Think “Up” to Solve Soil Problems

Tomatoes & strawberries in raised beds

If you’ve been thinking about starting a veggie garden this spring but fear that your rocky, clay, sandy, or wet soil will doom your effort, keep thinking, but in a new direction—up!

Yes, carrots don’t grow well in clay or in a rock garden, and bean seeds probably will rot in your swamp, but there is a solution to such problems: a raised bed.

A raised bed uses your bad soil as a foundation and rises above it as you add good garden soil. I’ve built raised beds over Piedmont Maryland’s clay soil. I’ve approached the job slowly—adding mostly composted leaves and manure over a period of years. But if you’re in a hurry, you can haul in a truckload of good soil and get the job done in one day.

Most people think “sides” when they think “raised beds,” but that doesn’t have to be. You can make a raised bed simply by stacking good soil on top of the bad, but the lack of lateral supports limits the height of such raised beds.

In ancient times, gardeners often used recycled railroad ties for supports, but health concerns through the years have convinced most gardeners, including me, that creosoted lumber isn’t good to use around edibles because of leaching chemicals.

Cinder and cement blocks are sometimes used, but they often don’t like to stay in place, and sometimes they’re just plain ugly.

My gardens mostly are on the side of a hill, so I have many terraced gardens—which I say are raised beds of a sort—at least on one, two, or three sides. I make mine out of 12”-wide stacking blocks that I buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s. The blocks let me shape beds as I want, at least to some degree, and they stay in place, look great, and likely will last longer than I will.

Many gardeners build raised beds out of wood—pressure-treated lumber or natural cedar or oak. Cedar and oak are expensive, and there are some lingering concerns about chemicals in pressure-treated woods leaching into veggie beds, though more recent formulations seem to have minimized that problem. Of course, recycled-plastic lumber and relatively inexpensive, untreated pine lumber are possibilities. Plastic lumber tends to be pricey, though, and untreated pine tends to deteriorate much quicker than treated lumber.

A practical problem in making a raised bed of lumber is how to keep it together at the corners and keep it from bowing on the long sides. Do-it-yourselfers will figure out solutions to such problems, but for the rest of us, a realistic answer is pre-fabricated aluminum corners and connectors to which you add the wood of your choice.

The best source I’ve seen for such aluminum fittings is Gardener’s Supply Company. To go to their site, CLICK HERE. When you get there, in the left column go to Gardening/Vegetable Gardening/Raised Beds. You’ll see ads for the fittings, as well as for complete kits, which you might be interested in if your income tax refund is burning a hole in your checking account.

Looking at catalog offerings is a good way to orient yourself so you can compare prices and materials with what might be available elsewhere or with what you have been thinking about building yourself.

If you want additional information about raised beds, see Norman Winter’s “Give your vegetable gardens a needed lift with raised beds,” in Saturday’s Washington Post. CLICK HERE.

Note:  Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.

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