Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Raised beds give a head start on planting seeds

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In her recent article in The Berkshire Eagle on maple sugaring, writer Jennifer Huberdeau made reference to an illustration published in 1724. The artwork, which can be found online at the Library of Congress, showed some Native Americans boiling maple sap while others were sowing seeds in mounds of soil. The picture triggered two thoughts a rare occurrence since I'm normally capable of processing only one thought at a time. My first thought was that the activity pictured was taking place at about this time of year when maple sugar producers are normally engaged in making their product. Secondly, soils, as we are especially aware of this year, had to have been quite moist at that time. To compensate for the wet soil, the seed sowers knew that raised mounds of soil would dry and warm up more quickly than unmounded soil. It would not be surprising if the mounds were created in the previous fall, so they would be ready for seeding in early spring.

Even those of us with a fairly large garden can take a lesson from those Native Americans. To compensate for often erratic spring weather, raised garden beds make a lot of sense if we are to maximize the length of the growing season. We certainly could be planting some crops now if employing at least some raised beds.

The raised beds I first created were similar to those mounds shown in the aforementioned illustration. In fall, before the ground froze, I simply shoveled garden soil in a long mound. Now, with a much larger garden and a rototiller with a plow attachment, that task is easier. However, I have also created wood-frame raised beds and will soon be sowing seeds of carrots, radishes and leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and leaf lettuce.

Raised beds are not just to get an early start on the growing season. They make sense for those with limited space for a vegetable garden and for beginning gardeners who have limited time to spend in the toil of the soil.

Building a raised bed is quite simple. First, decide how many beds you want. Try to overcome the enthusiasm and high-energy level inspired by the arrival of spring. It quickly dissipates in the heat of summer. Think small! Next, locate the bed or beds on a site with good drainage which receives at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. A location near a water source is also advisable, lest you desire to build muscles by hauling buckets of water from afar.

While beds can be built of many types of materials, the easiest to use is wood, but not recycled wood, which has been stained, painted or treated with a toxic preservative. Untreated hemlock, cedar, black locust and Douglas fir are desirable woods to use as you can expect to get about 10 years of life from such wood. Rough lumber, as opposed to planed lumber, is a bit cheaper and can be obtained from lumber yards. The planks of lumber should be 2- by 10-inches or 2- by 12-inches to give sufficient depth to the garden bed. The width of the bed should allow for easy reach into the center from either side. Three or four feet wide beds are ideal. The length of the bed is whatever you want it to be. I've built beds which were 32 feet long, but my current beds are each 8-feet-long.

The next step is filling the beds with soil. A mixture of garden soil or loam, blended with compost or peat moss, plus some dehydrated cow or horse manure, is ideal. Garden soil alone will tend to compress unless amended with organic matter.

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OK, you're ready to plant. To get the most benefit from the early start to the garden season, which raised beds afford, attach arches of flexible piping above the bed. This allows the placement of a row cover over the bed to further warm the soil and allow for even an earlier start to the growing season.

GET READY FOR SPRING ...

Rise out of your bed and tend to these gardening tasks:

- Check your landscape for dead trees and for dead branches on trees. As witnessed in recent months, during several high wind events, such trees pose a hazard to your family, visitors and house. If inexperienced in pruning and cutting down trees, hire a licensed arborist. Inexperience can kill.

- Avoid planting the same vegetable crops — or vegetables that are in the same family — in the same area of the garden as last year. Rotating crops in different areas of the garden every year is the first step in pest management. Making a plan of the garden annually is extremely helpful when rotating crops.

- Get a soil thermometer. When soils are dry enough to be worked and soil temperature reaches a minimum of 35 F, seeds of lettuce, onion, parsnip and spinach could be sown. Seeds of fava beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, collards, kohlrabi, leeks, parsley, peas, radish, rutabaga, Swiss chard, celery and turnips are reported to germinate at 40 F. However, I'm more confident of good seed germination in my garden when soil temperature rises to 45 F.

- Set aside the amount of money you are willing to spend on plant additions to your landscape this spring. Make a list of desired plants, and then stick to your list when shopping. Otherwise, it is so-o-o-o easy to get carried away at the sight of the multitude of beautiful plants at retail nurseries — I speak from experience.

- Place a piece of burlap over large drainage holes in the bottom of window boxes. This will keep soil from running out of the holes and down the siding of your home.


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