Raised beds: yea or nay?

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I’ve often wished Kevin and I could trade brains. Not forever, of course. I want to give his back as soon as I understand why he likes everything to be big and/or dangerous, and why he’s not afraid of things that scare the bejeezus out of me. And I’m sure he’d want to unload mine as soon as he found himself reaching for yet another Trollope novel.

But the swap would shed some light on our vastly different approaches to problem solving. If there were one hundred ways to solve a problem, and Kevin and I were to each write down our top fifty, there would be no overlap. None.

I’ve written about this before (at greatest length, in what may be my all-time favorite Starving post, about building our chicken coop), but not with the kind of frequency that conveys how often this difference comes up in our life.

Where should we site the smokehouse? Which tree should we cut down? How should we cover the boat? How many chickens should we get? Where should we apply for doe permits? How should we paint the trim? Fine or coarse cracked corn? Regular or LED trailer lights? Stone patio or wood deck? Hot and fast or low and slow?

And, oh yeah, how the hell are we ever going to finish the godforsaken wood-fired oven?

You get the picture.

Today’s problem concerns gardening.

Our sloped, wooded, sandy two acres could be the worst gardening property this side of permafrost. We have done yards and yards of amendment into the tiny area that gets more than a few hours of sun, but yards are not enough. We never seem to get a thick enough layer of nutritious earth, and what nutrients do we manage to introduce into our “soil” get washed away down the hill.

We do, however, have one little spot with potential. It’s flat. Since we took down the tree in the middle of it, it’s reasonably sunny. But it has no soil whatsoever. It’s Carver Coarse Sand, supplemented with rocks. If we expect to grow anything there, we’re going to have to bring compost and topsoil in by the trailerful – which we’re prepared to do.

The area in question, about 100 square feet

But the question is, do we dig down, or do we build up?

Well, depends who you ask. If you ask me, I’m thinking we should could rent a Bobcat, excavate a foot-deep hole the size of our planned garden, and fill it with those trailerfuls of compost and topsoil. Ask Kevin, and you’ll find he’s thinking we could build a couple of raised beds instead.

I understand the advantages of raised beds: the soil doesn’t compact, they warm up faster in the spring, your nutrients don’t leach out as readily. But do raised beds really lend themselves to creating the kind of soil that we’re working toward? The kind with structure, and beneficial organisms, and a life of its own?

It seems to me that a big hole that we fill with good stuff would be more likely to turn into that. But, because what’s underneath is so sandy, would our nutrients just drain away? If that happens, though, wouldn’t it be easier to amend? How do you get fresh compost or soil into a raised bed that’s already full?

Besides, the frame of a raised bed would block our view of the chickens from the house year-round, and I like to be able to see what’s going on in there.

Of course, digging a hole means the trouble and expense of heavy equipment, plus the little problem of getting rid of a large amount of Carver Coarse Sand, supplemented with rocks. But building raised beds requires getting lumber and assembling the frames. All told, the beds are less work up front, but that’s a small part of the equation since it’s a one-time job.

Neither Kevin nor I is sure enough of our position to push it very hard, so what we need here is a little more information, and perhaps a few opinions. Besides, if you all do the heavy thinking, that frees Kevin up to go do something dangerous, and I can get back to my Trollope.

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Comments

  1. I say raised beds. I garden in a raised-bed community garden on poor, super sandy soil, similar to what you have. When I pulled off the mulch from the past winter and mixed in some amendments, I was amazed by all the worms and critters living in the soil, and my harvest from last year is a testimony to all the lovely beneficials in the soil. As for working in fresh compost and amendments, double-digging works as well in a raised bed as in an in-ground bed, and what you harvest every year is pulling out nutrients and soil materials that will diminish the size of the pile anyway. The view: If you put veggies there, they will grow up to obscure the coop anyway. You can make the frame of the bed as aesthetically pleasing as you want. Good luck with the decision, and with your harvest, either way!

