Most likely we gardeners want to grow some of our own edibles for the deep sense of satisfaction that gardening gives. Raised beds are a sure-fire way to achieve that sense of accomplishment.
Why should you consider raised beds?
*They use minimal space.
*They have excellent drainage and retain moisture.
*They are built on top of your existing soil.
*They are virtually weed-free.
*They require minimal maintenance.
*They use minimal water.
Build your garden where it will receive at least 8 hours of sunlight. It should have a south facing view. You also want to locate so you can view it daily and to be easily accessible.
Decide how much space you really need for edibles and what construction materials you will need. A 4 foot by 4 foot square can provide a good start for the first year. A 4 foot by 8 foot space will provide enough food to feed two people well during the growing seasons. You will be building your garden on top of the existing soil, so that eliminates digging in our hardpan clay and dealing with weeds. For construction, you can use 8 inch cedar boards or purchase 8 inch composite boards which will not succumb to Mississippi’s humidity. I chose kits made of composites which will hopefully last for a lifetime. These were actually cheaper than using cedar.
You are in control, you can choose when to plant and how much to plant, and also not to weed or water often.
Your bottom layer could be cardboard or several layers of newspaper. This forms a weed barrier, and your good friends, the earthworms, will enjoy munching on it while it breaks down. Fill your box with 1/3 compost, 1/3 coarse vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. This is the priciest part of your garden, but it is a one time cost which will be offset by nature’s bounty, the savings on water, and the savings on your back. You can further save by making your own compost which you will need anyway because you need to add a shovelful whenever you harvest. The coarse grade vermiculite and peat moss would be available at a nursery. Mix these 3 ingredients together either on a tarp or in your bed.
Now the fun begins! Decide with your family what you want to eat and come up with a plan. Because this garden is square, you can divide it into smaller squares. A grid using 6 lath strips or bamboo will give you 16 squares. You can leave the grid on your garden permanently because it looks nice, but mine is easily removed so I can spade the whole bed. You can just as easily draw the grid in your soil-less mix with a trowel. In each square you plant only one kind of seed at the proper distance, and you won’t ever have to thin.
I like to make seed mats in the winter in order to get the proper spacing in my spring garden. To start, fold a table napkin 4 times to create 16 2- inch squares. In the center of each square, drop a bead of cornstarch paste and drop one small seed such as a radish, carrot, or beet. Lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, and green beans need 4 square inches to grow, so fold your mat accordingly. If 4 swiss chard plants, for example, are not adequate, then plant one more square mat. Tomatoes will require 2 square feet. The point is, plant what you can eat and not more. If you plant the whole seed packet and thin out 80% of it, who benefits?
So now you have a garden with 16 small squares like a checker board, and it is growing beautifully. The radishes are ready to harvest first, and by doing so, you gain an empty square to pop in an eggplant or an okra. By planting successively, we Mississippians can get 3 crops from the same space. For instance, potatoes could be followed by watermelons in the summer and finally kale in the fall and winter.
For climbers, you can build an easy trellis made from rebar, electrical conduit, and nylon pea netting for such climbers as snap peas, cucumbers and even melons. A trellis creates shade, so place it on the north side.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of compost. You only need to replenish your squares with an inch of compost each time you harvest. Work compost into the top 2 or 3 inches to refresh the bed. Either buy top quality compost, or better yet, make your own year round. All those leaves in your yard, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps from the kitchen create top caliber compost.
The satisfaction and joy of creating your own garden is priceless!
More information on raised bed gardening can be found at MSUCares, Southern Gardening, “Raised Beds Make Gardening Easier,” Bach, Gary, 1/17/2014.