Welcome back! Today’s post will focus on one of my favourite homesteading topics…. gardening! While many of our friends in more temperate climates are on the cusp on planting season, here in the Canadian foothills we are still a couple months away from spring. However, it is never too early for planning ahead and getting a head start on some of your homestead building projects! This post is part one of two about our raised bed gardens, and will discuss why we chose raised bed gardening over the more tradition in-ground style of garden. A follow up post will detail how we built our raised bed garden boxes, and how you can build one (or two, or three!) of your own!
After researching raised garden beds versus traditional in-ground gardening we took into account several factors before coming to the conclusion that raised beds would suit our needs best. These factors included the following:
Protection from the natural elements: we know that in our area we battle many predation threats ranging from the large (ungulates) to the small (rodents and insects). Raised bed gardens allow us to protect our crops from these threats from the side, above, and underneath. We planned to combat these threats as best as we could by using removable hoop tops, sturdy construction materials, and by lining the floor of the boxes with wire to deter potential tunnelers such as moles and gophers.
In the spring the soil warms within the walls of the raised bed structure much faster than the ground thaws, meaning that the soil is workable much sooner. You can also add insulation to further speed the process, such as straw bales, to the sides of the walls. Staple landscape fabric across the open top or place windows over the soil on top to take advantage of the solar heat from above prior to planting.
To lengthen our growing season we have found that raised beds readily become cold frames in the early spring. All we have to do is remove the summertime hoop tops and place old windows over the top of the boxes. This creates a greenhouse-like environment, warming the soil and protecting the seedlings from harsh elements. We then get a head start on growing and have vegetables ready to harvest much earlier in the season than if we waited to plant anything until the last frost date in late May.
We also face extreme weather – early or late frosts, cold or hot drying winds, and hail storms, for example. The raised bed design allows us to cover and protect our plants more readily than would a traditional in-ground garden. To combat extreme weather we attached tarps to the side of the beds. These tarps are typically rolled up and off to the side, but in the event of cold or extreme weather they can be quickly unrolled over the hoop top and secured on the opposite side in order to cover and protect our garden crops.
High Production and Increased Yields: from our research we determined that raised bed gardens can be up to three times more productive per square foot than tradition in-ground gardens. This is due to better soil quality and deeper soil, the fact that its easier to manage nutrients, and ease of weeding. The confines of the raised bed garden box lends itself to water conservation because you are not losing as much water to adjacent areas from runoff and seeping. Also, because you have more plants in a smaller area, you will find it easier to mulch and will lose less water to evaporation. This design also lends itself to the deep-water method, an approach where you water more thoroughly less often which encourages deeper roots and stronger plants, saving water overall. We also plan to implement a drip irrigation system to more efficiently manage both our time and water used.
Increased production within a smaller area lends itself well to the backyard homestead as you will not require as much space. The same principles apply to urban homesteaders who may only have a small backyard or patio available for container gardens, which enjoy the same benefits as raised bed garden boxes on a smaller scale. A good example can be found here – How to Grow A Hundred Pounds of Potatoes in a Barrel.
The design of our raised bed garden boxes lends itself well to creating a simple and inexpensive greenhouse space. In 2016 we dedicated one of our garden beds to greenhouse plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and basil. Simply staple durable vapor barrier plastic wrap over the hoop top. Cut a vent in either end to encourage air flow and voila – you have yourself a mini greenhouse!
User Friendly: imagine gardening without crouching down on your hands and knees! Raised beds add height to allow for easier access for seeding, watering, mulching, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting. In a smaller space it is easier to test your soil with increased accuracy. We tend to grow our plants closer together in our raised beds because the deep soil allows roots to grow down instead of to the sides where they compete for nutrients, water, and space with their neighbours. We also found that it was quite easy to make and adjust our planting plans for raised bed gardens. Raised bed gardens also simplify record keeping and crop rotation plans. By labelling your boxes and keeping record of what crops you grow in each one every year you will be able to ensure that you rotate crops where appropriate (ie. members of the same plant family, such as nightshades, often should not be grown in the same soil consecutively due to pest infestation and nutrient deprivation. For example, last year we grew potatoes in Box C. This year we will need to plant potatoes in a different area. Because we keep records, we can refer back to previous growing seasons and manage crop rotation schedules.)
Our garden currently consists of five raised bed garden boxes. Last year we staggered our plantings of various crops, such as lettuce, peas, carrots, and radishes so that all of our vegetables would not be ready at the same time. This worked well as we were able to enjoy fresh veggies throughout the summer and harvest batches in manageable amounts. In addition, for fast-maturing crops, this allowed us to have more than one planting in the same space. Once we harvested a row of carrots, for example, we were able to seed another row of carrots, radishes, or lettuce in its place, thus maximizing the growing potential of our small space.
In Little Farm’s next post, we will be sharing our plans and designs for our garden boxes and how YOU can build a raised bed garden box of your own as a weekend project! Stay tuned!