Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To Raise or Not to Raise

Raised beds, planters and pots have some advantages over in-ground plantings.  They also have some disadvantages.  A major disadvantage to raised beds is the cost.  Two 4'x8' beds cost a lot of money to fill with quality soil, I spent several hundred dollars having "garden soil" blend trucked in to fill my beds.  We're not talking potting soil or some special nutrient rich mix either, we're talking about a blend of sand, clean fill dirt, and manure.  Dirt is not dirt cheap.  Not only do you pay for the filler, but whether a raised bed is made of planks standing on edge, or stone, or brick, or 4x4s you will most likely have to pay for the frame of the bed too.  For some people this expense is worth it.  If you plan to move in the near future, a few small shallow raised beds may be all you are willing to put on the landscaping.  If you have poor soil in your area it is probably more worthwhile to fill a raised bed with perfect soil than to try to improve your existing soil.  On the other hand, if you have decent soil and plan to make permanent changes to the landscape it may be more cost efficient to dig up some in-ground planting space.  At my house I have a variety of options.  The backyard is hidden from view and where most of my vegetable garden grows, all the annual crops go there.  My two large beds are filled with the "garden blend" soil and are a foot deep; this is a fairly standard setup for a raised bed.  My smaller bed is 6" deep; it and the whiskey barrels are filled with "Mel's Mix" a soil blend I learned about from the All New Square Foot Garden by Mel Bartholomew.  "Mel's Mix" is a blend of peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, and compost.  For anyone who's read Mel's books and considered using this mix I can vouch that it works quite well.  Lastly I plant all of my perennials and bulbs in the ground itself.  The soil in my area is of good quality, but the previous owners of my house were not gardeners; they mulched every spare patch of ground in the yard with red lava rock.  Anyone who's had to shovel in gravel or rock will understand why only the perennials go in these areas.  Each year I struggle with shoveling out a small hole or two to add a few new perennials.  Since the main portion of my garden is annual veggies and flowers that are very nutrient demanding it would be far more work than I am prepared for to dig up and improve the rocky soil every year.  Meanwhile, the perennials are less needy of food, water, and attention; they seem to relish being ignored and are not sensitive to the rocky top soil since their roots grow down into the soil below it.  The perennials I keep improve the look of the yard, but aren't obviously food plants.  The reason for this is that some areas have ordinances forbidding food growing in front yards.  Primarily I plant hardy herbs in the front, they look like small hedging plants but save me a lot of money in fresh and dried herbs year round.  I also have a small strawberry bed along the side of my house, originally it was 12 plants that I bought for $5.  Now it is nearly 40 plants that blow me away each year with the abundance of berries.  From June to July I can generally pick about two pounds of fresh organic strawberries every other day.  This coming Spring I plan to put in a rhubarb plant and some artichokes as well.  There is nothing more gratifying than paying for a plant once and reaping the harvest year after year.  Along with all of the permanent planting areas in my yard I also keep a few pots around purely for annual flowers.  A sprinkling of potted flowers brightens up a yard or porch and really gives a sense that Spring has arrived, so I keep my few pots filled with bright colors to make it feel like Spring even when skies are still grey (which is common long into May here in Oregon).

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