Raised bed gardening offers a number of advantages over traditional gardening and the variety of techniques employed in raised bed gardening are manifold. On our farm we use raised beds to produce crops that are sensitive to climate extremes. Our beds are based upon the German hugelkultur technique used for farming in cold climates. The hugelkultur technique uses a advanced natural decomposition process to warm the bed and reduce the need for water.
We built our farm's raised beds out of reclaimed materials for next to nothing in terms of cost. We used reclaimed white cedar cast off first cuts from a saw mill for the end walls of the beds and reclaimed tin roofing sheets from an old shed for the side walls.
Once our beds were built we loaded the soil mix using the hugelkultur technique. The bottom, or first layer, was loaded with decaying rotten tree limbs. Once this layer was loaded, we covered it with a layer of hay as the second layer. The third layer consisted of compost from our farm's compost bin. Once that layer was loaded we loaded the top layer of screened loam. We mixed this layer with organic cow manure compost to enrich it. Once completed the advanced natural hugelkultur decomposition process began heating the soil mix. Temperatures in the bed reached a high of 65 Degree F during cold frost conditions. The mix also did a excellent job of retaining moisture. One other advantage of the hugelkultur technique is that the soil is high in nitrogen from the decomposition process and break down of the material used in the soil mix.
We designed our raised beds to be covered in the event of frost conditions and this year we had to cover them due to a late season frost on June 1st. Unlike many other farmers we did not loose any crops to the frost. The advanced natural decomposition process employed in hugelkultur raised beds kept the crops warm throughout the frost conditions.
Covering the beds was a simple process. We merely stapled black plastic bags over the top of the beds. As the beds are 4 x 8 feet in size the black plastic bags fit perfectly on the beds and in a few minutes all five of the beds were covered and ready for the frost conditions.
In terms of production we use a dense planting approach to growing crops in the raised beds to get the maximum yield from the smallest space. Each of our raised beds is 4 x 8 feet in size. We have five of them. This gives us a 160 square feet of climate resistant growing space. We have found that there are a number of excellent online tools for planning production and getting the most out of your raised beds.
During our first year, we were testing our organic plant production process and only had three raised beds to work with. In that test, one year ago, we were able to produce 325 pounds of produce from our three raised beds. This produce included squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. This produce was converted to value added products such as squash soup and tomato sauce and placed into long term storage in our farm's freezer.
This year we expanded our raised beds from three to five and increased the diversity of our crops. We were able to raise approximately 600 pounds of produce from these beds. Our crops included squash, tomatoes, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers and cabbage. During both of these tests the raised beds functioned well beyond expectations and required minimal if any input of water.
Raised beds can be as simple or complex as you wish to make them. In our case we wanted to make maximum use of reclaimed materials and opted for a simplistic design. One fellow Small Beginner Farmer also decided to use raised beds and opted for a more finished and complex design.
He built his beds out of white cedar boards he got from a local mill. His beds were enclosed in a fence to keep woodchucks at bay, and utilized a drip irrigation system attached to a electronically controlled water valve for watering. He also added a plastic wind break to his bed system to protect the crops in it from strong winds.
Regardless of what type of raised bed you are interested in building, they offer a number of advantages over traditional gardening. First these beds are largely weed free and easy to maintain with regards to weeding. They also require less water than a traditional bed and are less susceptible to typical garden pests.
The beds in this article were built by members of the Coos County Small and Beginner Farmers Chapter and have been successfully used to produce a abundance of crops.