  2. How BORING would life be if you agree on everything. Sometimes the conversation sparks new ideas. I also live on the cape. My back yard, when I first bult the house in the 80’s, was pure beach sand. A truck load of pig manure started me off, and I have amended with compost every year. Last year I wanted to expand the garden to 2x what it was. I looked into planting in straw bales. I go 40 bales of oat straw and planted in those. They worked great! Everything grew like gangbusters and now I have an area with a fairly good layer of mulched straw that I will amend with composted chicken manure. I tend to stay away from digging if I can. The straw bales also have the added benefit of being raised up so you don’t have to stoop down so far. I was told you have to get straw or hay with no seeds in it, such as salt marsh hay. This tends to be kind of expensive. I used oat straw, seeds did germinate but they are so easy to pull that I found it not to be an issue. Good luck.

  3. We have raised beds in our small garden (4 4×8 beds). Every fall I mulch; every spring I compost. We have a host of good bugs (and unfortunately some squash vine borers that I can’t get rid of because I won’t spray so we will take a season off squash). I like that they warm early. I like having a defined bed so that I know that anything else that appears is an interloper. But I’m pretty happy with our results, even if we aren’t trying to hit 20% like you are.

  4. Either system will work. Plants are pretty adaptable that way.

    If it were me, I would probably go the raised bed route. Multiple advantages, not least being as one gets older (ahem..) there is less bending down to sow, weed, and harvest. I worked in a garden with raised veg beds and seriously, I cannot overemphasise the genius of not bending down all day.

    But, on the plus side for ‘straight in the ground’, you can use rotovators and diggers every spring to do the backbreaking work. That plan includes the use of large machinery to curb Kevin’s reckless need for danger. You will probably find that you need to go at least 2 feet down, minimum. That’s a lot of cu feet of soil to rehome (and more machines for Kevin).

    Don’t worry about leaching nutrients. Both systems are on par there. Just don’t add inputs like fertiliser when it’s cold and wet (Oct-Mar). If you’re super gardener, you can slap on a green manure legume crop to hold the nitrogen.

  5. Take a look at Back to Eden Film dot com. Very interesting and, IMO, the best method of all. I garden in Maine and NJ. I like things simple, so after lots of research this is what I do. I put down 3 or 4 sheets of newspaper. Dump on about 12 to 15 inch high pile of ground mulch and let the bed rest until the following Spring. Plant. Every Spring I fertlize everything with soybean meal. I add another layer of mulch – 3-4 inches. In my flower beds, they are so lush after a few years, I don’t need to mulch. I practice rotation in the veg beds – cuts way down on pests. That’s all I do. No chemicals, no other fertlizers. If I have compost I use it. Glorious beds. Occasionally I have taken tree road crew truck mulch ( free!) if I’m sure there is no poison ivy in it. Might have to flip it once to get it to break down faster.

    P.S. You are officially my favorite blogger…love your sense of humor (Dead Parrot is my favorite MPFC)

  6. kingsley says:

    I use non-raised beds.

    I started with very very poor soil, but after 2 years and countless shovel-fulls of well rotten chicken poo, now it’s reasonably friable, and even has worms.

    However we had a very wet (but not so hot) summer, and the grass (and weeds) are up around my knees. It didn’t help that I was away for work for 3 weeks. I can’t help thinking that If I had built raised beds, at least the grass on the path between the beds woud not be dropping seeds into my garden beds right now.

    But, raised beds are expensive. You also need to ensure that the wood you use (or whatever else) was treated with something you don’t want to eat.

  7. I have to cast my vote for raised beds, too. Along with all of the other benefits already listed, if you install pipes that will hold PVC pipes along the edges of the beds, you have a quick and easy temporary greenhouse for the start and end of the season by arcing PVC pipes and covering them with plastic.

    Another benefit is you can move raised beds with a bit of effort, but the area you dig out is there forever. Right now I am reconfiguring my garden because I have decided where I have my chicken coop is not going to work (the peach tree is getting bigger than I expected, and I am not a fan of constantly pruning a tree out of shape because it is too close to a structure). I am disassembling the beds, raking the soil into piles, and then rebuilding.

