Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

Within the last 2 years, my husband and I have moved from a location with 3 acres for gardening, to a third of an acre and very limited room for gardening. We did this by choice, with the end goal a more manageable workload, given the time we work and travel since we are "empty-nesters". It has worked quite well for us and at the same time, presents new challenges.

For my husband, a major challenge has been giving up his manly "gentleman farmer" equipment for a much smaller version of a lawn tractor. While he truly doesn’t need what he once did for lawn care, gardening and snow removal, he misses the "boy toys" that went with the work as well as the satisfaction he got from using them.

For me, the challenge has been two-fold: 1) having enough gardens to keep me just busy enough when I am home 2) planting beds and pots that are somewhat self-sufficient when I am away. I knew when I began planting at our new house that my goals were a bit in contradiction with each other, but the result has been good so far. I am learning all over again as I go, which makes me realize that an old dog can learn some new tricks after all!

The purpose of this article is to share what my husband and I have learned about raised beds. To give you a little background, we have grown our own vegetables each summer for most of our married lives. When the children lived at home, we had substantial gardens and as the kids went out on their own, we down-sized to a vegetable "patch". This time around, we decided to utilize a corner of our lot that has stayed pretty wet since we moved to Lake Meade. Our alternative to raised beds was bog plants, and we opted to continue with maintaining a vegetable garden, which turned the problem into a project.

Our first challenge was to build two beds that were triangular in shape to fit the corner nicely and offset the opposite corner shade garden, already planted with flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals. The shade garden is a mixture of moist and dry soils in different places, so I am still experimenting with what plants are happiest where…….

Our beds are right triangles facing each other, with the longest sides to the far outside pointing to the corner of the lot. When looking down at the vegetable garden from our top deck, the triangles fill the corner and a 3rd, rectangular raised bed garden runs parallel to the short sides with the three together creating a shape that could be compared to a very short lead pencil. The biggest challenge was constructing the triangles with 2X8 boards and corner stakes designed to hold the boards we purchased via an on-line garden catalog.

The corner stakes are adjustable, but the narrowest of the angles had to be set without benefit of the purchased hardware. Jack crafted an alternative that worked just fine but took some time to secure. We went way back to 9th grade geometry in an effort to determine the length of the sides, and finally found a triangle calculator on-line that gave us the "answers to the test"!

Since raised beds should only be wide enough so as the gardener can reach from either side (4-5 feet) and never step on the soil, our triangle beds needed something self-sufficient planted in the center. I opted to sprinkle zinnia seeds at the center of each triangle in the form of a triangle, lining off the 3 sides of each zinnia bed with stakes and string. The outer perimeter of each triangle bed was dedicated to beans – string beans in one and lima beans in the other. The top soil we brought in to fill the beds did a nice job of producing many beans. As the bean crops depleted, we pulled the bean bushes and the zinnias remain in the center for a splash of color.

The rectangle bed was planted with 4 tomato plants, two each of Beefeater and little Jolliet - prolific producers of tasty large grape-shaped fruits. Several red or purple cabbages made great cole slaw; we added two sweet green pepper plants, two zucchini plants, several rows of onions along with several rows of red beets.

The tomatoes continue to produce as September unfolds, with the Jolliet tomato plants overtaking the Beefeaters – next year we will separate them with more space between the cages. The zucchini produced in abundance for a short while, then fizzled out, which is a good thing sometimes with zucchini! The Bermuda onions did not like the whole idea and have not made us proud but the tops have died off and we will use the small bulbs anyway. And the beets continue to grow and make great pickled eggs. Since space was limited, we pulled the largest beets first allowing for the smaller ones to grow, rather than thinning the beets all at one time as we might have when space was not an issue.

As the crops are consumed in the rectangular garden, we have replaced them with green cabbage and broccoli plants for fall. We thought about a fall crop of peas and turnips but have missed our chance with the very limited growing season that remains. Maybe we’ll give those a try next year. In the meantime, I would recommend utilizing a corner of your planting space for vegetables if you like them fresh from the garden. The raised beds add an element of landscape design that we have found to be both fun and practical.

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