Sunday, March 27, 2011

Which Do You Prefer?

Are you hooked on raised beds for gardening or the more traditional field garden plot? I would be very unhappy if I had to garden without utilizing both.

I've written before in posts that when we moved to this piece of property about 15 years ago, the area to the south of the house was the best place to establish our vegetable garden. It was also covered almost completely with several inches of gravel. We scraped off the gravel but knew the soil underneath wouldn't be much good for growing anything except possibly weeds for a long while.

Our solution was to build several raised beds on the area, fill them with a mixture of purchased black dirt and various other additions. Each year after that we added more beds until we ended up with the present total of twenty-six 4' x 8' raised beds.

As soon as I got the raised beds up and going and growing some basic crops for us, I knew that there were certain plants that just naturally do much better (and are easier to plant and care for) in the traditional field garden plot. We hadn't been here for more than a couple of years when we plowed up the sod of an area approximately 35' x 45' and started working on enriching that soil for additional garden space.

Three years ago we also added another gardening area in which to plant primarily vining crops. Last year we grew a couple different cover crops on the spot and then turned them in to help enrich the soil.

So just what makes the raised beds so desirable? I'll tackle that first.

I find it much easier to keep the soil loose and friable in the raised beds. That just naturally makes them better for growing any crop that requires a loose soil for roots that need to go deep (our beds have all been double-dug . . . and then some) and for space for the veggie itself to grow without having to fight through more compacted soil.

The raised beds lend themselves to planting intensively. (Something like square foot gardening, but even better I think.)

I plant many of the veggies in the beds in 4' long rows with the rows spaced only 6" apart. (If you do the math, in a bed that I plant to carrots that gives me sixty feet of carrots in a 4' x 8' space.) The leaves of the veggies cover the whole bed so that very few weeds have a chance to grow. I can get a tremendous amount of harvest from a single 4' x 8' bed.

With the raised beds I also have the capability of placing cold frames on top of the beds in the spring and fall. Besides the cold frames, we've made shade cloth covers for the raised beds and I use these in the hot, sunny summer time to keep crops that prefer cooler weather happier and producing better. (Lettuces, radishes and spinach especially appreciate the shade covers.)

The biggest disadvantage of the raised beds (and it's not a biggie for me) is that they dry out faster than the field garden plots. Even though I consider the soil in the beds very good, we need to get it to a point where it holds moisture a little better. (More humus, more humus, more humus!) Of course, this could also be called an advantage, too, because the beds dry out in the spring much sooner than the field gardens and I can plant in them all the earlier without having to deal with wet, cooler soil.

Okay, what do I plant in the raised beds? Here goes:

Because of our very short growing season cherry tomatoes go into a raised bed. I have to protect tomatoes both in the spring and then late fall. I put my started cherry tomatoes in a raised bed covered with a cold frame. The cold frame comes off usually about the first of July and then goes back on as soon as night time temps in the fall get in the 40s. (I've tried full-sized tomatoes with this method in raised beds but in the fall just when they are starting to ripen, they are too big for the cold frames to cover and protect them. I've experimented with various methods out in the field garden . . . so far unsuccessfully.)

Carrots, radishes, miscellaneous salad greens, turnips, kohlrabi, rutabaga, beets, lettuce and onions all get planted very intensively in raised beds.

Swiss chard and spinach I still plant a little more closely than most people would (so that their leaves touch on all sides) but space my 4' rows about 8-10" apart in those beds.

Slicing cucumbers go into a raised bed because they need the cold frames on them spring and fall. I form a raised mound down the center 8' length of a bed and plant seeds thinning to about 5 or 6 plants. The vines completely fill the bed and give me all the slicing cucs we can eat or give away plus extras that get fed to the poultry.

Our comfrey plants take up one permanent raised bed. I put them in a bed because if they aren't contained, they will take over northeastern Minnesota.

I know I could probably just as easily plant our bush zucchini in the field garden but I've become accustomed to putting two hills (spaced evenly in one 4' x 8' bed) in a raised bed. One zucchini plant would truly be enough but we always worry about not having a spare if something would happen to the one, don't we? Once they get growing, they fill the whole bed.

My sweet red and green peppers go into a bed because they, too, require the cold frames on them spring and fall. Pepper plants like to be touching their neighbors so I put eleven plants in a raised bed.

One raised bed is devoted to herbs. It's closer to the house than the herbs would be in the field garden so I put them there for convenience's sake.

Unless I've forgotten something, I think that covers everything I plant in the raised beds. We have enough of them so we usually randomly use two or three beds each year as compost makers. Not only does it improve the soil in those beds but gives us containers within the 7' high fence in which to process our kitchen garbage where no wild animals can get to it.

