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Master Gardener: Raised-bed gardening has many benefits
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Master Gardener: Raised-bed gardening has many benefits

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Raised beds are a great option for urban gardeners. Let’s break down why.

When we are working with the standard in-ground garden, we are limited in that we are forced to use the soil we have. Yes, we can fertilize and add amendments to increase nutrient levels and organic content, but with raised beds, we have the option of starting with a higher-quality soil. This is a particularly good idea if your existing soil leans toward the clay side.

Raised beds can be built in just about any shape you can imagine. We do suggest you don’t go over about 4 feet in width. This is because an average adult can usually reach about 2 feet into the garden. That will give you access to your entire garden space without having to walk in it, which contributes to soil compaction. If you have any physical issues, you can make your beds narrower so they will be easier to reach across.

As a rule, raised beds only need to be about 6 inches deep because most vegetable crops have fairly shallow root systems. Some of my favorite raised beds are really raised, meaning the 6-inch garden bed is elevated above ground so that you can garden either sitting or standing. If you have ever spent hours down on your knees pulling weeds, you immediately know how appealing this sounds. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I hope to someday.

Raised beds can be built out of a variety of materials, but most tend to be made from wood. We do not recommend using railroad ties because creosote vapors in these can burn your plants. You can use treated lumber though because it doesn’t contain the toxic chemicals it once did. If you do choose treated lumber, be sure to use dust masks and protective clothing to keep yourself safe while constructing. And don’t breathe sawdust from treated wood. Concrete blocks are another good option, but I prefer rough-cut cedar because I just like the look.

So let’s say you want to build a 4-by-8-foot raised bed. Start by laying out your space. If you are planning on placing your raised bed over Bermuda grass, the first thing you will need to do is eliminate the Bermuda grass. Once you get rid of it, you might also want to consider laying down some garden cloth just to help discourage future grass growth.

Once you have constructed your raised bed frame, you are going to need to fill it with soil. Personally, I like to contact a soil company and have soil delivered to the site. It’s not cheap, but it’s not too bad. One good thing about ordering soil from a soil company is that you get to choose which type of soil you would like because they typically have several categories of garden soil. Buy the best you can afford because this will be the growing medium for your plants for years to come.

I have friends who prefer to purchase multiple bags of garden soil from their local garden center. Their thinking is that these bags are easier to handle than 3 cubic yards of soil that was dumped on your driveway. Again, I would rather have the load of soil delivered and then schlep it to the garden with my wheelbarrow, but you do you.

When ordering soil to be delivered, you will have to determine how much soil you need. The soil company can help you figure this out.

Another benefit to raised-bed gardening is that you tend to use less water. Because raised beds are kind of a closed system, it won’t be sharing water resources with nearby shrubs and trees — less water, less watering.

Weeds also tend to be less of a problem in raised-bed gardens because plants in raised beds tend to be planted closer together because you are not having to allow for walkways to access the plants. A good layer of mulch helps too.

Better pest control in raised beds is typical because it is easier to add an insect screening cloth in this confined area rather than attempting to do so over an area of unprotected ground.

You may also be able to extend your growing season because the soil in raised beds tends to warm up sooner than the soil of in-ground gardens.

And if you really want to extend your growing season, you can build row covers for these beds. These covers don’t have to be fancy, but they can add weeks to the beginning and end of our traditional growing seasons.

About the only downside (if it is a downside) is that because you will probably have more vegetable plants in the same area than you would in an in-ground garden, your nutrient amendments might need to be increased. But this is a small price to pay for the many benefits you get from growing your vegetables in raised beds.

If you are not the “construction” type, there are several raised bed options available locally and online. Good luck and happy gardening.


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You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or by emailing us at mg@tulsamastergardeners.org.

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