Why I Start with Raised Beds

How do I start a garden?

That’s what I asked myself several years ago when I started with a blank slate of a back yard.  I really had no idea what I was doing and I was starting with some of the worst possible conditions I could imagine.  Some places have hard soil.  We have caliche.

The clay in the soil gets wet, then bakes in the hot AZ son.  Wet, bake, wet, bake… and the result is equivalent to concrete.

When I was building my first raised beds I was told by someone that I needed to dig through this soil to get drainage for my garden.  So I dug… two feet down… through caliche… with a railroad pick.  It took FOREVER.  The first time I tried to break through the soil I took my railroad pick and started swinging.  I’m not a lightweight, but that 12 pound railroad pick bounced… and sparked… on the concrete that was my backyard.  I wet it down and left it.  It never soaked in more than a quarter inch.  It evaporated.  It was terrible.

Beds in a row

I’ve learned at least a little over the years, so if I was starting again I would do it a little bit different.

Raised beds have certain advantages over a traditional garden.

– They are higher up and so are a little easier to get into.

– The area is well defined which gives you a better chance of keeping your kids and your pets out of it.

– It allows you to concentrate your soil resources into one confined area that can be densely planted.

– It will warm up faster in the spring (if that is a concern for you).

– If you are using ollas, you can actually put the olla in place as you fill the bed, making the initial placement easier.

Lots of sprouts in a raised bed

Of course, raised beds don’t last and eventually the wood will rot.  That’s true, although from my experience it takes longer than you think.  But even so, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As you water your raised bed you are providing a nutrient dense compost tea to the area underneath and around the bed.  Over a few years even hard caliche will soften and improve.  By the time the wood has rotted and needs to be removed your garden soil has gone from bad to better.  The ground has gone from unmanageable, to easily workable.  Instead of a railroad pick you can easily use a shovel.

If I was starting from scratch, I would consider the following things.

– Think long term.  What do you want your garden to eventually look like.  Five, even ten years down the road, how big do you want your garden to be?  Figure out what the final perimeter area of your garden will be.

– Put several raised beds in that area but start small.  Add a couple more next season or next year.  Organize the first ones though in a way that makes sense as you add them.

– Put those beds right on top of the soil, no need to dig down.  You may get some muddy spots around your bed.  If this is a problem throw down some mulch around your beds.  A good, mostly composted wood mulch will absorb a lot of water and continue to improve the soil.

If you like the raised beds you can remove the soil, rebuild the box, and put everything back together.  If you decide to turn the whole area into a traditional garden, then your soil will be ready to go!

What do you think, fellow gardeners?  If you had to start from scratch how would you do it?

This post is linked on the Homestead Barn Hop at The Prairie Homestead.

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This entry was posted in Arizona Garden, Dripping Springs Ollas, ollas, raised beds, square foot gardening. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why I Start with Raised Beds

  1. nebraskadave says:

    Keith, I’ve had raised beds for years. It’s the only way to go. I just rejuvenated a couple beds this year. For bad soil small space growing, it is the best. My area is hard pan clay in the back yard and will grow native weeds abundantly but garden vegetables …. eh, not so much. I’m reading a lot about entire market farms that are being grown in the big round containers that look like the ones that would be used for trees. It’s an amazing setup with irrigation and production that’s unbelievable. It’s a setup in Florida so their garden season is just starting.

    Have a great day raising the beds.

  2. I’d continue to use raised beds but I’m put them even higher (for my bad back) and would pay the extra money up front for wood that would last longer. We’re holding ours together right now with decking screws. 🙂

  3. Bill says:

    Raised beds have all the advantages you mention. And they don’t require the use of any machinery. We used our clayish topsoil to fill some years ago and now the soil in the raised beds is a soft black loam. I just harvested sweet potatoes from those beds and I could pull them right out of the ground without a digging fork, while the ones growing in the clay soil had to be plowed or dug out and many of them broke off in the soil. One thing I’d remind folks who aren’t used to raised beds is that they don’t retain water as well as ground level gardens so it’s going to be necessary to irrigate them more often. And keeping the grass out from between them is an annoying problem. In hindsight I wish I’d put down cardboard and heavily mulched the area between the beds when we were putting them in. In the spring when the grass is growing like crazy if I use a weedeater to cut it around the beds it throws grass clippings all over my lettuce, which is a pain to remove. That’s a minor problem that can be avoided with some planning but something to be aware of.

    We have raised beds and I add more every year. But we mainly use the traditional gardens, making rows with a tractor. If I was starting over I’d definitely try to primarily use raise or permanent beds.

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