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One dilemma facing many aspiring vegetable gardeners is sub-prime soil. Compacted, clay soil is not uncommon in Kentuckiana, but it is especially common in newer developments. One way to off-set the problem is to employ a system of raised beds. Raised beds are practical for many reasons and they are not just for the clay-challenged.
They are practical because you do not have to till, dig, double dig or battle clay in a raised bed. The soil has been added by you so, it is as good as you want it to be. A mixture of top soil and compost is a great place to start, working in a little compost or leaf mold every year thereafter will keep it good and rich. This soil mixture also ensures good drainage and provides proper nutrients to the plants.
In a raised bed system, you avoid soil compaction or root damage because you are not walking or tilling between the rows. Instead, you lean in from the outside of the elevated bed. It is much easier to work in, plant and harvest from a raised bed than it is in an in-ground garden where you have to stoop or crawl around on your hands and knees. Raised beds are ideal for people who have difficulty getting up and down or for those who may have other physical limitations.
The best benefit in my mind is that raised vegetable gardens are a more controlled environment. Remember all those springs that you waited for the soil temperature to heat up to 55 degrees, and then when it finally did, it rained for two weeks straight? Well, with a raised bed you can keep the soil dry and heat it up, getting your vegetables out earlier than anyone else in the neighborhood.
In the early spring, the soil in a raised bed naturally warms more quickly. If this isn’t quick enough you can fasten plastic over the bed or cover it with old storm windows, anything that will collect and trap warmth. Seed germination is directly linked to soil temperature, not air temperature. Certainly air temperature is a factor after seeds germinate, but the storm windows in my garden continued to act as a cold frame when night time temperatures dipped below freezing or there was a threat of frost. I prop the window open with a couple of bricks when the day time temperatures go above 45 degrees and remove it all together when they go above 50. I have been harvesting spinach that wintered over from last year for about two weeks now!
Another space-saving technique to consider is vertical growing in order to maximize your growing potential. You can plant closer together; therefore, producing more crop in less space. Vertical growing also promotes better air circulation, which is a preventative measure against insect and disease problems. Powdery mildew and aphids, alike, are deterred by moving air. Vertical growing, because the plants grow upward along a trellis, also reduces a plant’s exposure to disease causing soil pathogens.
Construction can be as easy or as elaborate as you choose. The very first raised bed I ever made was from old 2’’ x 8” boards that were in the barn. All it cost me was the price of some heavy-duty hinges that I used to secure each corner (and a load of soil mixture). Now you can buy prefab kits, purchase landscape timbers, cinder blocks or look around in the garage...it really is simple.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at JWiche@shelbybb.net.)