Sunday, June 15, 2008

April - Creating Raised Garden Beds (photos)

Last year, our first in this house, I wasn’t going to plant any vegetables. We were beginning a major renovation and remodel that included about half of the rooms in the house but had impact on all of it. I was also pregnant and expecting our second child at the end of summer. I didn’t expect to be able to bend over to weed or care for the plants so I focused on in inside of the house instead.

But, as luck would have it, a good friend of ours had extra tomato plants that he had started from seed. I took eight (four Beefsteak, four July 4th). A week or so later, another friend had leftover brassicas (cabbage and broccoli) and a few sweet and hot pepper plants. I took those too. I planted all of them back in the garden that Kevin’s dad had used for 20 years (we purchased the house from my in-laws). The vegetables did fine; not great, but definitely not terrible. Only half of the garden seemed to be getting enough sun due to a silver maple that had grown up to the south east.

So we needed to relocate the garden (it seems I’m always searching for the sun). Kevin gave me a Solar Pathfinder (see web links) for Christmas so I could instantly see which areas of the yard will get sufficient sun during the growing season. I took it around and located all of the options. Luckily, the ideal location happened to be behind our new garage in an area that was torn up from the construction.

My goal was to create raised beds. I had done a lot of reading and decided that the benefits of earlier planting and a longer growing season, no need to till, and easier height for planting and weeding sounded great for me. I momentarily considered using stone but decided that untreated cedar would be quicker, easier, and cheaper.

The site I had identified had quite a bit of westward slope as our house is built up higher than the surrounding ground. I designed four beds, each four feet wide by 12 feet long, which would sit into the hill (long end facing south) and be about a foot high at the uphill end and about two-and-a-half feetdeep at the bottom. I made my way to Home Depot for supplies and found a derth of decent lumber in the dimensions and quantities I was looking for. I quickly recalculated and redesigned, based on the available wood, and purchased enough material for one bed as I had originally designed and two more of my new version.

Later that day we were out for a walk with my in-laws and some friends and my father-in-law asked why I was using cedar instead of stone (as we were walking past a stone retaining wall). Needless to say, by the end of our walk I was on my way back to return the wood and the following day I made my way to Rock Valley Brick and Supply Company (see web links) to see what my stone options were.

I was able to have retaining blocks and cap stones delivered by the end of that week and then Kevin and I started the tedious and time-consuming process of creating beds.

Thankfully, my in-laws were in town at this time and were able to watch one or both of the kids on the days we worked on this project over several weekends (my father-in-law helped to level and stack stones one day too).

Admittedly, Kevin did most of the work in creating the beds (although I hauled my share of blocks!). We had to square the beds to the garage as well as to each other and to prepare and level the site (taking the slope into consideration and calculating its effect on the courses. It took several weeks and, in the end, we made only three beds (we went taller than we had originally planned so we used more stone).

We used NavaStone retaining blocks in Desert Heritage/Grey Blend (see web links). They look great and the wide blocks make a nice place to sit or lean when planting or weeding and were even deep and sturdy enough to stand on when I hoed in chicken fertilizer before planting.

What we learned…

  • It is a lot of work to level, embed, and lay rectilinear retaining stones. We knew this going in to it but everything seems to take longer than we think it will. We’re happy with the result but may not rush to lay stone again any time soon.
  • The Home Depot in Rockford has more untreated cedar than the one in Machesney Park (MP). This is what the sales guy told me, anyway, when I lamented that I wasn’t finding what I needed at the MP store.
  • Remember to leave enough space between your beds to drive whatever you need to between them. We will mulch around our beds and, so, didn’t have to worry about getting a lawn mower in there but we did get out both the wheelbarrow and the garden cart to make sure there was ample room to wheel those around the beds.
  • It seemed from the research I did that four feet was the magic number for the best width of raised beds and that length was up to the user. We chose 12 feet for length because that was about all the space we had with a sufficient amount of sunlight (garage to the east, white pine tree to the west). What I've found is that four feet is a hair wide for me (this is our interior dimension). I can reach the center to weed but not as easily as I could if the beds were just three-and-a-half feet wide. And I have fairly long arms, someone shorter would definitely want to consider narrower beds.
    Also, we just don’t have the real estate I feel I want with three beds of this size. We’ve had to create some ground-level beds as well (where I will make shorter wooden raised beds for next year!). We borrowed a tiller from an old neighbor (thanks John!) and created additional areas that are larger than the current raised beds.
  • We used 1/2-inch hardware cloth in the bottoms of each bed (perhaps, 1/4-inch would have been better?) We were trying to keep rodents from crawling up and eating the roots of our yummy veggies.
  • Plan to amend any soil you have delivered. We had a pile of dirt in our front yard left from the excavation for the garage. However, I didn’t know how much of that would be needed to backfill and it was a little rocky. Thinking I would be fighting a constant battle against stones, I decided to have topsoil delivered. When I watered in my new plants I was immediately sorry. The soil delivered was very clay-like (it cracks the morning after a day of rain) and gummy. I’ve been pulling lots of velvet leaf (indicating that the soil is from a corn field that was sprayed with herbicide). My plan now is to keep adding organic matter, humus (compost), and my own screened soil (which is sandy and drains well) each year until I find a consistency I like. In the meantime, I will deal with what I have.

No comments: