Most everyone I speak with has worked in, or at least seen, a row garden. These are the standard gardens in which plants are grown in well-defined rows with paths left between to allow access for cultivating and harvesting.
While row gardens have been the standard for centuries, planting a garden in which so much area is worked up only to remain unused is inefficient, especially where space is limited. I believe there’s a better way.
Raised-bed gardens are designed for walking around, not in. A properly planned raised-bed will be just wide enough to allow a gardener to easily reach to the center of the bed while working from the sides. This allows more plants to be grown in a smaller area, resulting in more production per square foot. In fact, by some estimates, yields can be two to three times as much in a raised-bed garden than in a standard garden of equal size.
Staying out of the bed also means gardeners need not worry about soil compaction, which can reduce crop yields by as much as 50 percent. (Water, air, and roots all have difficulty moving through soil that has been compressed by tractors, tillers or human feet.) And access areas between raised beds may be left in sod, mulched or covered with crushed stone, patio stone or brick so there’s no need to worry about muddy feet.
Raised beds also make it possible to turn otherwise unusable wet or compacted sites into areas of fertile, well-drained soil. In fact, gardeners can produce an abundance of nourishing, flavorful vegetables and vigorous flowers in areas one might never have thought possible.
And raised-bed terracing can turn non-productive hillsides into bountiful, aesthetically pleasing garden sites. It’s even possible to garden on top of pavement or on a patio.
In the spring, raised beds will warm up more quickly than the ground does. And, if properly constructed, they will dry out considerably faster after a rain. In addition, raised beds can be designed so they can be covered to keep rain off plants and soil when we experience too much. Covers can be used to extend the growing season and deter pests and diseases.
What’s more, soil conditions are more easily controlled. You can fill raised beds with soil mixtures that have been prepared ahead of time to offer superior structure, drainage and nutrient-holding capacity or to meet the special needs of a challenging crop. Soil is the foundation of every garden, and it’s much easier to begin with superior quality soil than it is to try to improve poor soil. Starting with the best soil possible will support better root growth and result in higher yields and lush growth of ornamentals.
Having permanent bed structures makes it easy to integrate decorations, such as trellises and fences, into the design. And by trellising large vining plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupes, raised-bed gardeners can maximize their use of garden space.
Raised beds can be a blessing for persons with limited mobility or for those who must garden from a wheelchair. Unlike row gardens, beds can be elevated to a height that makes it possible to tend gardens without having to bend. Raised-bed gardens may be designed to include benches built into the framework or as “table” gardens, allowing elderly gardeners and those with limited mobility, or who use walkers, to sit comfortably and even socialize.
The availability and expense of construction material depends upon the desired appearance of the final product in the landscape. Generally, wood-based products are less expensive than masonry materials, such as concrete blocks, bricks or quarry stones. But I’ve seen fieldstone used in place of lumber and the result was quite striking. Resourceful gardeners may even be able to find used bricks or blocks at little or no cost.
Although pressure-treated lumber and landscape timbers are extremely popular, there remains considerable debate about safety. Therefore, I would recommend not using pressure-treated lumber for fruit or vegetable gardens.
A better alternative is wood that is naturally decay resistant such as cedar, hemlock or tamarack. These woods are extremely durable and can be found locally. Easy-to-assemble raised-bed kits made from locally sourced northern white cedar will be available for purchase at the workshop. The finished product should last for many years.
Recycled plastic lumber is yet another alternative to consider.
Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
If you would like to learn more about raised-bed gardening and raised-bed garden construction, you can attend a free raised-bed gardening workshop being offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County in cooperation with Bonesteels' Gardening Center.
Date: Saturday, May 24. Time: 10 a.m.
Cost: Free. Location: Bonesteels' Gardening Center, 2689 State Route 11, North Bangor.
Registration/Information: Call Cornell Cooperative Extension at 483-7403 or email email@example.com