Gardners work is never done

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener


     A gardener’s work is never done.  It is late October and still I am harvesting vegetables from my raised beds.  Many flowering shrubs are having a second bloom season and we are finally getting hints of autumn color in the woods.  Even if you have decided that you are finished with your gardens for the year, you may want to do some planning for next year.  It really is the perfect time to build a new garden bed.

     I am a big fan of raised beds, both in the vegetable garden and the landscape.  There are several advantages.  As I get older, I appreciate that raised beds put the garden closer to me.  I have several beds of different heights and each has its advantages. 

     Some beds are tall to allow tending them from a standing position.  These tall beds are generally either boxes on legs or deep beds.  The boxes, of course, require less soil to fill them, but they usually require more watering to keep the plants growing well.  Such boxes on stilts have few applications in the ornamental garden, but are handy for raising vegetables, especially greens.  Equipping them with a watering system will make the irrigation problem go away.  The boxes also have the advantage of putting greens out of the reach of rabbits, though they may become feeding troughs for the deer.  The amount of soil needed to fill them is the main drawback for standing height beds.  They also require more building materials to construct.  When filling a tall bed, I have often resorted to using something other than soil for all but the top foot or so of the bed.  Some sources recommend using stone or plastic bottles in that bottom portion of the bed.  However, most experts say the change in media will be adverse to plants with deep roots, so this is not advised for perennial beds.  However, one may use things other than potting soil.  I have had good luck using old rotten wood to take up a lot of space.  The wood will absorb moisture and help control the amount of watering you will need to do.  The drawback is that the soil level will drop as the wood decomposes.  However, adding several inches of good compost to a bed each year will result in a healthy growing medium, so that will take care of the problem.

     Mid-height beds may be tended from a seated position.  Such beds are necessary for wheelchair users, but anyone may benefit from them.  As with the tall beds, mid-height beds may be either solid or boxes on legs.  The boxes may be best for wheelchair users, allowing one to pull into the garden like a table.  The solid beds require reaching in from the side to tend the bed.  The soil decisions are really the same as for the tall beds, but the mid-height beds require less soil.

     Finally, one may build raised beds that are a foot or less in height.  These beds will still require stooping, kneeling or bending for tending that cannot be accomplished with long-handled tools, but they have the distinct advantage of allowing one to have more control over the growing medium.  Such beds are extremely helpful if the natural soil is not good or if there is little soil over a rock base.  Raised beds allow one to put the soil where it is needed for the crops.

     Next week, we will look at other considerations, such as building materials and bed shapes.  In the meantime, you may want to get started by preparing a location.  I suggest getting large cardboard boxes and lay them down where you want to build beds.  The cardboard will smother out the grass and weeds that have been growing there, but will still allow water to filter into the subsoil.


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