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Garden and Home

10 Tips for Building a Raised Garden Bed

Grow a bountiful garden without a lot of effort or space with these raised garden bed growing secrets.

Nothing’s tastier than tomatoes picked fresh off the vine, but maintaining a vegetable garden can be hard work, and not everyone has room for one in the yard. If you’re looking for a simple solution to grow your own produce this summer, consider a raised garden bed. These large container-type gardens are filled with lightweight, nutrient-rich soil and can easily produce twice the yield in half the space. Because they’re in a contained space raised higher than ground level, they’re also easier to maintain—no hoeing or stooping to pull weeds. The tips ahead will help you plan, plant, and maintain a raised garden bed for bumper-crop results. You may never go back to traditional gardening.

1. Select a spot.

A raised garden beds can be located virtually anywhere in your yard—even alongside a driveway—as long you follow some basic rules. Garden plants need lots of light so choose a spot that gets direct sun for most of the day. Also select an area that’s somewhat sheltered from the wind, either by nearby trees, a tall fence, or a building, as high winds can wreak havoc on tender plants. And while you’ll need a location with easy access to water, avoid putting your raised bed where rainwater collects and stands—vegetables don’t like soggy conditions.

2. Decide on dimensions that suit your needs.

The height of a raised garden bed is beneficial for two reasons. First, it raises the level of the soil to a height where it’s easier to tend the plants without potentially painful stooping. Second, a raised bed, which is essentially an extra-large planter, is filled with lightweight “fluffy” soil that’s superior to typical garden soil, so plants grow faster and are healthier.

While there are no hard and fast rules for how high a raised garden bed should be, most are between 12 and 20 inches off the ground. Gardeners with mobility issues, such as those in wheelchairs, can opt for even higher sides to make it even easier to reach the plants. To comfortably tend to all areas of the raised bed, it should be no more than three feet wide. That way, you’ll only have to reach 1.5 feet—about an average arm’s length—from either side to reach the plants in the center.

The length of the bed is up to you, but many gardeners find four-foot to five-foot lengths to be most manageable. If you grow a lot of produce, you can install multiple raised beds, but space them at least 24 inches apart to allow adequate walking room between.

3. Material matters.

Raised garden beds should be constructed from water- and rot-resistant materials. You can purchase raised garden bed kits from your local home development  center or order them online. You can also build beds from scratch out of concrete blocks, landscaping blocks, retaining wall blocks, landscaping timbers, and rot-resistant exterior woods, including cedar, redwood, and black locust.

4. Double dig if sides are low.

Some garden crops, such as lettuce and chives, have shallow root systems no deeper than six inches, but other vegetables, such as green beans and cucumbers, can send their roots more than 12 inches into the soil. If the sides of your raised bed are 12 inches or higher, you can construct the bed right on the top of the ground and fill it with appropriate soil (discussed next). If the sides of the bed are lower than 12 inches, give plants plenty of root space by digging out the existing ground soil to a depth of eight inches (called “double digging”) before putting up the sides of the bed. This will ensure all plants have plenty of optimum soil for healthy root growth.

5. Use the right soil mixture

If the soil in your area is naturally high in clay content or sand, it’s bound to be a challenge to grow a thriving garden on the ground. Raised beds, however, are filled with a superior soil mix—ideally, a combination of two-parts topsoil to one-part compost, both of which can be purchased from home development stores or ordered from landscape companies and delivered in bulk. Alternately, you can fill your raised bed entirely with commercial potting soil that’s labeled specifically for growing fruits and vegetables.

6. Arrange plants by height.

When it’s time to harvest, you won’t want to reach through a tall tomato plant to pull up some carrots hidden behind it. So design the layout of plants with the tallest ones, such as corn or okra, to grow along the center line of the raised bed. Plant average-height plants, such as peppers, on either side. Finally, locate the shortest plants, such as radishes and carrots along the edges of the bed. In this way, you can easily reach any plant from either side of the raised bed.

7. Mulch to retain moisture.

The rich, lightweight soil in a raised garden bed is optimal for root growth but likely to dry out without surface protection. Mulch—a layer of organic matter, such as hardwood chips, shredded dry leaves, sawdust, or bagged commercial mulch—should be spread over the soil to keep it optimally cool and prevent evaporation while also blocking weed seeds from sprouting. For best results, spread mulch in an even two-inch layer and press down lightly.

8. Water at the roots.

Water garden plants at their base, rather than using a sprinkler or a sprayer, which tend to wet leaves. Continuously damp leaves increase the risk of fungal diseases, such as Septoria leaf spot, which can devastate an entire tomato crop. Consider using a soaker hose, wound loosely around the base of the plants. Or install a drip system, which comes with plastic irrigation components and can be configured to deliver water where it’s needed most—at ground level.

9. Fertilize regularly.

The soil in a raised bed is loftier and fluffier than soil in a regular garden, so plant roots quickly spread throughout, absorbing the nutrients they need for robust growth. Follow the rate recommended on the package. For the best results, you’ll need to apply it again midseason (about three months later). Avoid using fertilizers not labeled specifically for fruits and vegetables, as these can contain nutrients that boost foliage but reduce the quantity and size of your produce.

10. Plan ahead for next year’s crops.

When summer winds down and your plants stop producing, it’s time to prepare your raised garden bed for overwintering. This step will add organic nutrients and condition the soil during the cold season, so you’re ready to plant again next spring with a minimum of preparation.

  • Remove all withered plants from the bed, and spread the surface of the soil with one inch of organic compost (available bagged or use material from your own compost pile).
  • Cover the soil with three to four inches of organic mulch (dry leaves or straw). The compost and mulch will biodegrade throughout the winter, adding vital nutrients to your raised garden bed and ensuring another bumper crop next year.

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