  8. I know I’m an amateur but I have a great book about raised beds called “The Square Foot Gardener” by Mel Bartholomew, you are welcome to borrow it. I used his guidelines to set up our small bed, including his recipe for a great custom mix to put in. If you are worried about what’s underneath the bed, put down weed cloth or newspapers. Ours settles a bit each year, so we just add on top like others have posted above. Last year we had some truly amazing cucumbers that took over most of the bed. I’m sure the two of you will come to some kind of agreement about what to do, you always seem to!

  9. Kevin F. says:

    I can almost hear the soothing sound of my circular saw already !

  10. Have you considered hugelkulter beds? It’s just something I’ve read about, not something I’ve ever done but they might work for your situation.

    Essentially, they are beds that are constructed by digging out some of the soil, laying down logs in various degrees of decay, filling in the gaps with leaves, straw etc…, and covering the beds with the soil you dug out. They can be several feet high, or just one or two feet and are excellent at retaining water. In your situation, you would probably have to cover the beds with trucked in soil.

    You can find more info here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

    Sasha

  11. Raised beds. 4 x 8 makes the most of lumber and you can reach everywhere.

    I’m curious what you build them out of out there though. Obviously not pressure treated anything as a few have said and you probably know already. Here in the west, it’s redwood. What is the east coast wood of choice for outdoors?

  12. I am all for raised beds because besides all the good reasons you mentioned, nothing beats them for instant gratification. Well, relatively instant; we are talking about growing things after all. But I do mean that you don’t have to wait as long for your soil to become better- you just fill them with better soil. I’m also with Jen in that nothing beats not having to bend over all day. I love being able to sit on my little gardening stool and just lean over to reach something in the bed. And covering them is a whole easier than building a hoop house (but much more of a pain to get into).

    However, being the hard core empiricist that you are, and the type to look for a less complicated way of accomplishing something, I think you should definitely experiment with hugelkultur as mentioned by Sasha. I was just reading about it about a week and a half ago at the very same URL mentioned , and I will definitely try it when we finally get our place in the country. it’s particularly intriguing in view of the fact that some soil building tests run and published by The Mother Earth News determined that soil built from decaying wood makes the very best soil of all methods tested.

    As far as real soil goes, I have plenty of worms in my raised beds. Another vote for them is that fact that they are pretty easy to cover the bottom of with a hardware cloth that will keep burrowing varmints (gophers, moles, and voles) from digging into your beds.

    And as far as longevity goes, who’s to say they have to be built out of wood? You could build them with concrete block dry stacked but held in place with a few judiciously placed lengths of rebar (which means you could move them if you so desired), and then fill in the block and use the sides as planters as well.

    Whatever you decide to do, good luck with it.

  13. I say raised beds. Check out what Boxwoos Gardens does. http://www.ediblecommunities.com/capecod/spring-2010/boxwood-gardens.htm

  14. Well, I’m beginning to see a trend here. Raised beds it will have to be.

    Along the way, some very interesting suggestions. Trish, I had no idea you could grow things in straw bales, but I googled it and it seems very easy. Since “easy” is my middle name, it’s a very appealing system.

    Sasha and Paula, the hugelkultur is also interesting, and we’ve got decaying wood coming out our ears, but I want to plant this year.

    As for what to build them out of, I’m not at all afraid of using treated lumber. I read about a guy who tested building raised beds out of it, and found that root vegetables planted right along the sides had levels of chemicals that were just barely measurable, but not dangerous. Leaf crops along the edge, and every other plant in the bed, showed nothing.

    That said, we have a local sawmill that does rough-sawn pine. It won’t last forever, but I know people who have used it and gotten many years out of it. So that’s probably what we’ll do.

    Kevin’s warming up the circular saw …

  15. Hey Tamar, could you run a test program for us? You know..a rotten wood bed, traditional raised bed and a strawbale growing system? That would save the rest of us a lot of work figuring out what works best. Just in your spare time…we will expect details and documentation.

