For the past 5 years or so, we have attempted to provide a little food for ourselves through a garden. We’ve learned some things, had some wonderful successes (us and cucumbers, we REALLY get along) and some abject failures. Unfortunately, once we feel like we’re getting one place really squared away, it seems like it’s been time to move to our next assignment and start over. One of the (many) things we’re really looking forward to on our new farm is the ability to have a much larger homesteading garden that we can nurture and put some effort in to for the long haul. So far we’ve grown lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, onions, shell peas, green beans, carrots, cucumbers (regular & pickling), tomatoes, yellow squash, and bell peppers.
Here in Mississippi, we made our first attempt at raised-bed gardening. There are several benefits to this approach: easy of access, increased yields, less soil compaction, a longer growing season and many others. The general concept is to build a square or rectangle no more than 3.5 – 4 feet wide (so you can reach the middle from either side), at least 6 inches high and pretty much as long as you want. Depending on how deep (tall) you make your beds, you have to bend over less to reach where you are working and also won’t step in the beds thereby avoiding soil compaction. Because the soil in your raised bed is elevated and isolated, it warms up quicker than the dirt in a normal garden which results in a longer growing season and less susceptibility to frost.
There are a bunch of online resources out there to assist folks in thinking through and planning their gardens. Here are just a few that we’ve found:
- Square Foot Gardening : Takes the raised bed idea and applies a management process to create lots of yield out of a small area.
- The Vegetable Garden – Planting Times : Will find your planting zone by inputting your zip code, and provides a suggested planting time for both spring and fall gardens for all sorts of vegetables.
- Smart Gardener – Garden Planner : Create a free account, then map out your garden and choose desired vegetables. It will tell you what to plant when, as well as required spacing, watering requirements, germination times, etc. Haven’t used this one ourselves, but it looks cool!
- Mother Earth News – Garden Planner : Another free garden planner, this one we have used and recommend. LOTS of great information on all matters of backyard gardening as well as a nice garden planner!
One question that comes up a lot when we talk about raised-bed gardens: is it safe to use treated lumber for my raised bed? It’s unfortunate that people even have to ask that, but that is the reality of living in our “advanced” industrial society. We’ve done some online research and found the best two sources of information and guidance to be the Fine Gardening website and the Backyard Gardening blog. Both agree that the risk is minimal, especially now that CCA treated wood is banned from the market and replaced with the currently used ACQ or MCQ treatment. Also consider the cost of the only real all-natural option of cedar planks, and you’ll have your own answer… we used treated lumber for our gardens.
Some suggestions we’ve learned for doing raised beds right:
- In the northern hemisphere, work from taller to shorter plants as you move from north to south, since (even at high-noon) the sun will typically be shining from the south.
- Avoid overhanging trees, even the shadow of trees can filter/block sunlight and the roots can be a bear to deal with and/or remove.
- If you are building your beds on a slope, make the effort to dig the bed into the slope in order to allow the bed to lay as level as possible. This will allow even water distribution and prevent nutrient travel.
- Rotate crops to different areas each growing season in order to break the cycle of disease.
- Companion planting is worth the small amount of extra effort. I use the book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte.
- A quick sketch on grid paper will help you to figure out plant/seed spacing, make sure you leave room for succession plantings and assist in purchasing your seed. Keep them for next year to remember where things were in order to rotate your crops.
- Maximize your garden space by being aware of different plant’s growing seasons. As an example: you can plant garlic in the fall, harvest them in mid-spring, and plant beans in the same space!
If any of you are backyard gardeners, please feel free to share any suggestions or tips you have for success, we would love to hear them. What was your grandest success and your worst failure in the garden?