Sure, you’ve got grow boxes or mounded earth beds but what makes a complete raised bed garden? Following are some simple tips and personal recommendations for beginning your food producing garden.
Building a Complete Raised Bed Garden
For me, no garden in complete without perennials and pathways. Why? Because a garden is a special place – like a schoolroom, a chapel and a playground all rolled into one. I’ve never only built raised beds and left my garden at that. I want fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, groundcovers and even, in appropriate places, lawn. I’m a closet permaculturist who just hasn’t quite crossed over it to full blown food forests in my yard yet. Consequently, the following advice will include all those aspects. It is in NO WAY meant to be comprehensive. It’s only a place to start.
One thing I’ve learned about gardening is that if you spend most of your time growing the best dirt you can, the plants will take care of themselves. You can do framed beds or you can simply created raised earth beds, hemmed in by wood chips. Whatever bed you chose, I would suggest spending a goodly amount of time creating layers and layers of organic matter – this is sometimes called lasagna gardening or the Back to Eden method, but it’s really just a permaculture principle – here’s my Pinterest board on Permaculture if you’d like to peruse it.
If you’re starting your growing areas from scratch, put down layers of cardboard everywhere to cover the grass – unless you really feel like digging out the sod but it’s back breaking work. Then start piling on the compost, mulch, even sticks and branches – you can investigate Hugelkultur to learn more about the water saving properties of burying wood in your garden.
Here are some thoughts on mulch and compost, and the difference between the two.
There’s also growing in straw bales which seems intriguing – here’s a real life experience post.
So, you have your raised bed garden set up, now what goes around and in it?
The most efficient watering systems are soaker hose-type set ups, if you can afford them. Overhead watering can encourage airborne diseases and, especially in dry climates like mine, a good portion of the water vaporizes into the atmosphere before it even touches the plants. This can get expensive and is wasteful, whatever your source for water. You can deep water with soaker hose systems which is something you have a harder time doing with sprinklers. I suggest learning all you can about various methods before you spend money and time developing a water delivery system. I will say that the more permaculture principles you apply in your garden, whether in-ground or container, the less you will need to water. It’s like magic.
What to grow
- The perimeter around your yard is a great place for an edible hedgerow. The more food producing plants you can cram in, the better.
- Here are some veggies to grow in the shade. Here are some herbs medicinal herbs to grow in the shade. Some gardeners figure the shady spots are dead space in their yard – not so!
- Here are some ideas for heat loving plants for those sunny spots.
- Plant a few fruit trees, even if they’re only dwarf trees. Never underestimate the power of trees and woody shrubs in the garden. I order all my fruit trees and other food producing perennials from Raintree Nursery. They sell many varieties of dwarf and semi dwarf fruit trees, bred to be disease and pest resistant specifically for organic, backyard growers.
- My favorite ground covers (great weed suppressors) for my area are Alpine strawberries (produce a tasty, pineapple flavored strawberry), mother of thyme and creeping potentilla. Here’s a post on groundcovers that might be helpful. Ground covers are key to success in low lying places. As useful as some weeds are, especially for green manure and chicken food, we don’t want them taking over and groundcovers can help keep them at bay. We grew salal and winterberry in North Carolina but our Utah winters are too harsh. What are your favorites where you are?
- You may have several places to trellis grapes which, unlike a fruit tree, can come into full production in their second year. Don’t forget grapes.
- Any grass you want to keep can be intermingled with steppable ground covers for ease of maintenance. If the only time you walk on your grass is when you mow it, maybe it’s time to consider growing something more useful in that space. However, some grass can be a wonderful place for children to play and it can be a worthwhile way to control erosion and hold moisture in the soil.
- Edibles like peppers, Swiss chard, kale, onions, leeks and all lettuces/mustards/chois look lovely as they grow and are particularly suited out front if you want to maintain some semblance of ornamental-ness to your yard. Herbs, too, can be planted just about anywhere. Here’s a post on how to plan and plant a medicinal garden, as well as some plant suggestions.
- I suggest every gardener learn how to grow plants from seed. Here’s a great post to get you started with that. For those who plant out seed in the raised bed garden, here are some wonderful posts on making your own seed tapes and mats for outdoor planting – here’s one and here’s another.
- Your local agricultural university may have a planting calendar they produce every year and/or suggested planting schedules for your area. Use them and save yourself from pulling out your hair trying to remember it all.
I suggest deciding what kind of composting system you want to use and try to produce as much as you can in each season so that you don’t have to purchase as much. Here’s a traditional three bin system; tumbler type system and vermicompost system – here’s more about a tote system and this one is more about a worm tower in the garden. You’re going to need a lot of compost each year – way more than you think you will. Compost any chicken or other livestock waste you have access to, as well.
If you’re lucky enough to have backyard poultry, and you need another project, consider building a moveable chicken tractor for moving the chickens to fallow areas in the garden so they can clean up any unwanted bugs or garden scraps. They fertilize as they go, too, and the whole process will save you labor and time. Even if the chicken live most of the time in a static coop, having a small, moveable one can be really helpful. Here’s one idea but you can build to suit your needs. Here’s another that I’ve always wanted to try.
My favorite way to create pathways is with a cardboard foundation and piles and piles of woodchips. As you walk on them and the seasons come and go, the chips eventually compost. Later, you can take that broken down material to help grow your soil, replacing the pathway areas with cardboard and wood chips to repeat the process. I don’t tend to favor gravel because once rocks are there, they’re there forever. Whatever material you choose, be sure to leave pathways a wheelbarrow’s distance wide in areas where you’ll need to be working with the soil, adding amendments and activities like that.
Do you have a favorite pathway material?
To get you started on your raised bed adventures, you may need these fine products: