The weather has been unseasonably warm here in Central Kentucky this week. While this may or may not be contributed to global warming and the eventual demise of our environment, I have to say it feels really really nice. It has me itching to get out in the garden and start spring planting.
Oh, except that it is January! That might a problem. Winter is a great time to rest, read books, and plan for the spring garden. Still, experienced gardeners know that there never really is a good time to rest when it comes to gardening.
January’s tasks should include getting the spring seed order placed (if you haven’t already), drawing up a layout for spring planting, and keeping up with composting. It’s also a good time to clean up any unsightly messes that have accumulated around the ol’ homestead or do any building projects, like the chicken coop remodel that has been on my mind lately.
Why Raised Beds?
Since the weather forecast is looking great for tomorrow, I think I’ll spend the day building a new raised bed for the garden. There are so many reasons to used raised beds instead of traditional beds. Raised beds drain faster than traditional garden beds, preventing some diseases that occur as a result of wet roots. They also warm up earlier in the spring, which means you can plant sooner. They are also easier to work because they are higher up. Once you make a raised bed, you never till it, and you never step on it. I made my original beds five years ago, and they have not been tilled since. I simply add some compost to them every year. The dirt is quite nice and soft. Not tilling your soil is beneficial because you don’t kill all the good earthworms or shove the nutrients down deeper than your plants will go.
If you want to use a no-till method like I do, fall is really the best time to build your raised bed. This will give it the nice, long winter to decompose, leaving you with great ready-to-plant dirt come spring. Since January is feeling like fall, you should definitely build some beds this week and not put it off any longer!
Over the years, I’ve used a variety of materials to build raised beds. Rocks, bricks, lumber, and even broken concrete. I think the best materials are those that you already have or can get cheaply or free. I’m proud to say the bulk of my bed materials have been salvaged.
There is lots of debate about what kind of lumber to use. It really depends on what your budget will allow. I do wish that all of my beds were made of cedar, but my budget doesn’t allow for that. Due to chemical paranoia, I try to avoid treated lumber and just plan on replacing the boards when they rot.
Building the Beds
Most of my raised beds are now very simply four boards nailed or screwed together. I’m just a girl who is not adept with the power tools, so I get my boards cut when I buy the lumber or beg my father to do it. It helps to have an extra hand around to help you hold the boards when you are putting them together, but it isn’t completely necessary.
I’m sure someone more clever than me would use fancy measurements and chalk lines and blueprints, but why over-complicate things? I kind of like the more organic look anyway. I like my beds about 3 feet across. I’ve had some that were wider, and it was too tough to reach the middle of the beds since I’m not that tall.
Preparing the Soil
You could easily whip out your tiller and mutilate the soil where you want your bed to be, but it is much simpler to go the no-till method. The first step is to kill whatever is there—by suffocation. (It’s interesting that vegetarians think they are being kinder to the earth, because gardening is kind of brutal!)
I used old cardboard boxes from an acquaintance who does a lot of shipping. I also used some newsprint-type paper accumulated from the junk mail piles of friends and family. Ideally, you probably shouldn’t used colored inks around garden beds because of the dye—but what companies only use black and white these days? I held down the layers with rocks, so they didn’t blow away as I was working.
Next, add layers of organic materials. These will deteriorate in the coming months and turn into a planting medium packed with nutrients. Some ideas include unfinished compost, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves, lime, ash, manure, straw, etc. I will spare you the photos of every layer that I did, but here are a few. Basically, you are making a compost bin right in a garden bed.
If you do this in the spring, you can add a thin layer of dirt or finished compost on top to plant in. For now, you can cover it with a thin layer of plastic to help speed up the deterioration. The soil will also warm faster in the spring if it is covered. This will give you a few weeks head-start on your gardening neighbors. (If you are competitive like that, which I’m sure you aren’t.)