Lastly, we have enough raised beds that I can easily rotate crops from bed to bed each year so that it's actually several years before one crop is grown in the same raised bed and soil.

Next installment: What I prefer to grow in the field gardens.


Fiona said...

Mama Pea -- if I could get you to organize my garden and Erin to organize my house, I'd be set for life! I love, love, love your garden -- so productive and so beautiful! Talk about a dream! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.
P.S. I'm keen on the raised bed/field garden combination. What I'm now calling the kitchen garden will eventually house some raised beds, while I'm moving the vining plants, potatoes and berries out to our not-yet-tilled field garden. It's all on the list... the long, long, long list. :)

Jane said...

Well no wonder you are thinking about cutting back on the garden, you must spend every waking moment keeping your gardens the most neat and tidy I have ever seen! A weed can't catch a break at your house. I don't really have any raised beds in the garden. I still do the intensive planting approach. I just use a piece of wood to mark the ends of the bed. It is moveable if I want to change the shape of the bed and I am not committed to anything. I also have weeds :)

Sparkless said...

I think you've got your plantings down perfectly. I wish we had more sun in our yard. Our house sits on a weird angle and the neighbours house blocks the sun part of the day and our garage another part of the day. I haven't planted any raised beds but this year we will and I'l make sure to document and take pictures. Your yard and gardens inspire me to get growing!

becky3086 said...

You have wonderful gardens! I have a couple of raised beds and a couple of beds right in the ground. I tend to plant close in both because they are all small. I find that if I have enough manure and enough water, both grow well.

The Apple Pie Gal said...

You should be spotlighted in a magazine...truly beautiful and well thought out. It makes me want to lay down in it...oh wait, you already do that!

I can not convince 'anyone' to put in raised beds for me. Therefore I will have to build them badly myself if I ever want any. The key is 'badly' cuz that would just drive him NUTS! Then, victory!

Oh thank you for making me have such a startling smart little girl!

I am told that weeds are much easier to control doing the raised beds. I would love that, because they control me here.

Sue said...

Ha-you know I love my raised beds...but I used to do a regular garden. Up here the raised beds just make more sense. I've also found it easier to keep weeded---much easier to face a 4x8 patch to weed, and just keep doing that, then to face a great big patch. I have 28 raised beds-I ran out of room.
I am also on the lookout for a way to "cold-frame" the toms---last summer was the first time in 4 years we had a warm enough summer to get a tomato. Hubby thinks building a tall box that has plastic flourescent light covers for sides might be the ticket-we'll see how that works this summer. I'm sure between all of us, we can think of something.

Mama Pea said...

Fiona - My garden plan sure didn't evolve overnight, but outside of the fact that I've got to cut back some (we're eating as much as we can but we're only two people!) I'm very pleased with the way it is now. Well, 'cept for I want to move the raspberries, plant more fruit and some nut trees, build a garden shed, construct a stone wall around certain areas, start a new strawberry bed, replace some of the old wood on a couple of raised beds, start some horseradish and Jerusalem artichokes and . . . and . . . and . . .

Jane - You know the raised beds stay relatively weed-free and I mulch the devil out of the field garden so I really don't spend that much time on weed patrol. (So why don't I have more time for lying in the hammock?)

Sparkless - Please do take pictures this year. I LOVE to other people's gardens. We can all learn from each other.

Mama Pea said...

becky3086 - Thanks you! Yupper, I think some of each is the way to go.

APG - Yes, weeds are definitely easier to control in the raised beds. As Sue says, knowing you just have to weed one 4' x 8' bed of a day seems soooo easy rather than facing a field garden 50' x 100'. We just have to keep foolin' ourselves. Speaking of which, start dragging some junk lumber out into the yard and some tools . . . make sure Pig Pen is home and watching . . . and watch how fast he steps in to "do it right." Got a birthday coming up? Any favors you can call in? You gotta get some raised beds going!

Sue - You know what you need for those tomatoes? GREENHOUSE. I have just about given up expending anymore time, energy and expense on trying to grow them until I have one.

The Apple Pie Gal said...

I love how we girls stick together! xoxo

Erin said...

Fiona - funny girl :)

I wouldn't give up my raised beds for anything! The only thing I plant in the ground are my eggplant, horseradish and artichoke since they fare pretty well in poor sandy soil. Even if I were to go to the trouble of amending the soil, we have Bermudagrass here, which spreads by rhizome (I call it chain grass or bamboo!) so it is impossible to keep out. Regular weeds I don't mind but that stuff is a nightmare. I love my beds since I never have any weeds in them. That being said, when I put more permanent roots down,i.e. our "forever home", I will definitely be doing both styles!

