Ministry of Controversy, Shut Up and Dig

About those raised beds …

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This is a nice vegetable garden in Ashford Hollow, New York. It is really more an illustration of companion planting.

… which I just mentioned as part of the proposal for the urban farm in Buffalo. We recently got an email from a gardener/garden blogger in England, Simon of Simon’s Allotment, who has been posting about raised beds versus traditional vegetable gardening (if there is such a thing) where soil amendments are dug in.

I invite you to read Simon’s posts about this on his blog—we will not republish his entire post here—where, calling himself a “traditional organic gardener,” he explains that he follows the methodology he’s seen older, self-taught gardeners using. His posts against raised beds were prompted initially by favorable reviews of Jon Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible. Simon disagrees with Jeavons, and here’s an excerpt of what he says:

I would like to postulate that the more space [soil] has to move around in, the more life and diversity there is likely to be. So it follows that if you divide your plot into narrow raised beds enclosed by boards the less beneficial life you will have in your soil. I’m not a scientist so I can’t prove this, it just seems like common sense.

and here

Raising the soil a foot above the water table inevitably means lots of watering, especially around the edges near the boards where the soil will quickly dry out. Using traditional methods once I’ve watered in my plants or my seed drill I never need to water, except in extreme drought conditions. One of the prime reasons for digging in manure or compost is that it holds the moisture in the soil.

Personally, I tend to like a raised bed, but I am in a tight urban space, where there’s not that much room for anything to move around. I have to nurture my little micro-beds surrounded by hardscaping. And I don’t grow vegetables. But it’s an eternal argument. “Top down” “no till” is the wisdom now. What will be the wisdom decades from now? Is there a compromise? Michele may be working in the middle ground, as she doesn’t use raised beds, but doesn’t till either. I used to read pages and pages of arguments about this on Gardenweb, back in the day, and always found it fascinating.

Posted by on April 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Shut Up and Dig.
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27 responses to “About those raised beds …”

  1. Shibaguyz says:

    What would Jeavons know. They’ve only been doing their research for 30+ years. We suggest he actually read the research before commenting on it as he will find out he is contradicting himself. Anyone who knows about biointensive farming knows these statements are very far off base.

  2. I think we’re thinking too much. It does not have to be perfect. Let’s just garden.

  3. John says:

    Blanket statements about water tables and soil fertility are pointless – every garden is different. What works for one person may not work for another. People can’t even agree on a definition of “hard work”. I don’t think the problem is in the ideas. I think the problem is in the wording used to promote ideas. It is common to say “never do it this way, only do it this way” but in the truth the message should be “this technique may work better for some people, you’ll have to experiment and see how it does for you”.

  4. angelchrome says:

    If he’s willing to conduct the research scientifically and have it scrutinized by qualified peers then I am interested in raised beds vs. traditional beds.

    Anecdotal evidence won’t convince me one way or the other.

  5. Sheila says:

    It seems like people get defensive about their gardening methods if they read about a contradicting theory. I think a gardener should be aware of all the diverse practices and then make a decision for their own needs on what works best for them, as long as it does not hurt the environment.

  6. judybusy says:

    I second what Marie and Sheila said. Who cares what we do? The vast majority of us are gardening for pleasure, so if, for example I get a few less tomatoes, I am not gonna starve. Garden as you wish!

  7. In endemismotrasnochado we rant often, that is why I write. From down under, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico USA.

    Until then….

  8. Rosella says:

    Not to take sides here, just a comment — Simon’s garden is in England where he says he doesn’t need to water “except in extreme drought”. I think in England “extreme drought” is defined as three consecutive days without rain.

    My own inclination is to use whichever system works for me. These questions seem to me like the coffee problem — this year it’s OK (or is it? I don’t remember). Last year, though, more than one cup a day would kill you daid. I stopped paying attention to these things a long time ago — at age 72, my coffee habit hasn’t hurt, and I suspect that raised beds/no raised beds will be about the same.

  9. Gwendolyn says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Rosella about the British climate, but with Simon about raised beds– but for a different reason. I think raised beds are often unattractive, especially in tight urban environments.

  10. suzq says:

    Re: Raised beds

    — this is the only way some people with disabilities can garden.

    — this is the only way that you can garden in brownfields or if you are suspicious of what chemicals are in the soil.

