Raised Bed Gardening: Plan Your Vegetables and Herbs in Fall

As the days get chillier, you can still plan for your next year’s production by building new raised beds.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised-bed gardening has many benefits, and can be prepared for during the early fall months.

Photo By Fotolia/Alison Hancock

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Fall isn’t a time to quit gardening. In fact, it’s the perfect time to plan your raised-bed gardens, according to gardeners Joy Bossi and Karen Bastow, authors of Joy in Your Garden: A Seasonal Guide to Gardening (Cedar Fort, 2012). In this excerpt from the “September, October and November” section of the book, find tips on getting that intensive gardening started, plus learn the benefits of fall gardening. 

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Where to Put a Vegetable Garden

If you haven’t had a vegetable garden before, fall is an excellent time to get started—yes, fall! Whenever you do get ready to start a vegetable garden, you will need to decide if you would like a traditional single-row garden or a raised-bed garden. If you get the beds made and the soil prepared (or boxes built if you choose to use a raised-bed gardening method), you’ll find that you are just that much further ahead in the spring when it is time to plant.

As you survey your gardening kingdom, make note of where the sun shines directly on the soil for the most hours during the day. That is the best place for a vegetable/herb garden. The area should also be away from trees because not only do they cast shade for some part of the day, but the tree roots will out-compete the smaller plants for water and nutrients.

Sometimes that most sunny place is right smack dab in the middle of the lawn.

If you choose to have a single-row vegetable garden, now is a good time to prepare the soil. Clear it of any grass or weeds, and rototill or hand dig. At the same time add organic matter until the soil is a good, workable texture. Then, come spring, you can start gardening just as soon as the soil dries and you can use a rake to smooth out the bumps.

Intensive Gardening

Intensive planting—where seeds are scattered in a block rather than in rows—has some advantages.

Every part of the soil is busy growing plants, with none of the soil reserved to channel water or walk on. The closely planted veggies shade the soil, limiting weed growth and slowing water evaporation.

These beds are often raised growing beds, adding the advantage of soil warming earlier in the spring and better water drainage through the soil.

Raised-Bed Gardens

Many people are choosing to garden using a raised bed method. Gardening in raised beds simply means that you grow your plants above the level of the ground. This is usually achieved by building a structure—such as a wooden frame and filling it with soil. You can also use bricks, concrete blocks, and many other materials to build your raised beds. You’re really only limited by your imagination and the space you have in your yard. It’s also possible to purchase raised beds commercially or simply construct your own. For a more informal garden, raised beds can also be created by simply piling up the soil to form the beds.

Advantages of Raised-Bed Gardens

There are many advantages to a raised bed over the traditional single-row garden:

• A true raised-bed garden never needs tilling soil because it does not become compacted—you don’t walk on a raised bed. Soil compaction can reduce crop yields up to 50 percent. Water, air, and roots all have difficulty moving through soil compressed by tractors, tillers, or the gardener’s boots.
• Planting can take place earlier in the spring since there is no need to wait for perfect weather or for the soil to dry out. A raised-bed garden simply thaws and dries out quicker.
• A raised-bed garden takes up less space, yet the same amount of produce can be grown in that reduced area.
• A raised bed can be an attractive focal point in a landscape and can be as simple or elaborate as desired.
• A raised-bed garden has fewer weeds and therefore takes less time out of a busy schedule. 

Characteristics of Raised Beds

Whether you choose to corral your raised beds with a structure, or simply mound your soil, you should follow the same simple guidelines.

