Raised bed gardens make weeding, watering and fertilizing a breeze

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By: Jim Carpenter

Nick Whitt/Flickr

I have been working a little harder in my garden lately. I am actually doing more physical work now than I have for a while as I change around things in preparation for Garden 2016.

As I was thinking of the different possibilities out there, I realized why late summer/early fall is such an ideal time to make big changes in the garden. With some crops removed and much more predictable weather, it is easier to have dry soil to work with. This would be an ideal time to construct new beds to be ready for next year. This made me think about my raised beds.

It is said that some people must make mistakes in order for learning to adequately occur. I think I might be that type of person when it comes to trying new things in the garden. Between my gardening classes, books, and the Internet, I certainly had a fair idea of what I wanted to accomplish when I started to put together my first raised bed. I say “put together” because I elected to use cement blocks as the raised bed support. Not only that, I had decided I wanted to be able to simply lean over and be right on top of my plants. I decided I would go four blocks high. I also went with what I knew to be about the maximum workable size, 4-by-16 feet. This didn’t turn out so well.

The morning after my Amish neighbor had used his Bobcat to load what must have been 6-8 tons of topsoil into my cement block framework, I knew I had a problem. The top rows of block were bulging out in a serious fashion. Then it was off to Menards for metal posts, cable and turnbuckles. I drove in the posts every three feet on both sides of the bed. I then fastened the cable between the posts and tightened them up a little more with the turnbuckles. This held the walls together but the spread between them was a little wide for ideal reach. My daughter remarked it was the ugliest raised bed she had ever seen!

I really like my raised beds but there are a few drawbacks you need to be aware of when you build them. Since that first effort with four blocks high, I went to three blocks high and reduced the size to 3-by-12 feet. This proved much more manageable. Of course, most people use cedar or redwood planks and don’t make their raised beds as high as I made mine. I estimate I have used more than 35 tons of topsoil and probably around 500 cement blocks to construct my six raised beds. There is a labor factor!

“I sometimes like to joke that I consider myself a lazy gardener, but I sure do work hard to be one!”

Other than potential difficulties in construction, one of the negatives of raised beds are that they tend to dry out faster than the rest of the garden. I mitigated that problem by lining the sides of my cement blocks with plastic. They still drain through the bottom, but at least they don’t wick out through the sides of the beds.

To me, the greatest thing about raised beds is in the management of weeding, watering, and fertilizing. It is simply easier to stay on top of these necessary tasks when you are working on a surface that is closer to you. I have read that because of this, it is possible to have your plants closer together and still reap maximum benefits.

I especially like to plant my onions and carrots in my raised beds. These two vegetables benefit greatly from a weed-free environment. In most cases, I find I only need to spend about 10 minutes per week weeding each of my raised beds. My wife was watching me work on one of my raised beds last year and made the comment, “If something ever happened to you, this would be my garden.”

Last year, I built what will probably be my last raised bed when I decided I wanted a strawberry patch that would be easier to control. This time, I only went two blocks high and it appears to be working out just as I had hoped. It will be much easier to keep the strawberries contained and hopefully my weeding and fertilization will be more effective.

I am finding that as I grow older and try to back off a bit on the physical aspect of gardening, raised beds are a good way to go. It does take some initial effort to construct the beds but once they are in place, they require very little maintenance. I sometimes like to joke that I consider myself a lazy gardener, but I sure do work hard to be one! 

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