    — this is the only way you can garden if you are unable or unwilling to dig, till and cultivate the horrible soil you may be stuck with.

    Diversity comes in via compost.

    I’m gardening on my deck, else I’d just be growing a salad bar for deer. Perhaps the deer in Jon Jeavon’s yard are very well fed.

  11. donna says:

    Can’t you have a raised bed area with diversified soil? My raised bed area is about 16 ft by 16 ft, and it’s on a site where there’s maybe six inches of topsoil on top of decomposed granite. Without the raised area, there would be no veggies, that’s for sure. I’ve tried.

    I bring in lots of different kinds of amendments, add worm compost, etc, and it’s probably the most “diverse” soil in a yard that is otherwise, well, six inches of topsoil on top of dg…

  12. One of the pleasures of gardening… you can do it your own way. There is not so much that is “right” or “wrong” as some might think.

    I grow all my vegetables in raised beds. I add compost each year, rotate crops, and never have to till it up in the spring.

  13. Raised beds in a word: stylish! And lord knows, I am all about the style. 😉

  14. When I lived in the desert of NM, I dug a trench bed; whole thing in a hole, filled it with leaves and pecan shell pieces, manure and compost. It seemed to makes sense, due to the 8 inches of rain a year. Still no where near the water table, which we all know shouldn’t be at or near the surface in your garden!

    Isn’t it fun to figure it out all on your own?

  15. zephyr says:

    Amen Marie and Sheila!
    Good grief anyway. Too much talk and not enough gardening!!!

  16. Karl Katzke says:

    Yep… again, to echo what everyone else has said, gardening styles end up developing when a gardener figures out how to overcome individual problems with their environment, their plants, and their desires and goals.

    Last year, in my undrainable clay soil and hot Texas environment, I ended up steam-cooking my plants’ roots because I dug down into the soil and made bathtubs while trying to improve the soil to make it fertile. As others have pointed out with their own cases, it’s raised bed or nothing for me… if I want to grow anything that requires decent drainage. I’ve just ended up integrating a good watering system so that I can water it every day. (or twice a day, even.) I also use my raised bed landscaping as “water bulbs” — by flooding the landscaping beds regularly via integrated drip hoses and placing landscaping or gardening beds at high points in the yard, I never have to water my lawn with sprinklers and I never waste water to evaporation or runoff. The grass is just always greenest close to the beds.

    I recently was reading over on another forum ( I Dig My Garden ) posts from another southern gardener who’s figured out how to get HIS clay soil to absorb enough water to make gardening in the ground practical. It’s amazing how many styles of gardening there are, and how much experience there is to absorb. Anyone who closes their minds to absolutes and says that others should “never” do something is a fool that should never be listened to.

    😉

  17. Marion says:

    Hegehogs… He’s got slug-eating hedgehogs! That’s so cool!

  18. Gerg says:

    I may have a garden that stradles many of the objections raised about raised beds…(ha, didn’t even try to do that)
    Anyway,

    I built beds from reclaimed 3″X12″ pecky cedar nine feet long, three feet wide, two feet high and open in the bottom to the natural soil. This was filled with leaves, compost, etc… There definately is soil and soil organism movement from my bed to surrounding soil which itself is heavily composted. The aged cedar is beautiful and had already spent 20 years of its usefull life as shelves in a nursery.

    End result: I can shove my hand down into the bed to a depth of my arm pit. The soil is black as coal and loaded with worms. I never have need of a shovel or knee pads or grubbing tools. Did I say I can just stick my arm down to the pit? Anywhere? Anytime? Oh yeah, and with a little frost protection and effective rotations, it produces year around(GOD bless those California winters)

    Raised beds are not easy to build (or cheap) when dealing with large spaces, and I envy those gardeners limited only by their own ambitions. Or perhaps the strength of their shovel arm. But when space, or in my case, water
    is at a premium NOTHING BEATS A GOOD RAISED BED!!

  19. I am firmly with the raised-bedders.

    We have clay soil, so beds prevent us compacting it – our paths are like concrete! We also improve only the soil that will be used instead of the whole allotment. The beds help in cold weather too, as the earth stays warmer above ground.

    Personally I also think they look fabulous, and I am old and ugly enough to be able to admit to needing that bit of aesthetic motivation.

  20. It’s all about ” site specific design”.
    What will work for one climate , location and gardener may or may not work for another.

