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Published: Sunday, 3/26/2000

Raised beds put plantings within easier reach

At our house, and at my age, a raised planting bed sounds like the perfect addition. Because I'm not interested in double digging and amending the sticky spring clay soil, a garden six to eight inches above grade is very appealing.

Valerie Trudeau in Waterville has a series of raised beds for crops that have individual needs such as acid or alkaline soil or high or low moisture. The geometric design of the bed placements adds interest and pattern to the overall gardenscape.

If the garden is four feet wide and as long as is practical, and each individual bed is surrounded with a pathway 18 inches wide, all work in the bed can be done from the path. A major gardening problem, soil compaction from the gardener's feet, is eliminated.

A north-south orientation is best for low-growing crops, allowing direct sunlight on both sides of the bed. Beds that will contain taller crops - such as trellised beans and peas or caged tomatoes - might do better on an east-west axis. Here, the lower-growing crops could be planted on the south side for full sun.

When framing the bed, avoid using creosote or pentachlorophenol treated lumber. The chemicals in these materials can leach out and injure plants. Use redwood, pressure-treated lumber, concrete block, or brick.

Be aware that concrete will raise the soil pH over time. Loamy soil mixed with well-rotted manure or compost should be used to fill the beds.

Paths may be left in sod, mulched, or paved with stone or brick. Pest control is less difficult in raised beds. Rabbits and groundhogs can be discouraged by a low fence inside the bed frame.

The narrow dimensions make suspending bird netting very practical.

Soaker hoses and drip-type irrigation disperse water in a long pattern well suited to a raised bed. They also reduce disease by directing water to the soil instead of leaf surfaces.

Because a bed warms more rapidly than the ground around it, it can easily double as a cold frame if it is covered with a lightweight clear plastic. Plants can be started earlier in the covered raised beds and will not have to be transplanted.

Supports for poles, cages, and trellises can be mounted directly to the frame of the raised bed.

Other big pluses for raised beds are no muddy feet, less weeding, and much higher yield of vegetables per square foot. Two or three series of crops can be planted each season.

Raised beds allow for creativity of pleasing patterns of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. A zigzag pattern across the bed with leeks or onions divides the area into triangles that can be planted with colorful lettuces, chards, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

Squash, melons, and sweet corn do better out of raised beds because they require too much room and will shade plants beneath them.

Gone are the days of row planting with endless hoeing and digging. Raised beds are the answer for me.

Mona Macksey is a free-lance writer for The Blade.

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