Sunday, May 4, 2014

Save Your Back with Elevated Garden Beds

There's plenty of research that shows that gardening is good for people. It is a great stress reliever, and gardening lowers the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. Gardening is a mood elevator and a sleep aid. It is also said to improve people's sex lives.

But sometimes there are serious obstacles in the way of getting a garden growing. What if you have really poor soil? What if you have back and joint problems and it is hard for you to bend over? What if you are confined to a wheelchair? What if the only space you have for a garden is an apartment balcony or a small patio?

For you, the solution might be an elevated garden bed. These beds bring gardens up to a level that is easy to reach. They also fit nicely into small spaces. And manufacturers are coming up with innovative and attractive designs for planters that can be shipped right to your door and assembled in minutes. Here are a couple of examples.


The Grownomic Rustic Elevated Garden Bed, shown above, is made of Western red cedar which is resistant to rot. The wood is untreated, so you don't have to worry about toxic chemicals leaching into your garden soil. It stands 30" tall and is 2 feet deep and 4 feet wide. The planter depth is 8", perfect for growing herbs, salad greens and other shallow rooted vegetables. This planter assembles in minutes, without any tools.


If you want a splash of color to brighten up your space, this stylish Herstera Urban Garden Metal Trolley from EarthEasy comes in 4 colors: silver, red, white and moss green. It measures 29-1/2" wide, 13.8" deep, and 33" tall. The planter compartment is 8" deep. The trolley is made of galvanized and powder coated steel and is resistant to rust. Assembly is easy - no tools required. With the shelf below to store tools, this is ideal for small spaces. Wheels make it easy to move from place to place.

The beauty of these elevated beds is that you can get a small garden started quickly and easily. No struggling with tools or equipment. Just assemble, fill with clean top soil, plant and enjoy!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Building Raised Beds

If you've decided that you want to turn part of your lawn into a vegetable garden, where do you start?

Here's one way to go about it. First, rent a sod cutter or use a mattock to take out the grass. (Be sure to take up all of the roots or, before you know it, grass will start growing again in your new garden.) Then turn the soil, using either a shovel or a rototiller. After that, amend the soil with compost and perhaps test the soil to see if there are other micro-nutrients that need to be added. When you have worked all of that into the soil, then rake it out, break up any remaining clods, and prepare the bed for planting.

OR - skip all of that and build raised beds right on top of the grass.


You can build frames like the ones shown above, using cedar 1x6 planks and 2x2 corner posts. These particular frames are about 18" deep, deep enough for root crops like potatoes or carrots. But beds don't have to be that deep - 8" to 12" is adequate if you intend to grow herbs and flowers.

If carpentry isn't your thing, you can buy kits like these from EarthEasy. These frames go together in less than a minute - watch the video to see how it is done - no tools are required. The frames can be stacked if you want deeper beds. They are made of untreated wood, so you won't have to worry about chemicals leaching into your vegetable garden. Plus, EarthEasy offers free shipping.

To smother the grass so that it doesn't come up into your raised bed garden, try this simple sheet composting method. First, if the grass is dried out, splash a little water on it. You want it to be moist as though it had just rained. Now sprinkle a very thin layer of compost over the grass. Over that, lay newspaper, 4 or 5 sheets thick, being careful to completely cover all of the grass. Now spread another layer of compost over the top of the newspaper and sprinkle a bit of water over it. Then add clean topsoil to fill the raised bed and plant your garden.

The newspaper will keep the grass from growing and the micro-organisms in the compost will break down the dead grass and newspaper. It takes about a year for this process to be complete. In the meantime, over the top of it all, you are growing and harvesting food for your table.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Magic of Mulch

When I do consultations, I get a lot of questions about mulch. First of all, what IS mulch? Is it compost, bark, what?

The answer is that mulch is a blanket - it is any material that you use to cover the bare soil in your garden beds. It could be compost, bark, fallen leaves, pine needles, a composted combination of sawdust and manure, even rocks or crushed glass (I do not recommend the last choice in particular, but I have seen it done) - anything that covers the soil while allowing water and air to penetrate.

Mulch is usually applied in a layer 1-1/2 to 2" deep. This depth will help hold moisture in the soil so you won't have to water as often. It will also do a good job of keeping weeds under control. I believe that weeding without mulching is a waste of your time. When you have weeded and loosened the soil, you've created a perfect place for weed seed blowing by on a spring breeze to land and germinate. A thick layer of mulch is not as "germination friendly" as your freshly worked soil, so it keeps new weeds from getting established. If there is already weed seed in the ground, which is often the case in areas that have been weedy for a long time, it has trouble germinating if it is smothered by a good layer of mulch.
Heather bed before weeding
When people tell me that they used a mulch "but the weeds came right back," it's because one of two things happened.
1) They didn't put down enough mulch. A mere half inch is not enough.

Heather bed after weeding and mulching with Steerco
2) They failed to weed thoroughly. If the roots are still in the ground, the weeds will regrow quickly. Pulling the tops off isn't weeding. You have to use a hand cultivator or soil knife and grub out those roots. In areas that have long been home to weeds, a couple of seasons of diligent weeding will be necessary to get things under control. Each year will be easier and by season 3, you'll be pleased to see how quickly you can get your beds weeded and looking good.


OK, now you know why you should use a mulch. So the question is: which one? A lot of people use bark, but I don't recommend it. Bark is not composted. After you spread it out over your garden beds, it will start to break down and as it composts itself it takes nitrogen from the soil to complete that process. That means there is less nitrogen available for your plants to use and they end up stressed. Notice the leaf color on plants sitting in a sea of bark. The leaves are often yellowish instead of deep green - and that's because they lack nitrogen. To keep that from happening, use a mulch that has already been composted.

(That said, I do like bark as a place holder. If you have a spot overrun by weeds that you plan sometime in the future to turn into garden space, weed it well and put down a thick layer of bark. It will keep the weeds down and when you are ready to use the space, you can plow the composted bark into the soil. Thick layers of coarsely chopped bark also make fine garden paths between raised beds.)

That narrows the choice down to compost (homemade or commercial) or products like Steerco and Gro-co. Steerco is a combination of composted sawdust and steer manure. Gro-co is composted sawdust and municipal sludge (in other words treated and composted sewage). Some people have no problem with Gro-co, others are creeped out by it. It is completely safe. The only possible objection I might have is that there might be a higher (but still very small) concentration of heavy metals in it.

My preference is Steerco, sold in Seattle by Sawdust Supply, the company that provides all the soil and mulch for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I've used countless yards of this material in the past 20 years and have always been happy with the result. It is already composted and contains microorganisms that perk up tired garden beds. It helps add structure to sandy soils and loosens clay soils - provided that you make it part of your annual bed clean up and maintenance. It does all the things you want a mulch to do, plus it has no odor and it looks great. It makes the humblest garden look professionally done.


On top of all that, Steerco is a bargain. A bag weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 lbs. and costs about $5, including tax. Steerco is also available by the yard. You can pick it up yourself or have it delivered.

If you need to figure out how much mulch, bark or topsoil you need for a project, here's a handy chart.