Raised Bed Gardening
Especially at this time of year, when the weather is precarious and the threat of frost isn’t altogether gone, we’re all too aware of how precious the warm weather is. While we love our four distinct seasons in Manitoba, as gardeners we always wish the growing season was a little bit longer. We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can gain a bit more control over our growing conditions by building a raised garden bed.
Benefits of Raised Gardening
Raised garden beds solve a lot of the issues we face when planting directly into the ground. Not unlike the difference between heating a kettle of water and heating a swimming pool, soil that sits in our yards takes far longer to reach a warm and cozy seeding temperature than the soil we keep above ground in a raised bed. While we still need to keep our eye on the forecast, this allows us to plant some cool-weather tolerant varieties a little earlier than may be advisable in our standard garden beds.
However, there are even more benefits to raised bed gardening. It’s far easier to control the environment in a raised bed, as we can simply replace all the soil with fresh, sterile soil and compost any time we need to start again. The contained environment is also far less vulnerable to pests and weeds, making it a suitable place to grow our more finicky annuals and edibles. Plus, it’s much easier to spend hours tending the raised bed, as the need to bend over is virtually eliminated.
Building Raised Garden Beds
There are several ways to build raised beds, but the most traditional way is with wood. Also known as ‘garden boxes’, wooden raised beds are a fairly simple woodworking project for anyone who isn’t afraid of a few boards and nails. There are many raised garden bed plans available online that vary in difficulty, so it should be a snap to find a project that isn’t too intimidating.
When choosing your plan, keep in mind the plants you hope to grow and how much room you’ll need to house them. Consider spacing, planting depth, and the room those root systems will need. Unless you have other beds you can transplant into, you’ll want to ensure your plants will be able to reach maturity comfortably inside the bed.
Some raised bed plans include raised walls, which offers a little extra wind cover. If the plan you choose doesn’t involve a higher wall, try to position the planter near a fence or wall that can shield plants a little from strong gusts.
Due to the weight of the finished garden bed, most folks choose to build them in the same spot the garden bed will sit. Keeping in mind that it will be hard to move it once it’s built, choose a nice spot for your garden bed before you build. A little bit of dappled shade isn’t a bad idea since raised beds tend to dry out a little faster than your typical garden soil. You’ll still want to make sure your plants are getting plenty of sunlight, but unless you plan to check on them frequently, choose a spot that will offer a little cover from the sun midday.
When choosing a raised bed style, don’t discount the importance of height. While many people are perfectly happy with a simple raised bed that’s just a foot or so higher than the ground, those with back problems may prefer one that sits on wooden legs or cinder blocks. The closer to hip-height your garden bed is, the easier it will be to work in. While a higher design may add some extra steps and materials to the building process, it’s important to consider how important that long-term benefit could be!
How to Choose Wood for Building a Raised Garden Bed
Like any permanent fixture in our gardens, materials make a huge difference in the longevity and appearance of a garden box. Most home renovation and hardware stores sell raised garden bed kits that have already been cut and partially assembled to make setup easy but beware of kits that are far cheaper than the rest. The heat, moisture, and bacteria that will inevitably fill your garden bed will lead to a faster breakdown of cheap woods, so your kit should ideally contain parts made from cedar or redwood.
These woods are ideal choices due to the oils in the fibres that naturally protect against rot and infestation. Cedar has an especially pleasant aroma, which can be reminiscent of a trip to the sauna. Redwood and cedar planks and kits may cost more than other woods, but they’ll pay for themselves as the years go on and you’re not left repeatedly replacing your garden bed!
Straw Bale Gardens
If you’re not dead-set on the look of a constructed garden bed, straw bales are an excellent choice for a maintenance-free raised garden! The straw functions as a great growing medium, as it boasts great drainage and plenty of slowly-degrading organic matter. A little extra soil on top can help keep plants in place as they establish, and then all they need is a little watering.
To make a straw bale garden, purchase a wheat straw bale and move it to an area with full sun in your garden. Place a barrier, like landscaping fabric or even newspaper, between the bale and the ground to prevent weeds from entering the bale. For two weeks, water the bale every day, fertilizing every other day with high nitrogen (or a higher first number) fertilizer. For the second week, add the fertilizer at half-strength for the first three days and switch to plain water for the last four days.
This process helps the straw start to compost and break down. To confirm the bed is breaking down properly, you should notice the temperature of the straw bale is noticeably higher. It may also be starting to show small specks of soil forming on the hay.
If you wish to sow seeds in your bale, add a little extra potting soil on top of the bale and plant as you would any other garden bed. To plant seedlings, gently separate the hay to make holes for your seedlings and secure them with some potting soil. Finish planting by watering thoroughly to help your new garden settle in.
Straw bale gardens work just as well as raised vegetable gardens or raised flower beds, but they do expire quickly. You should expect to need a replacement bale each year. If you have access to bales and you like the rustic country look of straw in your garden, they’re a low-cost option that’s perfect for beginners.
Raised garden beds are excellent options for those who have a hard time with ground-level gardening, with a little more room to grow than a typical container. With total control over the growing environment, raised beds may even enable you to grow plants you never would have considered trying out. If the usual plant maintenance chores have gotten harder on your body, a raised bed may be just what you need to reinvigorate your passion for gardening!