Down with raised beds


From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

The only raised bed I’ve ever found useful in sixty years of gardening is the one in my bedroom. And after I quit double-digging, I didn’t have to spend as much time there either. Or if I did, it was for reasons other than resting.

I must be wrong, but I don’t understand the modern enchantment with raised beds. Yes, if you are a market gardener, you will no doubt feel obliged to plant on raised beds to get the earliest possible crops but you can get early vegetables in unraised beds too. I have a very disgusting sister who plants peas in March here in northern Ohio, and often gets away with it, without raised beds.

If you want to plant a garden on an old parking lot (I have a hunch there will be many abandoned ones in the future) then by all means you will need a raised bed.  (It should give us all pause, however,  to realize that plants can come right up through cracks in pavement and grow vigorously— so what’s that say about all our dearly held beliefs about gardening?) And definitely, if you want to plant a garden on something akin to swampland, you will surely want a raised bed. But the poorly-drained  soil under it will still “lay wet” and give you problems when your plants put down deep roots.

Other than those situations, raised beds guarantee only one result as far as I can see. You will have to irrigate more when dry weather comes and it comes quicker on raised beds. All of us gardeners pride ourselves in being eco-friendly. What is so ecological  about using water (and the power to pump it) when you can avoid doing so? Also, if you are bound and determined to make raised beds, a veteran market gardener just told me that you should be sure to mulch the paths heavily around the raised beds. Otherwise moisture will be drawn out of the bed even faster. So why not just go with unraised beds and mulch them?

My disgusting sister who gloats about having peas two weeks before I do without raised beds has been fertilizing her garden heavily with composted manure every year for at least half a century. Her soil is so rich you could stick a broom handle in it and it would grow. When you make soil like that, who needs raised beds?  Even she still has to replant some years because peas  have a tendency to rot rather than sprout  if it snows too hard after planting. Needless to say, that would also be true on raised beds.

I have almost the same kind of bias about double-digging. To turn compacted soils into a productive garden, double-digging makes sense the first year or two, I suppose. But I will bet a bushel of surplus tomatoes (from soil never double-dug), that if you have that kind of compaction problem, it will take quite a few years of mulch, compost and avoidance of unnecessary tillage to change it, and double-digging won’t speed up the time.

Please tell me how you increase the fertility of your soil, if you bury  unfertile soil on top with the unfertile soil underneath it. Or if the soil on top is fertile, why bury it under the less fertile soil underneath. If both the topsoil and the soil under it are fertile, is it not just loony to risk throwing your back out of whack by double-digging?   If compaction is the problem, shouldn’t you be attacking the cause?  Usually compaction comes when a clay soil needs underlying tile drainage. The impatient gardener roto-tills too deeply before the soil is sufficiently dried out and that happens on raised beds too.

Okay, so I’m being a little facetious here. Correct double-digging is not exactly the way I describe. It is even loonier. You dig up a spade’s worth of soil across the garden plot that you are about to desecrate. You put it in a wheelbarrow. Then you loosen up a spade’s depth below that. Then you dig up the next trench’s worth and put it where the dirt in the wheelbarrow had been, being careful to keep the topmost soil on top even though, and I just watched a gardener doing this, there is absolutely no difference between the soil on top and the soil four inches below it. And so you proceed until you have moved the top layer of soil over about six inches.  Then, if you have not yet slipped a disc or two, you put the wheelbarrow load in the last trench. Never in the entire process is the cause of the compaction, real or imagined, addressed and so the suffering double-diggers figure they must move the top layer of their garden over another six inches next year, until knee surgery do us part.

Maybe you have arguments in favor of raised beds and/or double-digging that I don’t appreciate. I’ll bow to your expertise if that is so. But since I get gobs more food from my garden than I can ever eat without these tortures,  why would I want to torment myself and end my gardening life too early?  I would rather spend that time in another kind of raised bed I highly recommend. A hammock.
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Gene Logsdon
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