    • Karen, I think you’ve got my number. You know that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that I think ought to be done, and that interests me inordinately — but that I’m WAY too lazy (and too unskilled) to do myself.

      But it definitely should happen. Any takers? Ahem … Karen?

  16. When I read about the huglekultur I thought that sounded like an interesting idea.I happen to have a HUGE pile of rotting timbers from some raised beds I ripped out last year, and a HUGE pile of wood chips. This seems like the ideal solution to “what to do with all that”. I have to admit I am not so good when it comes to documentation and details of what’s going on in the garden. But I could offer an oppinion.

  17. Hi,

    You can plant this year with hugelkultur beds, in fact, you need to in order to stabilize the beds which do not generally have structured sides and are often quite steep. Sepp Holzer, who has probably written the most about hugelkultur, suggests root crops as a good first crop but other people have had good success with tomatoes and melons and squashes.

    As to nitrogen being bound up in the decaying wood, it’s not clear that that always happens. To start with, well rotted wood can actually release nitrogen and works better as a water sponge. However, using fresh cut wood has it proponents too and there are steps you can take, mainly incorporating green materials or manures when you construct the bed, to minimize the nitrogen issue. Using urine or manure teas over the season can also help.

    For me, the real issue is weeding. Hugelkutur beds are frequently part of a permaculture system including the use of ground covers. So, you either have to use transplants or have a really good idea of what your desired seedlings look like if you are going to weed. If you used a ground cover, you’re still in the same situation because you will, over time, need to do some thinning of the ground cover.

    • Sasha, Thank you so much. Your post has bee super helpful. You actually answered alot of the questions I was having, and clarified that my plans where heading in the right direction. I have a strawberry mound that I started on a hay bale that is in the spot I would like to put my huglekultur. We lost some fairly large pine trees during the hurricane last year. Those logs will be the base, with some very rotten timbers from some old raised beds and wood chips. Over that I was thinking a layer of Chicken manure and hay, and cover with compost. I then thought I would plant it with the strawberries and melons. Does anyone know if they are not compatable??

  18. I will second Barbara, the Back to Eden film has lots of good information on gardening with woodchips and chicken manure, and the results are pretty amazing.

    Im against digging in your case since every inch you dig brings you closer to salty ground water. Im not sure what your elevation is, but it can be a problem in the low spots.
    Also, since your sandy soil problem isnt going to go away, Ill also suggest you look into getting a few loads of free wood chips or lawn waste now to start a good sized compost pile for when you redress your new raised beds 2-3 years down the line.

    If you don’t want to work it this year, you could also try planting a lot of fast growing weedy annual plants with deep roots to break up the soil. You could cut it down mid summer and let the chickens go at it. They would convert it to manure and turn over the soil. Repeat again in the late summer and you might end up with some decent soil for next year.

  19. Tamar,with regards to huglekultur I have been reading that you also can put at trench in your garden to fill up or to raise slightly as a raised bed for improved water retention and increased ease of management. I wouldn’t want to try it with just a shovel but I suspect you two would go the heavy equipment route. In the cold months you can also start one that has some roadkill (or dead sea life) to add to the fertility without the strong smell factor.

  20. Sabine Harvey says:

    Hi Tamar,

    Whether you are going to build raised beds or one big garden, if you are going to remove a lot of soil, you may consider putting weed block down, before you fill it back up; that way, all your nice amendments won’t wash away in your sandy soil. Obviously this only works if you are going to dig down at least 18″, but if you were to go through all that trouble, you might as well ensure that your compost does not wash away.

    As for lumber, I have used both scrap white oak boards from a local saw mill (they lasted about 8 years) as well as the treated lumber that does not have arsenic in it. Just to be on the safe side, I lined the insides of the boards with a heavy duty plastic. We secured the boards we re-bar. Those beds will last a lot longer than 8 years!!

    I have two more words of wisdom: cover crops!

