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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

I’ve overheard it wherever gardeners are talking: “I’m putting in raised beds.” Millennials, seniors, urban gardeners and growers of all cultures have discovered – or rediscovered – raised bed gardening. Finally!

The systems and ideas are not new. Ancient Chinese, Greek, Mayan and early European people (as in French Intensive farming during the 1800s) figured out how to grow food using several variations on a similar theme.

Alan Chadwick introduced the Biointensive method in the 1960s. John Jeavons wrote the best-selling sustainable farming handbook “How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” now in its eighth edition. Rodale Books offered interrelated systems called square foot gardening, lasagna gardening and companion gardening over recent decades. More than ever now, from many tributaries, raised bed methods have gone mainstream.

In Buffalo you’ll see them on the Broadway Market rooftop garden, at the Pelion Garden (City Honors School) and in many grass-roots and other community gardens.

In all its incarnations, this is what gardeners do in intensive, raised-bed gardening: Grow many kinds of plants together, cover the soil completely, use the space to maximum capacity, and continually nourish and replenish the soil.

What follows is a practical difference in how you plant a garden: After building and nourishing all that soil, and planting intensively, you don’t want to wreck the soil by walking or putting equipment on it. So you will grow crops in blocks or wide rows, in raised beds.

Mounded beds

When I started writing “Great Garden Companions” in 1996, I was growing my family’s vegetables in a sprawling 30-by-40-foot garden that began with painfully heavy clay soil. It screamed for composted manure from our horses, and all the other organic matter we could get. It soon became obvious that once we dumped the manure and compost on the soil it would be foolish to trample on it. The solution was the simplest form of raised-bed gardening: Using a hoe, rake the compost-soil mix into elevated mounds or beds a few inches higher than the surrounding paths. Once the raised beds and paths are formed, never again step on the planting area. And make the paths for feet or wheelbarrows permanent.

How wide and high? The beds you form with rake and hoe should be as wide as you can manage easily – 3 to 4 feet about right for most situations. If you are gardening with hand tools, make the bed wide enough to reach into from a bending, sitting or squatting position without hurting your back. For smaller folks that could be 3 feet – and wider for bigger physiques.

If you are planning to till the rows (a temporary practice, as your compost-y beds will eventually be friable with no equipment needed), then make the beds just tiller width. Organic farmers design bed widths to suit their equipment, whether they are using machines or horse-drawn tillers and harvesters. In all cases, till soil very lightly, enough to break the surface and turn in the organic matter, since heavy tilling ruins soil structure.

The width and covering of the permanent paths is another important decision, so consider how wide to make them depending upon how you work and the carts or vehicles you use. An 18-inch path works for gardening by hand, unless you want to walk with someone or push a cart on the path. For such reasons, a 2-foot or wider path may work better.

Next, figure out how to avoid weedy paths and make walking easy. You might cover the paths with black plastic covered by mulch. I put down scrap barn boards or untreated lumber. Straw makes a nice path. Sawdust, shredded bark and wood chips are all good path material. Some gardeners even plant their paths with grass seed for a refined look, or make the pollinators happy by using clover.

Beds to build or buy

From homemade to bought, there are many ways to structure the other kind of raised-bed – enclosed or framed gardens that sit above the ground. The height is optional; think about how you will tend your garden. Some gardeners may like or require the comfort of built-in seats on the edges or corners of these beds.

• Boards and corners: My brother-in-law Craig helped me build my first wooden raised beds using aged hemlock boards 2 inches thick, but any hardwood will do. (Sometime in the 1980s we learned that the arsenic-laced treated deck lumber was not a healthy choice.) Those beds were 4-by-8 feet and held up well for over a decade. To slow the natural rotting process, it helps to line the inner walls (not the floor) with builders’ plastic. While carpenters have no trouble building large rectangular boxes, less confident gardeners also may like preformed metal corners, designed to shape instant beds (available from local artisans or online sources). You just drill or screw the corners on the boards.

• Blocks and rocks: Raised beds also can be prettily enclosed by rocks, many kinds of pavers, stacked flagstone or even cinder blocks. The latter can be especially cute if you place the open side up and insert succulents, nasturtiums or other flowers.

• Bought bag beds and more: Garden catalogs and flower shows regularly feature easy-to-use garden walls and planters made from plastic, recycled tires, fiberglass and more. Garden writers touring in Quebec City saw a vast rooftop garden, tended by homeless men, planted in the large fiber product called the Big Bag Bed, also seen at Plantasia. I bought a 5-foot one and will let you know how it grows.

Figure out what suits you and try growing above ground.

What’s in the bed?

More important than the form of your garden – flat or mounded, built or bought structure – your growing medium, the soil and compost, make all the difference. As you wait for planting weather, find your sources and start the soil homework – our topic in several weeks to follow.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.