Notes from Windward: #56

Building Raised Beds

Before winter settles in, there are things we need and want to finish. One task involves preparing additional seed beds for next spring. Mike has cleared areas and I've bolted together the boxes that will serve as raised beds next spring. Phillip has gathered rotted compost and old manure to fill then, and after aging over the winter, we'll be ready to plant in the spring. We already have a kitchen garden that provides our summer salads, but now we're preparing to grow larger volumes of culinary herbs such as oregano, basil, chives and dill.

This area will feature a combination of 4'x8' flats for annuals, and tractor tires for perenials. Flat beds facilitate growing things in rows, while large tires are good for things which will remain in one place for a number of years. Of course, the project will have to be tightly wrapped up in a fence to keep out goats, sheep and chickens. While such a thing can be built, it isn't easy to construct or maintain; just another puzzle in the ongoing challenge of sustainable living.

One bed done; two to go.
Rectangular beds are fairly common, but most people aren't familiar with the advantages that large tires can offer the serious gardener. First of all, they're cheap. The disposal of tires is a headache, and putting them to some positive use is sweet in and of itself. Beyond the obvious utility of containing soil, the black tire also traps and contains the summer heat. One of the limiting factors for plant productivity is low root temperature, and by growing above ground in a black container, you can get the soil temperature up where you need it early in the season. Gardening in our climate is a timed event, a race against the killing frost, and the faster you can get aggressive growth underway, the better.

Opening up the tire.
Another advantage large tires offer is containment. Certain herbs, such as the mint family, are famous for getting out of their allotted space and attempting to take over the entire garden. It's jokingly said that a weed is a plant that's growing where you don't want it to, and by that definition, mints can quickly become weeds. By planting such aggresive plants in a large tire, you can get a good crop without much risk of getting more than you want next year.

Even it's shape can be an advantage, since herbs like rosemary grow into a large, round bush, and it's inefficient to plant something round in a square space. For us, the actual space taken up isn't the problem (we've got 106 acres); instead, our limited resource is enhanced garden soil. Since roots grow outward in a circle, filling square corners with improved soil is inefficient.

One planter, extra large,
ready to go
There's a notable ergonomic benefit to having the seed bed raised some 18" above ground level. Since the gardener doesn't have to bend over as far, raised beds are a lot easier on the back. More than just a comfort and a convenience, ease of function is important because work that's easy to do is more likely to get done. All too often, spring's burst of enthusiasm for gardening runs aground on summer's long rows to hoe.

There are other benefits too. In the wet spring, raised beds offer better drainage. Roots have to breathe in order to grow, and soil that's too wet inhibits the passage of oxygen to the root zone. Oxygen dispersion is greatly enhanced by the underground air passages created by earthworms. In order to induce the worms to work their way through the soil, you have to give them something organic to eat.

Phillip brings compost
Mixing manure and straw into the soil gives the earthworms something to chew on, which builds up the mineral fertility of the soil in two ways. As the organic material is broken down, stored minerals are released back into the soil. More importantly, the mechanical and chemical action of the earthworm's digestive tract breaks down complex minerals in the soil they ingest. This "digestion" of magnesium and phosphorus bearing minerals lays down much of the foundation for plant growth. It's more than just a truism that we all live off the beneficence of earthworms; anything we can do to encourage their prosperity in our garden is well worth the effort.

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