Inside: Building a raised garden can be a good option for the home gardener, particularly when resources are limited.
Growing up I was surrounded by gardening experts, especially my grandparents. They and everyone else in our area planted garden in much the same way–till up the soil, add manure and other fertilizer, plant seeds. So the flat bed of soil, worked up with the tiller before planting and then tilled between rows to keep weeds down as the plants grew, was the only garden model I knew. In my early gardening years I remember the frustration of bugging my father to run a plow through my plot–which really didn’t do much but cause ruts–because I didn’t own a tiller. I would end up spading much of my garden, which was slow, tedious work. I remember one particular summer when my daughter was small. By mid-season I hadn’t planted a thing, but I was desperate to at least put in some tomatoes. Grass had taken back much my original plot. Dad was ever the busy farmer and didn’t have time to help me. In desperation, I dug holes, planted the tomatoes, and placed a layer of newspaper and mulch around them to form a little bed. Lo and behold, it worked! Which taught me a valuable lesson. There was more than one way to grow a garden.
Along my gardening journey a wonderful book found its way to me which further shaped my thinking: Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza. My gardening practices are greatly influenced by techniques I learned from this seasoned grower. When building a raised garden, I used much of the lasagna layering method for my traditional raised bed.
Last fall Hubs assembled this raised bed from some old wooden beams, and slowly but surely I began to fill it up with layers of cardboard, soil, compost, manure, grass clippings, leaves, spent hay, and some trimmings from bushes, not in that order. Admittedly, I’m not very scientific in my approach, but I added things little by little, careful to use a variety of organic matter. Notice I could have fit more plants in this plot, but I like a lot of space between my tomato plants. They’ll thank me for it later!
I decided to try my hand at hay bale gardening this year. Most people use straw, but I had some old seasoned hay bales that worked perfectly. Mom has tried this for a few years now with some success, so I knew the basics. If unseasoned, wet the bales really, really, really well before attempting to transplant anything. We’re talking several days of watering. And by all means, first stick your hand down inside of the bale before planting. If it is extremely hot, it’s not ready yet. Turn the sprinkler on the hay (or straw) to prepare it some more. The best solution is to set up your bales on edge (non-twine side up) in the fall. No changing your mind about moving them once they’ve been through the rains and snows of fall and winter, as they will become quite heavy! By spring those square beauties are ready for your plants. If planting seeds, gardeners suggest layering about four inches of top soil on the top of the bale. I chose to transplant peppers. For the last two years we’ve had heavy rainfall in the summer, and my peppers suffered from muddy roots. My thinking was that if we had a third rainy summer they’d be fine tucked away in the hay. If it’s hot and dry, I’ll need to be watering them more often.
The border around the bales is made from logs of various lengths and widths simply lined around it, nothing special to hold them together. The wood has stayed in place better than I had anticipated.
The third method I have used when building a raised garden is called hugelkultur, a German word meaning “hill culture.” Admittedly, this experiment was entirely by accident. About fifteen years ago a tree had fallen in the yard, and after we had someone cut and haul away most of it, a large portion of the trunk (about four feet long and a foot in diameter) remained. No one had a use for it. Including me. I wanted it gone. But while we were away on vacation, Mom decided to surprise us with landscaping the yard, and she used this log as the center of a flower bed, placing pots with flowers on top and flowers surrounding the log. Instead of getting rid of the trunk, she decided to “work with it” as she told me later.
Fast forward all of these years later, and the flower bed continues with several perennials and annuals that reseed themselves. The log has gotten smaller over time, slowly decaying, and at the same time feeding the soil. I have never fertilized this bed–have never needed to–and the soil remains soft and crumbly. The rotting log also acts like a sponge, retaining moisture for the bed. It doesn’t take much to keep up with it, yet I get an amazing show of lilies, zinnias, marigolds, salvia, and heuchera. I love this flower bed!
So there you have it–raised bed gardening at its finest. These methods don’t require a lot of money, the weeding is easy, and the results are comparable to those traditional flat garden plots from my youth. I will keep readers posted on the harvest from these beds in the fall.
Do you use any unconventional garden practices? Tell us about it in the comments.
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