Q: I think I want to try building a raised bed this year, because I’ve read they are warmer and I can plant earlier. But I rent my house and don’t want it be a big expense and I might not want it to be permanent — so I don’t want to spend a lot in case I don’t like it! Any suggestions?
A: No matter where you live, the climate presents challenges for gardeners who grow their own food. In the north, cold is a limiting factor for some crops. A raised bed will warm up faster in the spring and can be planted sooner. In the fall, the reverse is true — it holds heat longer, so you buy another week or so of growing time. But there are other reasons to make raised beds:
Raising makes them higher and a little easier to reach. How high is a “raised” bed? It could be much higher than ground level to accommodate a handicapped gardener, or merely a gardener with a bad back. It can be made as high and as wide as you need. You can garden in otherwise impossible spots! With a raised bed, you have the opportunity to literally make the garden and load it with really great soil in the right spot.
Raised beds also enable you to easily alter heavy clay or rocky or thin topsoil, because you can simply add new, higher-quality soil on top of the problem. Another advantage is that raised beds don’t get stepped on so soil doesn’t get compacted!
When creating new raised beds, take soil from what will be your pathways and use it to build your beds. If necessary, bring in additional topsoil to build the depth of your beds. In either case, the planting area will be higher and deeper, which is especially beneficial to root crops.
Here are several easy ways to make a raised bed:
Make a frame using pine, which will last about four to five years and is the cheapest wood to use. Cedar is more expensive, but will last for more than 10 years. Corner brackets into which the standard lumber fits are nothing but pre-fab metal corners into which you slip your standard 2-by-4 piece of lumber — simpler than nailing. Although slightly more expensive, the corners are reusable and produce a raised bed in minutes rather than hours.
Logs will also work, but beware of railroad ties as the older ones are treated with creosote, and most of the newer ones are chemically treated as well. Don’t use pre-treated lumber! It is toxic to eatable crops and splinters are dangerous.
For more permanence, stone or brick can form the edge of the raised bed.
Build the simplest and cheapest raised bed of all: Just mound up the soil about 12 to 16 inches above ground level for your raised bed, and plant. All the advantages of raised-bed gardening — and no expenses. Just labor.
This week’s dirt: Now that it’s May are you wondering when to plant? Want to know how to forecast the weather? Gardeners have depended on these old May sayings and adages for generations:
“A cold May is kindly/ And fills the barn finely …”
“When oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, it’s time to plant corn and other hot weather veggies.”
“Plant corn when the apple blossoms fall.”
“If a thunderstorm occurs before seven in the morning in April or May, we’ll have a wet summer!”
North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger is a periodic feature of Friday’s Living section. Reach Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o Gloucester Daily Times, 36 Whittemore St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.