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Give Your Garden A Lift | Summer 2006 Out Here Magazine

Raised beds a solution to poor soil, aching backs

By Amber Stephens

When Steven Upson became a horticulturalist for The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, which works to improve agriculture techniques, he noticed that the plants weren't growing very well in the Oklahoma soil.

So he decided to try raised-bed gardening, which allowed him to more carefully control growing elements from soil quality to drainage to weed control and everything else necessary to produce quality plants and vegetables.

"The reason we started using beds in the first place is we simply didn't have the soil to garden effectively," says Upson, author of Permanent Raised Bed Gardening and other booklets published by the foundation.

Instead of investing time and money in amending existing poor soil, Upson recommends home gardeners install raised beds, which can contain the right quality of soil for various growing conditions.

But before the landscape truck rolls up, loaded with premium topsoil, homeowners should do some site preparation work. Ideally, the raised bed should be placed in a sunny level site, although beds can be created using terraces on uneven ground.

"In terms of size, it depends on what your goals are," Upson says. For an average family who wants to supplement their diets with fresh vegetables, one or two beds should be sufficient. "Our standard bed is 100 square feet," he says.

Long, narrow beds, which measure 40 inches wide — "Remember, you have to be able to reach across it" — by 30 feet long can be created using a number of materials, including corrugated sheet metal, rubber lumber, and pressure-treated boards (without arsenic).

Upson suggests using standard one-by-six-foot boards to build the bed's walls. "That's the simplest stuff to use," he says. A typical bed could cost between $300 and $400, depending on the materials used and soil cost.

Gardeners can then select how high they want the bed, from a few inches off the ground to waist high, which helps alleviate back strain from bending over to weed and tend plants.

Raised beds also give gardeners a jumpstart on the growing season. By covering the bed with a film of mulch or with plastic stretched over hoops, temperatures inside the bed can be raised significantly, Upton says.

Plants in raised beds also benefit from improved soil drainage. For maximum benefit, soils should neither be too heavy from clay or too sandy. Upson prefers to till in peat moss with topsoil to loosen the soil.

But because plants in raised beds can't draw on groundwater and because they drain so efficiently, gardeners must pay extra attention to watering, particularly in summer. Upson suggests considering an irrigation system.

Whether gardeners want perennial flowers or an early tomato, raised bed gardens can benefit almost all plants, Upton says. "The potential for their yield will be realized," he says, "and people will be pleased with their results."

Amber Stephens is a freelance writer and editor from Amanda, Ohio.