    Raised beds , direct ground planting or potagers – It’s all good – http://deviantdeziner.blogspot.com/2009/04/raised-veggie-beds-and-potager-gardens.html

  21. Simon says:

    Thanks for your comments and especially to those of you who took the time to read my piece. Just to clarify a few points and answer a couple of comments:

    I was prompted to write the arcticle as a response to a review of Jeavon’s book, not the book itself.

    I fully appreciate that in some circumstances raised beds would be a good idea – on waterlogged or sloping ground or the many other difficult circumstances refered to in the comments. My beef is not with raised bed gardeners but with the gardening media in the UK who have been advocating their use to beginner gardeners regardless of their circumstances. This may or may not be the case in the US – I wouldn’t know but I hope not.

    As I’ve said, I’m a gardener, not a scientist. This was not an acedemic article, just my own observations based on my expeience.

    Drought in the UK used to be defined as 15 days without rain but now no-one seems to know how to define it! More information at http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/features/understanding/drought.shtml

    Cheers and happy gardening, Simon.

    http://simonsallotment.blogspot.com

  22. Hey, Frank in NYC: did you have trouble with the pecan shell pieces having some alleotpathic qualities? I have three pecan trees, from which I compost the leaves. I’ve never seen a problem (that I’ve noticed), but last year someone suggested that it might be why I had a poor tomoato year…

  23. Heather says:

    Everyone seems to be in favor of raised beds. I was hoping there would be more people against them so I can justify the fact that I am too lazy to make a raised bed. Darn you all!

    Note: my vegetables didn’t do well AT ALL last year, but I was trying to put it down to not enough sun.

  24. Willi says:

    I think that you should just do what you want and what works with your space and aesthetic.I’ve gardened with and without raised beds and my plants always grew, I had lots to eat, and had lots of fun gardening both ways.

  25. Simon is correct when he says traditional beds have worked for centuries. Still skiing has also been around for thousands of years and I like both it and snowboarding. Most importantly use whatever works for you.

    More At: http://thecluelessgardeners.blogspot.com/2009/04/myths-and-legends.html

  26. Susan T.,

    First I should say that it was my first garden in a truly arid climate. The pecan shells were free almost everywhere in the southern NM Rio Grande valley. People used them for mulch everywhere the way we use cedar or pine bark.

    So I just did it and I grew large tomato plants! But you know what, the heat of summer (over 100 most days) kept the flowers from coming on which I did not expect being green to heat. So I learned that there are two tomato seasons in southern NM, Spring and Fall! Other plants did well: like beans, peppers and eggplant, garlic and what not.

    Lubbock gets pretty hot. Could it have been the heat? Not the pecan shells?

  27. Jay says:

    I started with the “traditional” method, but I switched over to raised beds to address specific problems.

    Texas has very poor soil. Specifically, it is nearly all clay. It does not drain at all. I put better dirt in the raised beds. The raised beds drain quite well (because they are raised). The new result is that that soil is “moist but well drained”.

    This was why I switched originally. Later I learned additional bonuses:

    It was easier to get a cleaner, more “trimmed” look. I can actually take a weed-eater to the perimeter of the beds and get that “well manicured” look blends into my suburban area.

    I don’t track much dirt into the house when I work in the garden, because the walkways have grass between them.

    I actually turn the soil over every year, as part of getting the compost worked into the soil. I don’t believe that leaving it on the top is a good idea, partially because I get some mushrooms when I do, and partially because the sun, atmosphere degrades the compost, and partially because the whole soil needs the benefit, not just the top.

    What I would say to any “traditionalist” is that, you are right, we are not that different. Just imagine a few changes to your methods.

    First, we put grass or gravel down the rows, for a more pleasant browsing experience, more like pathways. Now we make them a little wider, so you can sit down easily, not hunch over.

    Well, the grass grows into the rows, that’s no good. So we put a barrier, to separate the path. Just like in a flower bed.

    Now we widen the row a little, so that the wider path doesn’t cost us way too much space efficiency. Not so wide that we can’t reach across the row easily though. Maybe 2 “rows” worth of plants per “bed”…

    Now we are basically a raised bed, aren’t we? It’s just not that different. It’s a “traditional” garden, just with more finished “paths”. Except the beds can be any shape, and they become a landscape element that you can be creative with, like a koi pond, or a stone pathway, or a bench.

    Enjoy the outdoors!

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