I’ve been asked a few times by members of the community and Grow Appalachia participants about raised beds. Specifically, I’ve been asked “what’s so great about them?” It’s a reasonable question. It’s always a good idea to ask why people farm in a certain way. In the history of farming, often people copy the practices of their successful neighbors. Over time, practices become habits and can even become the “standard” way to grow a crop or prepare a bed. This works well when the practice is beneficial, but sometimes the practice is just a waste of time and resources. A good farmer or gardener should look at practices critically, especially their own.
Primary benefits to raised beds:
1.) Drastically improved soil drainage.
2.) Increased soil temperature.
These two benefits alone can more than double yields, as soil temperature and air space are major contributors to plant production.
When the topic of raised beds comes up, people usually picture the typical urban, timber raised bed:
These are tidy and a very effective solution to the issues that face backyard gardeners: limited access to fertile soil. These problems are solved by creating their own soil to grow in by building a box and filling it with good compost, topsoil, and/or potting media. Lumber framed raised beds are also expensive to install, in terms of resources necessary per row foot. Untreated lumber is required (to prevent leaching of heavy metals into the soil), which will eventually break down and need to be replaced. Stone work or cinder blocks last much longer, but can be even more expensive.
Fortunately, for those of us with a little more space, but poor soil conditions, this is not the only solution available to us. As it turns out, raised beds are also used extensively in large scale commercial agriculture for vegetable production.
Now, obviously few of us has the specialized equipment to make raised beds easily, but you can see that this is a technique used for vegetable production that is used at a variety of scales. Fortunately, one can take advantage of the major benefits of raised beds just by changing their tillage practices and using a rake.
After tilling your rows or block, use a stiff / lawn rake to drag soil from your alleys up onto the beds, to increase their height. How high and wide your beds are as well as how wide your alleys is something you’ll have to figure out based on the space you have available and your personal preferences. I like to have alleys at least a a foot wide, beds 3 feet wide. Even if you can only raise your beds a few inches, it can have an significant impact on your yields. This is especially true in a rainy year, or a year with a cooler spring.
Granted, you will feel this practice in your back, so it helps to have some assistance, but it’s a practice that will pay off.