  21. I’m very much a fan of raised beds. Mostly because I’m a lazy-gardner and don’t like to do more work than I have to.

    You don’t necessarily have to do super-deep raised beds, either. eight inches high is plenty for a lot of veggies, and if you just build frames (no floors), the good soil in the raised beds will (a) not roll down the hill (thanks to the frames), but (b) will be able to mix in with the sand-and-rocks underneath it over time.

    You might consider digging down a little bit – like four inches – and then framing your holes with 8″ sides – a bit of a compromise, that lets you get the Good Soil under the surface-level of the land while (in theory) still snagging all the benefits of the raised beds.

    Is there a reason why you couldn’t incorporate the rocks you find in the soil-as-is into the framing walls of the raised beds?

    Cheers,
    Meliad.

  22. Thanks for all the suggestions! Including the one to watch Back to Eden, which we’re going to try to do some time this week. If at least two people say it’s worth watching, I want to see it.

    Here’s our plan: we’re going to dig down a few inches, and take the rocks out to reinforce the sides of our two raised beds. We’re using 1×12 lumber for the sides. We’re going to fill them with compost and topsoil. And then we’re going to grow things.

    I think we’re going to get them done this week, so I’ll show you pictures as we go. Thanks to all for a great discussion!

  23. From a male perspective, I would answer your questions thus: Smokehouse site? Close to the drinks coolers, a decent smoker requires constant attention. Which tree? The biggest. Why cover a boat? isn’t it waterproof? I thought you only needed two chickens and then let nature take its course. You apply for permits?!! Trim. Dip brush into paint and drag over trim. This is called painting and has worked for millennia, you just choose the colour and leave the mechanics of its application to the male. Fine or coarse cracked corn? Feed yourselves the most expensive and save the rest for guests, my chickens don’t seem to care. LED trailer lights, of course, especially the kind that you can programme in messages like, ‘Back Off Asshole’. Hot and fast or low and slow? Ask yourself why your man married you… but I will give you a hint with which I guess most women who have been inexpertly hit on by males since adolescence would agree, men tend to like everything hot and fast, it is something to do with their attention spans so my therapist tells me.

    Regarding the wood fired oven, stop arguing and put your backs into it.

    Having studied your comments on raised beds, the answer is obvious. Do both.

    Only dig down halfway and raise the other half. Make yourself some forms, say 30 x 20 x 25 cms and the stuff you dig out, if it really is so leached of nutrients, will make an ideal base for rough bricks when mixed with 15% Portland cement while still looking natural and they will weather nicely. Use the forms to cast the mix while you are emptying your drinks cooler keeping an eye on the smoker. Add a bit of extra rough sand to the mix if required. That way you still get your view and reduce the leaching that would otherwise occur if the bed was wholly dug out exposing its contents to the full effect of precipitation and ground water drainage. Besides, raised beds look so much prettier and give us chaps somewhere agreeable to park our arses while continuing to empty the drinks cabinet.

    • Tom, you’d fit in perfectly at our house. I think our priorities are aligned pretty closely. I particularly like the idea of turning our crap soil into bricks, which would be very useful. That, and the smokehouse site. Thanks!

      • Of course I would not fit in perfectly. I would end up chasing you around and then your better half would have to do the honourable thing and shoot me through the heart before concealing my body in the conveniently raised beds…

  24. Hi:

    I’ve learned to not even ask my husband his opinion on most everything, since we nearly always disagree. So if I want to do or build something, I just do it. He’ll give me his opinion anyway, but I just ignore it most of the time (although sometimes he does have some good ideas).

    Anyway, re the garden, we live in the far north, and had no good soil in the garden site, so we found raised beds the best solution: faster warming in spring, no soil wasted for access to the vegs, less watering needed. I hauled the soil from various small deposits of nice silt along our lake, in a canoe, or by toboggan in winter after I’d filled 60+ garbage bags of some beautiful silt and leaf mold mix from as aspen stand along a pond a quarter mile away. So I really envy you the ability to bring in pickup loads of compost and soil!