On a sunny day in March, when we breathe the first balmy breath of air that hints at spring, we gardeners desperately want to do something outside. We are tempted to walk on the wet soil – not good for grass or gardens.
We want to prune the roses – way too soon. We want to uncover the perennials – also ill advised. And there’s always somebody who goes into a store looking for tomato plants (about two months too soon).
What can we do to fulfill the gardening need? Category one is planning the garden beds, potentially with shopping to follow. Category two, perhaps surprisingly, is planting one particular vegetable in just a week or three.
Raised beds: Find, buy or build
Gardening in raised beds has become both popular and commonly recognized at last. While I and other garden writers promoted the concept in the 1990s (“Great Garden Companions,” Rodale Books, 1998; now Penguin Books), it has taken a couple of decades for the term and practice to become commonplace.
Several reasons made this style popular: Urban gardening is bigger than ever before, nowhere more than in Buffalo, and compacted or possibly polluted urban soils call for easier, safer ways to grow food.
The aging boomer population of passionate, longtime gardeners also seeks methods that are easier on the back and knees.
Also newer homeowners and gardeners – millennials and younger – have less time than ever before, while raising children, maintaining careers, walking dogs and keeping themselves fit. A 20-by-40-foot plot in hard soil may be too much to handle, but they all want to grow some healthful food in their own yards.
Enter the raised bed.
• The elevated bed, not enclosed: A raised bed can simply be a mound of soil, flat on top, raked to a depth of several inches higher than the surrounding ground. The gardener uses the existing soil, probably mixed with some compost or new garden soil, and forms wide, elevated rows.
I recommend 3-foot-wide rows with 18-inch paths between, elevated at least 5 inches above the surrounding paths or ground. These have advantages over flat gardens because the gardener is less likely to step on the soil, and these beds drain and dry out quicker than flat gardens.
In March it’s too soon to do anything with the soil, so wait to start creating these.
• The enclosed or framed raised bed: More likely an urban or small-space gardener will want an enclosed or framed bed, built using hardwood, rocks, cement blocks, straw bales, or heavy plastic products. Many kits are in the marketplace, so look around.
My daughter bought and has enjoyed gardening in a wooden raised bed that she bought at a past Plantasia Garden and Landscape Show (this year from March 19-22 at the Fairgrounds Event Center and Artisan Hall in Hamburg). It was easy to assemble, attractive, and does the job.
If you’re using found planks or purchased hardwood, be sure it’s untreated wood. You can extend its life span by stapling heavy black plastic to the inner wall of the bed (not covering the floor). I also like the fabric Big Bag Bed (smartpots.com) with many shapes and sizes – good for many years of easy planting.
Whatever your framing material, I suggest a raised bed 12 to 15 inches deep, or higher if the ground below it is truly impenetrable or damaged. (Before starting, rough up the soil underneath your raised bed.)
For ease of working from the sides, a 3-foot-wide bed is convenient. Experience and evidence have shown that you can grow as many vegetables in three 6-by-3-foot raised beds as in a 200-square-foot flat garden. Plan, assess the materials you have, or shop now.
Next you will fill the bed. If your yard or the neighbor’s farm happens to have deep, rich topsoil, then use it, preferably with compost stirred in.
Usually you must buy the garden soil, which is sometimes complicated. Be careful. Many products labeled “topsoil” are poor quality, heavy, or weedy. Go to professional, local, trusted sources rather than a corner store with a pop-up stand of soil bags. Ask experts in respected garden centers.
You can use professional potting mixes – necessary for container planting – but they are quite light for most raised bed gardening; mix them with a compost-rich garden soil. Some commercial products called “garden soil” are excellent.
I have experience and confidence with the national brand Big Yellow Bag garden soil (available in Western New York from Lakeside Sod), which is ready for filling a raised bed and used as is. Nothing is more important for gardening success than the soil, so choose carefully.
Peas, the very early vegetable
St. Patrick’s Day could be the day to plant peas in Western New York. Or at least Easter. It all depends on your soil and how the weather develops.
If the soil is unfrozen and slightly soft, and you can stick your finger in 1 inch without it hurting, you can plant peas. They will germinate in soil temperatures above 40 degrees and won’t be damaged by a few frosts.
Either poke the peas in hole by hole with fingers or pencils, or use a tool to create little inch-deep rows.
For bush peas, plant a block of them (maybe 3 feet wide) about 2 inches apart in all directions. For climbing peas, place a trellis or fence, and plant the peas a few inches apart, a few inches from its base.
Cool soil is necessary for edible peas, so plan to put warm-weather crops (such as beans or squash) in the same location toward the end of May, when the peas are becoming tough. You should find several kinds of peas in most good garden centers when they open, or scout the garden show vendors. Peas are easy to grow, a great experience for children, and help a gardener have something to plant very early in the season.
Forget about the tomatoes. Plant some peas.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).
* In case you missed Sally Cunningham's last "Great Gardening" column: