I’m not much of a raised bed gardener.
I learned to grow food on a couple of farms in Sonoma county– one a 40+ acre vineyard, vegetable, and orchard operation, the other a two-acre CSA farm– both of which planned and grew crops directly in the ground. The seasoned farmer who ran our 6-month apprenticeship program even had some choice words to say about raised beds. So when I put in my first garden at a local church, I dug my own beds right into the ground, sheet-mulching and cover-cropping and tilling as little as possible.
Later, Lyle and I planned and planted our first real garden in much the same way. We had a gorgeous, sunny 20 x 20 plot in the middle of the double lot where our rental house sat, and the freedom to do whatever we wanted with it. We carved out four beds with pathways between, and perennial header plants of hyssop, rosemary, sage, thyme, and calendula. I really, really loved that garden, and it produced so beautifully for us. I miss it.
When we bought our first home, where we currently live, we accepted the minimal yard space because we were just so thrilled to have the opportunity of homeownership. We knew we wanted to landscape the front with native plants to keep irrigation costs down and help out native wildlife, and we also wanted room for Sky to play in the small side yard that was half cement patio. We ended up putting in some sod for her, and laying flagstone for a small patio for entertaining (cuz parents of small children do SO much of that, right?). That left us with two options for growing food: join our local community garden, and/or install a space-saving raised bed on the cement pad.
We tried the community garden for a couple seasons. The first season, we planted late, so we just threw down a bunch of winter squash seeds and crossed our fingers. Much to our delight, we got a few crazy looking delicata/kabocha blends that cross-pollinated, and we were looking forward to trying them out. Then someone harvested and smashed them on the street outside the park, along with damage to several of our neighbors’ plots. Needless to say, we were disappointed, but I was also just MAD, and determined to pitch in with garden leadership to try to solve what sounded like a chronic problem at our garden.
I managed the community garden for the next year, and our second-year garden was much more successful. We enjoyed cherry tomatoes, chard, basil, cucumbers, beans, arugula, and lettuce from our own small plot, along with a profusion of heirloom tomatoes, carrots, chervil, radishes, and greens given to us by our Ukrainian garden neighbors. After many community work parties and neighborhood outreach events, the incidents of vandalism even decreased, and gardeners reported feeling a lot safer in the garden.
I felt and still feel so proud of that year, and I also felt really burnt out. It ended up being too much for our family for me to take on that leadership role while also running our home and trying to grow food. What had started out as a family project had turned into a solo project for me, and I just didn’t have much energy for it after caring for Sky all day and coordinating garden stuff. Meanwhile, Lyle was working long days of physical labor and the last thing he wanted to do in the evening was head up the block to water, weed, and coil up all of the tangled hoses left in the common pathways. So at the end of the season, we decided we’d tuck in our plot with a cover crop and turn in our “key.”
And we started scheming about carving out some space in the yard to grow food.
This is what we came up with: a 2(H) x 8(L) x 2.5 (W) foot raised bed made of 4x4s and cedar boards. We lined the bottom with pea gravel and black weed cloth, then filled it with a compost/manure/soil mix from the feed and fuel store down the road. It’s on top of concrete alongside the southwest-facing side of the house, so we’re hoping this creates a bit of solar heat during the colder part of the year. This is the side of the house with the panels for our electric, water, and rooftop solar panels, so we left a good foot behind the bed for access to those.
We didn’t get it finished until mid-June this summer, because I just felt so awful in the beginning of this pregnancy and really didn’t have energy for anything. We missed the prime planting window for summer crops, so in August we seeded the bed with peas, arugula, salad greens, beets, and chard for a fall/winter garden. Then Lyle made a hinging triangular “cloche” frame for it with chicken and hog wire to keep our cat out. When the cold weather comes, we’ll pick up some painters’ plastic from the hardware store and staple it over the sides to keep the plants warm.
So far our little peas are making their way up the trellis in back, and the salad greens are coming in. Something has nibbled off all of the tender tops of the tiny arugula sprouts, so I may need to reseed those or try a different green for that section.
We’ll see what comes of our experiment. Who knows, maybe it will even make a raised-bed convert out of me.
Which do you prefer, an in-ground or raised bed garden? What are you growing this fall and winter?