What makes a complete raised bed garden and how can you grow the most food in one? Following are some simple tips and personal recommendations for beginning your food producing garden in raised beds.
Building a Complete Raised Bed Garden
To being with, you can create wood-framed raised garden beds out of 2 x 4″ lengths of wood. For a simple how-to on that, click here.
After the beds are complete, are you done? Nope!
There’s still soil and water to consider. Compost and even garden pathways to think about. Not to mention, surrounding perennial plants like fruit trees and flowers! 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, ground-covers and even, in appropriate places, lawn.
Consequently, the following advice will include all those aspects. It is in NO WAY meant to be comprehensive. This is only a place to start your raised bed garden planning. In fact, after you read this article, I suggest you enroll in any one of the courses below:
- Building a Raised-Bed Garden
- Price: $19.99
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. Before you even think about seeds and plants, study up on good dirt!
For a basic and high quality mix of ingredients to make The Best Soil Combination for Raised Bed Garden Boxes, read this article.
I would suggest spending a goodly amount of time creating layers and layers of organic matter in your raised beds. This process is sometimes called lasagna gardening or the Back to Eden method. To learn more on garden soil building, check out this little book below:
Don’t Dig Out Sod!
If you have sod (lawn) in the way of your garden, never fear! You do NOT need to dig it out. Put down layers of cardboard everywhere to cover the grass. Then start piling on the compost, mulch, even sticks and branches.
Sticks and branches, you ask?! Yep. This is a practice called Huglekultur. You can investigate Hugelkultur to learn more about the water saving properties of burying wood in your garden.
If you’re new to gardening, you may be a little confused on the difference between mulch and compost. Here are some thoughts on mulch and compost, and how you use them.
DIY Compost Ideas
I suggest learning to make as much of your own compost as you can. Quality compost in large amounts can really add up!
The first step in DIYing your compost is to decide what kind of composting system you want to use. Here are some options:
- Traditional three bin system
- Tumbler type system
- Vermicompost system with two options – a tote system and a worm tower in the garden.
If you want to learn more about vermicomposting options, be sure to check out our book, The Do It Yourself Homestead. Don’t have a copy? No worries, get yours here. For a FREE sample from the vermicomposting section, just shoot me an email at Tessa@homesteadlady.com and I’ll get that to you.
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.
Speaking of Chickens
If you’re lucky enough to have backyard poultry, and you need another project, consider building a movable chicken tractor.
Chicken tractors are handy for moving the chickens to fallow areas in the garden. Hens clean up any unwanted bugs or garden scraps and fertilize as they go. This whole process will save you labor and time in weeding, tilling and fertilizing.
Even if the chickens live most of the time in a static coop, having a small, movable one can be really helpful.
So, you have your raised bed garden set up, now what goes around and in it?
Water for Raised Bed Gardens
The most efficient watering systems are drip irrigation set ups, if you can afford them. You can have a professional install a system, but here’s a read this article. You can deep water with drip irrigation systems, which is something you have a harder time doing with sprinklers.
Overhead watering with sprinklers can encourage airborne diseases. Another problem is that, 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.
I suggest learning all you can about various methods before you spend money and time developing a water delivery system.
Permaculture and Water
The more permaculture principles you apply in your garden, whether in-ground or container, the less you will need to water. If you’re new to the word permaculture, please read this article entitled What is Permaculture?
For example, when you apply top mulch to your raised garden beds, it can help hold water on and in the soil. Wood chips, for example, hold a good deal of moisture. They’re like magic.
I again refer you to this article on the virtues of mulch and compost.
What to Grow in the Raised Bed Garden
To learn what you can grow in your raised bed garden, I refer you to the classes above. If you’re in a hurry, I understand.
Here’s a great article written by Meredith Skyer of Backyard Chicken Project on The 5 Best Vegetables to Grow in a Raised Bed.
Some gardeners figure the shady spots are dead space in their yard – not so! For either kind, watch the required root depth for each plant to make sure they’ll grow in the raised bed you’ve built. Some raised beds are shallow, some are deep. Which are yours?
The more food producing plants you can cram in, the better!
Other Areas in the Raised Bed Garden Area
Remember when I said that I don’t think you should just stop planting at your raised beds?
The area around your raised bed garden is a great place for an edible hedgerow.
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.
Ground Covers Suppress Weeds
My current favorite ground covers are:
- Alpine strawberries (produce a tasty, pineapple flavored strawberry)
- Mother of thyme
- 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. 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. Read here about the marvelous merits of Concord grapes.
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?
Mix it Up in the Raised Bed Garden!
Most of us vegetable gardeners get so stuck on only growing the thing we always grow, that we miss out on some of the fun!
Edible ornamentals like small peppers, Swiss chard, kale, onions, leeks and all lettuces/mustards/chois look lovely as they grow. They are particularly suited for the front yard if you want to maintain some semblance of ornamental-ness to your garden.
Start Some Seeds
If you get hooked on this vegetable gardening thing, I suggest you learn how to grow plants from seed. Here’s a great post to get you started with that.
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.
So, what do ya say? Are you ready to make this your raised bed garden year?!
*Cover graphic gratefully attributed to this Wikimedia Commons user.