• A bed should be no wider than 4 feet to be easily reached from both sides, but the length can be as desired.
• If the bed is up against a fence or a wall where you can only reach from one side, keep the bed two feet wide.
• Aisles between beds may be left in sod, mulched, or even paved with stone, gravel, or brick.
• Dig out any grass or weeds in the area where the bed itself will be located.
• Raised beds require excellent organic soil. If using existing soil, mix in at least 3–4 inches of good organic matter. Or, if you want, use the organic mix solely in place of the existing soil.
• Carefully consider the orientation of the beds. Tall crops should be planted on the north side of a bed to prevent shading any low-growing, sun-loving plants. A north-south orientation is best for lowgrowing crops, allowing direct sunlight to both sides of the bed. Beds that will contain taller crops such as corn, pole beans, or trellised tomatoes might do better in an east-west layout. Lower-growing crops could be planted on the south side of the bed and still get full sun. Conversely, shade-loving plants such as lettuce should be planted where they will be shaded by taller crops.

Unstructured Raised Beds

To create a raised bed, mix in organic matter at the same time the garden is first tilled. Dig walkways down with the soil thrown up creating the planting area. The beds should be four feet wide at the base, tapered slightly to top. Why? So the soil won’t slide into the path. You can cover the entire bed with organic mulch like dry grass clippings to further prevent soil erosion. The mulch will also reduce compaction from rain and sprinkler irrigation. All care of the bed is done from the paths. You can keep your feet on the path and still work all areas of the garden.

When you need to add more organic matter, you can dig it in by hand. However, if you have a small tiller you love to use, you could use it in this type of bed. Just reshape the beds and smooth things out when you finish tilling soil.

To contain a raised bed, it is better to use only untreated lumber. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t use railroad ties that are covered in creosote, but you can use cinderblock, man-made lumber, bricks, rocks, or vinyl. After digging out grass, you may choose to put down a weed barrier, then build the raised bed on top. Next, fill the raised bed with good organic soil.

That weed barrier can be as simple as laying down a large piece of cardboard. The cardboard will eventually disintegrate, but will first choke out any weeds that try to grow. Make sure the barrier extends beyond the edge of the box and growing soil for at least six inches. Otherwise, the grass will sneak right into the box and try to reclaim its territory. I think the best weed barrier really is cardboard, but before you put it down, mix in the good organic matter with your existing soil. That way, when the cardboard disintegrates, the plant roots can keep right on growing.

Raised-bed boxes can be any height you want them to be from only 8 inches to 3 feet or more. They can also be the height of two cinder blocks stacked one on top of the other, creating a garden where you can sit on the edge saving your knees. Some of us can still kneel in the garden, but that’s not the problem—the problem is getting back up! And if your back dictates that your bending days are over, another great advantage of raised beds is that they can also be constructed high enough so you can enjoy gardening while standing up. It can also be made the right height so that it is wheelchair accessible. In extra tall gardens, fill the bottom with whatever you want that allows good drainage such as rocks, gravel, or road base—even packing peanuts can be used in a small garden! On top of this filler, add a weed barrier and a few inches of sand topped with 8–10 inches of good organic growing soil.

Watering a Raised-Bed Garden

Confining your watering to just the raised beds and not the paths (simplifying watering and conserving water in the process) also reduces disease by keeping the water on the soil instead of leaf surfaces. There are several methods of watering to choose from—soaker hoses, drip irrigation, or even by hand using a nozzle on a hose. If push comes to shove, you can use an overhead sprinkler, but it will negate some of the advantages of your raised bed garden. Keep the soil moist and don’t allow it to dry out. Check below the surface to see how much water is needed. This will vary according to the age of the plants, temperature, and the weather. 

High on a Mountain Tip: The weight of heavy snow through the winter may make it necessary to till the garden again in the spring.

Bonus Tip: The soil used to fill deeper raised beds should not be mixed with any of your garden soil because garden soil can possibly contain disease organisms and will certainly compact too heavily. The soil in these boxes needs to be made from a combination of several different good organic amendments, such as a variety of compost and peat moss with vermiculite added to hold moisture and keep the soil texture light.

More gardening advice

Check out more season-by-season words of wisdom from Joy in Your Garden: Garden Tool Storage for Winter.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Joy in Your Garden: A Seasonal Guide to Gardening by Joy Bossi and Karen Bastow, published by Cedar Fort, 2012. Buy this book in our storeJoy in Your Garden: A Seasonal Guide to Gardening.