I filled them with composting barn waste and paddock pickings I would have the best garden imaginable. The really good part is that I wouldn’t have to bend down to tend them, all throughout the year!
So I set them along a fence line about four feet out (so I could work all the way around them), spaced them four feet apart, and started filling them with partially composted waste from the horse barn. I layered old hay and straw in between tractor bucket loads of compost. I heard they call that the lasagna method. You don’t turn the compost, which suited me fine since I have a slight lazy streak. You just leave it up to nature to cook it. I let the boxes stand for almost a year, watering them regularly to keep the composting soil moist, then started planning what to plant. Over the winter, compost settled down a foot or so into the boxes which works out fine because you just add more after your harvest and before next spring planting time.
After hand watering them the first year, the second year I tried in-line sprinklers that I hooked up to short hoses, which I made with connecting hardware. This worked well but I wasn’t completely satisfied with them so I purchased a drip irrigation kit to string along the boxes and added a timer to ensure they would be adequately watered. All I had to do was turn the timer on every day and let it do its work. It was wildly successful. I grew melons, kale, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and rhubarb. I hadn’t filled all the boxes with plantings and had to keep pulling the grasses and weeds that had volunteered in the open ones, even without much water! I have now heard that the boxes should not be allowed to dry out in the summer if you’re not using them because they will compost better with moisture.
Something to consider, perhaps, is the fact that some planters can be a little ugly so a coat of paint will make them pop. That’s the plan this year as I experiment and progress in my gardening attempts. Also, fastening black plastic or permeable dark covering over the soil in early spring will help to draw in the sun, warming the soil a little faster for good results when seeds or seedlings are finally planted. You can then either remove the plastic when planting or cut holes to allow plants or seeds to be set into the holes. And make some slits in the plastic (if you keep it covering the soil) because you’ll need to have the water able to sink in.
This is a learning experience and is pretty forgiving if you’re not an experienced gardener. These ideas can be applied to any size gardening box or container. I’m lucky to have a tractor to use in filling my large boxes. No matter what size your container is, just keep in mind a few steps. It’s important to stay on top of weeding otherwise the weed roots will dive deep securing their tops and making it harder to pull them. (Don’t forget that weeds like compost, too). Regular watering is vital, especially if you live in drier climates. A timer on your hose will make a big difference. You won’t have to remember to turn off the water. Keep an eye on the moisture level in the soil, especially around the plants. That way you can determine if you’re providing enough water (or too much). You may want to consider curving a 12 or 16 foot hog or cattle panel either over or between the boxes if you’re going to grow vining plants. The panels make excellent climbing structures for melons and the fruit will hang down making it easier to harvest. Also, saving the net bags that produce from the grocery store often comes in, allows you to use them for wrapping around the fruit and attaching to the framework so that they are supported as they grow. That’s a handy trick I learned.
Put some thought into what you will grow. If you won’t eat it, don’t plant it. Make sure your growing season is long enough and warm enough to grow what you want to plant. Don’t forget to add some flowers for a colorful show. Think about the fact that the soil in the planters will shrink down with time, so don’t plant permanent crops like rhubarb until the soil has settled some so that the plants won’t end up too deeply settled down into the planters. And, lastly, don’t plant too many zucchini. You won’t believe how many a single plant will produce!
Stay tuned for photos this summer showing my hoped-for success or at least honest attempt. Good luck with your adventure into raised bed container gardening. Guidance and tips are available on the internet so you won’t be left alone to figure out what to do.