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Everyone Loves Raised Beds!

Check out nearly any gardening magazine, catalog, local garden center or big-box home improvement center, and you'll probably find some version of a raised bed being touted as the solution to all you've ever wanted in a garden, particularly if you grow edible crops.

My husband and I knew we wanted to convert our small vegetable garden to raised beds. We loved the ease of planting and harvesting from our Salad Table, which is pretty much a shallow, table height raised bed. Building deeper raised beds on the ground would give us this convenience for the rest of our vegetable crops.

We debated for months about the best material to use for the beds. We  did not use treated wood. I have not found any definitive evidence on the safety of any treated wood near edible crops, whether its the "old" or "new" chemical treatments for wood. U of IL Extension chooses to err way on the side of caution and advise against using treated wood near edible crops, and we chose to be cautious as well in our garden at home.

Untreated wood would rot within a few years, and painted wood seemed like a lot more work, so we chose recycled composite plastic lumber that uses recycled plastic and wood in its manufacture. It is considered completely safe for vegetable gardens and the lumber should last decades or longer.

We built our raised beds 12" deep to accommodate a wide range of crops, and purchased brackets specifically intended for the corners of raised beds. The corners could have been nailed or screwed together without brackets, but they would tend to separate over time with repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

The soil in the beds is a mix of the garden soil from our original garden, packaged commercially available "garden soil", and compost from our compost bin. Each year we top off the beds with a mix of packaged "garden soil" and a heaping helping of compost.

The beds themselves are on the small side, being only 2 feet across. Up to 4 feet across is typical for raised beds, as this width allows you to reach comfortably into the middle of the bed without stepping in and compacting the soil. They lend themselves well to intensive gardening methods such as Square Foot Gardening.

Our raised beds have proven their worth time and time again. They warm up and dry out very early in the spring, making it relatively easy to get our garden underway each year as long as the weather cooperates. We use burlap sacks from a local coffee roaster as a weed barrier held in place with landscape pins (typically used to fasten landscape fabric in place). The burlap sacks last one growing season and break down, adding to the organic matter in the beds.

While it's a benefit for the beds to dry out quickly in the spring, this can be an issue in keeping up with watering in the heat of summer. My husband is the mastermind behind the solution at our house-- drip irrigation. The system attaches to our garden hose and is on a timer, eliminating the need to find the time or even remember to water. For a relatively small investment of time and money, each bed has its water needs met.

One problem that has developed with our raised beds is invasion by tree roots. I never anticipated that roots from an adjacent birch tree would grow up and into the beds. The beds are in their sixth year and this is the first time we've noticed the problem. But as a friend pointed out-- the last two years have been very dry and your garden is watered regularly. Roots will find water where ever it is.

I had noticed that this particular birch tree was leafing out earlier than its neighbors, and in general appeared to be more vigorous. The source of that vigor was revealed when my husband attempted to sink a spade into one of the beds and couldn't. The entire bed was a mass of fine roots, and the worst was near the bottom-- a large tree root at least 1 1/2" in diameter. I knew it was bad when my husband asked for the pruning saw to cut the root out because he couldn't get the pruners around it.

All three of the raised beds on the side of the garden nearest the birch tree were filled with roots. This made planting much more of a chore than it has been in the past. Removing the tree is not something we want to do, so we are just going to have to remove roots from the beds on an annual basis. I thought maybe we should have lined our beds with a plastic barrier, but the roots would find a way, probably up through any drainage holes.

I'm hopeful that since we removed such huge roots this year, that next year they will be smaller and easier to remove. Tree roots can extend up three times the width of the canopy or more, making it nearly impossible to escape tree roots in our yard. Live and learn. There are plenty of learning opportunities in a garden, that's for sure.



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