The art of gardening has a long history and where there is a long history there is enough folklore and gardener’s tales to last you a lifetime of reading. The old school ways which may bring to mind the garden our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ kept depending on your age are not the ways of today. Or perhaps it’s a vision of Peter Rabbit being chased through Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch in your mind. Whichever image vegetable gardening conjures up for you in today’s world, research has helped us to understand and discover the best and easiest ways for the modern day gardener to tend to their gardens.
Raised garden beds make a world of difference in the garden. Some people may not initially want to give up the old ways, after all they have been growing food a long time inground. Farmers all over the world grow food in the ground. But those are farmers, not gardners and their problems should not the same (exactly) as ours in the garden.
Gardeners have been setting up miniature versions of the farmlands and their vast fields of one crop after the other. This is not the best way to set up a kitchen garden. I’ll refer to it as a kitchen garden to make sure we all understand I’m talking about growing food specifically. In today’s environment with limited access to being able to go out to the grocery store even, setting up a small kitchen garden it something most everyone can do and should do for their own individual or family food security.
One of the biggest benefits to growing your food in a raised garden bed is that you have more control over the soil from the very beginning in a raised bed vs. an in-ground garden bed. You don’t have to deal with any rocks which makes growing root vegetables a breeze. You don’t have to test your soil for lead and other toxins or need to amend it one way or the other. You don’t have to struggle to rototill the ground which has been proven to do more damage than it does good. When we used to install gardens we would do a mixture of composts combined with some peat or coir and vermiculite. Our ratio was about 1/2 compost to 1/4 peat/coir and 1/4 vermiculite. After each harvest we would replenish some compost if we planned a succession planting and always add new compost after the harvest in the fall or in early spring. You need to replenish the compost only this is the source for the minerals and nutrients in the produce you grow. The peat or coir works to help retain the moisture in the raised garden beds, reducing the amount of overall watering vs. an inground bed. The vermiculite works to hold both nutrients and water in the soil in reserve waiting for thirsty roots to deliver these vital elements to. The combination of the peat and vermiculite help to also make the compost more friable and therefore a optimal environment for plants to grow and thrive. Depending on what you choose to grow will dictate the pH range – to grow most vegetables a pH of 6.0-7.5 is desirable which is slightly acidic.
Raised garden beds can be built as high as you need in order to be able to garden comfortably. There are elevated beds that can be built to be handicap accessible. We recommend that your raised beds are never wider than 4″ so that you can reach in easily from all sides and not have to lean or walk into the raised bed. If your garden bed is up against a wall we have found the best width is closer to 3″ wide – otherwise it’s very hard to lean into the back row to seed or harvest.
When you use raised garden beds all the energy is focused where it needs to be — on the plants, not on the paths. In-ground gardens tend to waste more water and the paths end up being watered as well. Walking on the paths causes the soil to compact which is unhealthy for the surrounding plant’s root systems. Paths also create a clear environment for weed seeds to take hold. Afterall, they get watered too.
Raised garden beds provide superior drainage – so go ahead and let the little one’s in on watering the garden from time to time. They can’t overwater a raised garden bed, unlike an inground one.
A Little Space Can Go A Long Way
You may be thinking that you still need more space than you actually really need in order to start a kitchen garden. We always recommend to start off small that way you don’t overwhelm yourself initially and you will be pleasantly surprised with the surplus of produce you can grow even in a small 4’x4′. You can always add more raised garden beds later if you see fit. By employing the method of intensive garden or square foot gardening, you can allow just enough space for the plants to grow but crowd out any space for weed seeds to take hold. It’s not to say you won’t ever get a weed in your raised bed, but it’s a lot harder for them to take hold and they are easy to spot. I recommend though if you are unsure whether it’s a weed or a plant you may have seeded to be patient and wait until you are sure.
In a 4′ x 4′ raised garden bed there is 16 square feet of planting space and that doesn’t include if taking advantage of vertical growth space. The Square Foot Gardening Cheat Sheet shows the space certain vegetables need to properly grow and I think a lot novice gardeners would be surprised to learn how much they could actually grow in a small space.