The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Raise your garden to new heights

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

With every year I add to my birthday celebrations my desire to have the garden rise to my level instead of me lowering to ground level has risen exponentially. Sometimes the ground just seems a long way down.

Raised beds are an excellent way to bring the gardening to our level of satisfaction. In addition raised beds offer other advantages to traditional in-ground gardening including:

Improved vegetable production – Raised beds can produce twice the amount of vegetables per square foot than traditional gardens. Vegetables can be planted at higher densities since wide spacing for walking or tilling between rows is not necessary. Weeds also have less space to grow.

Soil improvement - Got lousy soil? The addition of ample compost and better quality soil to the beds can alleviate lousy soil issues. Plant roots struggle to grow in compacted soil caused by the weight of tractors, tillers and human feet. Soil compaction, which can reduce vegetable yields up to 50 percent, is alleviated.

Improved soil drainage – Areas that tend to flood can become gardenable with the addition of raised beds.

Added refinement to the landscape – Well-constructed raised beds look neat and tidy without much effort on our part. Flowers along with vegetables add a spark of color.

Expanded gardening season – Raised beds tend to warm earlier in spring and stay warmer into fall which translates into planting earlier and harvesting later. Also the bed's compact size makes it easy to cover with plastic to extend the growing season.

A few tips in building raised beds:

Beds can be framed with just about anything available such as cinder blocks, stones, bricks, recycled plastic lumber or wood. If your bank account can handle it, redwood or cedar can be used. Treated wood is fine to use as long as it was purchased after 2004 when the EPA banned use of arsenic treated lumber for residential use. Now copper is the main ingredient. If any copper leaches to surrounding soil it is quickly bound in soil particles. In addition plants are less tolerant than we are to copper so the plants would die well before copper in plant tissues could get high enough to cause us chronic health problems from eating the plants.

Raised beds can be also be unframed by mounding soil; however, the height is limited to 4-6 inches before the edges start to drift.

Once bed location is determined, loosen soil under bed area before building or place wet cardboard over lawn grass.

Determine the amount of soil mix needed. Generally a good mix is 60% topsoil, 30% compost and 10% soilless mix or peat moss. An 8 foot by 4 foot bed at a depth of 8 inches will need about 22 cubic feet or .8 cubic yards of soil mix to fill the raised bed. This is just an estimate since soil will settle.

Keep beds narrow. Most people can reach 2 feet without much effort; therefore, beds 4 feet wide allow easy access from both sides. Four foot wide also works well with common board lengths.

The biggest disadvantage to raised beds is the initial expense and work to build and fill a framed bed. However a well constructed bed should last for years.

Want to see raised beds "in action"? Join Vermilion County Master Gardeners on Tuesday July 7th at 6:00 p.m. for Raised Garden Beds and Bales. Master Gardener Walter Deck will host this class in his own garden, located at 800 N. Orchard St. in Ridgefarm, IL. Learn about construction, soil preparation, and the diversity of garden beds including straw bale gardening. Please pre-register by calling our UI Extension office in Danville at 217-442-8615 or email Jenney Hanrahan at Cost is $5.00 per person.

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