So when are the coldframes coming out?

Mama Pea said...

APG - That's only because we're the ones who think intelligently.

(OUCH. UH-OH. Did I say that? I didn't say that. Nuh-uh, not me. I'll just go wash my mouth out with soap now.)

Lisa said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you so much for taking the time to photograph and share your gardening techniques... especially your raised beds. We finally decided to go with raised beds this year and quit fighting our rock mountain we're on. My husband just finished building 12 4x8 raised beds and he had beautiful black dirt delivered Friday... just before it began raining Saturday... and still raining Sunday... and still raining... oh well, at least it's here and covered in a huge tarp. We were so excited about our new dirt we couldn't quit running our hands through it! What isn't rock, is hard Southern clay on our land. I am looking forward to sharing your post with my husband tonight! Thank you again! Your photos are simply beautiful.

Mama Pea said...

Erin - When are the cold frames coming out? To be discussed in a post in the not too distant future, you little twit! ;o)

Lisa - Twelve 4 x 8 beds!! Wa-hoo! You will love them. Just imagine planting in actual dirt!! (Strange what we can get excited about, isn't it?) Thank you for your kind words and you're very welcome.

tami said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

I have been looking forward to this post (and your upcoming field plot post) since you teased it last week. Even though I'm new to the "raising my own vegetables" business, I suspected that some things just grew better in the ground and some things do better in a bed. Even though we're in different zones, I think your "words of wisdom" will apply to most gardens.

Agree with all the other comments...Your gardens are spectacular. All that hard work shows!

ThyHandHathProvided said...

What beautiful gardens you have!! I love the look of raised beds- so organized and neatly mowed all around. Just lovely.

Tiny Gardener said...

How wonderful to be so organized and know exactly how much of everything you need and how much to plant how exactly how much space. If I could get to that point in my garden, I could die a happy woman! It's so beautiful, and keep it up!

In my garden I prefer the raised beds simply because if they werent there, I would have a giant mud pit for a backyard. The raised beds keep everything neat and contained, which is essential when you dont have too much space to work with.

Claire said...

So glorious and refreshing to see all that GREEN!

Susan said...

Those removable cold frames are pure genius! I may have to steal the idea! You do, indeed, have quite a spread there. And it was so kind of you to put all that green on the screen to make us feel better. My garden, small as it is, is all raised beds. Too many rocks and poor soil to try field gardens. I am itchin' to get out there and dig in the dirt!

Kelly said...

I only know raised beds, so I truly can't comment. I wish I had some space with naturally good soil that I could cultivate though, maybe a 20 x 20 plot.

Mama Pea said...

tami - When you love gardening as much as I do, it's not hard work at all. Well, it is, but when I come in at night all sweaty and dirty and achy, it's such a GOOOOD tired filled with a whole heckuva lot of satisfaction.

ThyHand - Thanks so much for your lovely compliment!

Tiny Gardener - You will get to the spot I'm at in gardening, I promise you! I still don't know what it is about the raised beds, but I think you really can get more in a smaller place that way. Strange, huh?

Claire - I know!! In looking through pictures to post it actually gave me an energy boost to see all that green.

Mama Pea said...

Susan - You're more than welcome to copy any idea you see. We can all use all the help we can get!! It's no fun trying to garden in rocks and roots, that's for sure!

Kelly - Have you got a front lawn you could dig up? Gosh, you must be able to find a 20 x 20 plot somewhere! That's not asking much.

Anonymous said...

Mama Pea- just 2 words: Garden Envy

Mama Pea said...

Tina H. - Well, thanks much but you can do it, too. Just start out and keep adding and building until you get what you want. :o)

Dirt Lover said...

We live on a very flat piece of property, with clay and hardpan. I didn't used to use raised beds, just waited until the ground was dry enough to work in the spring. Last year, Hubby built me 7 raised beds, and this year, I've been able to get things planted a good 2 months earlier than without the beds. Right now, I have cool weather crops that are growing like mad, even though with all the rain this month, I am walking in water in between the beds. Very wet, and this way, I don't worry about where I walk, since it's a permanent walkway. If I didn't have the raised beds, I wouldn't be able to get out there for at least another month, probably more to be able to dig and plant anything. Next up--raising the walkways, and the entire garden!! (That's about a 5 year project)

Mama Pea said...

Lori - In circumstances like yours, raised beds can do miracles. Way to go! Keep at it. It's slow work but so worth it in the end.