Raised bed gardening is a method that uses a variety of materials to frame an area, elevating the garden soil from 12" to 36” above the surrounding soil. Raised beds tend to be more productive and easier to manage. One exciting new example of raised beds is keyhole gardens.
Benefits of raised bed gardening
Raised beds in the garden make it easier to control soil structure, irrigation, and pests. Raised beds also allow you to plant earlier because the soil warms up more quickly. Generally, plants in raised beds are planted more closely together, creating a beneficial microclimate that suppresses weed growth and retains moisture. Since gardeners do not walk on raised beds, soil compaction is avoided, and they make reaching plants (and weeds) much easier! Raised beds are an excellent choice in limited spaces, or if you are a renter and not allowed to alter the landscape. Another added benefit of using raised beds is that it is very easy to add trellising, row covers and protective wire to keep birds away from seedlings.
How to build raised beds
Raised beds can be practically any size or shape. A raised bed can be nothing more than a walled area on the ground or it can be an elaborate artistic structure that showcases garden gems, or anything in between! You can see an excellent sampling of different types of raised beds at instructables.com. The steps below can help you get started creating your very own raised bed.
1. Select a location
2. Select building materials
3. Clear the area
4. Measure twice, cut once
5. Add soil
Plants for raised bed gardening
Raised beds are a great tool for productive foodscaping, since the root systems of most vegetable crops are relatively shallow. If your raised bed is on the ground, however, it won’t matter. Even the worst soil is bound to improve over time, with a raised bed above it, to allow deeper-rooted plants to perform well. If ground squirrels and voles are a problem in your area, attached hardware cloth, not chicken wire, to the bottom of your raised bed. This will protect your plants' roots.
The first rule of vegetable gardening is to plant what will grow where you are. Email me you zip code and I will send you a planting chart for your zone.
We’ve all heard about landscaping, but what about foodscaping?
Since the economic downturn of 2008, a surprising number of households have begun to grow some of their own food. Financial conditions aren’t the only reason. Heavy chemical use, monoculture, GMOs, and agricultural politics have also played a role. [How many hands and machines do you really want touching your food, anyway?]
Foodscaping, or edible landscaping, is a great way to make your yard more productive, while still being pretty. Rather than simply installing raised beds, container plants, and traditional rows to hoe, foodscaping uses food plants in place of more traditional (non-edible) landscape plants.
In practically every location, indoors and out, food plants can be grown in place of ornamentals. Before you transform your garden design, however, it is important to find out what you are working with, identify your microclimate, and decide what you will eat, using these tips:
Many landscapes feature boxwood hedges. Hedges add structure and privacy (once they become tall enough). Instead of boxwood, you can get the same effect while cutting your grocery bill with rosemary, American cranberry, natal plum, bush plum, blueberries, hazelnut, or pineapple guava.
Most landscapes feature ornamental shrubs that require regular pruning, feeding and watering. While they may look nice, they don’t produce food for your table. Instead of yet another arborvitae, barberry, or abelia, you can grow lavender, blueberry, raspberry, currants, gooseberry, or bush plums.
Trees and vines
Fruit and nut trees are excellent investments in a foodscape. In addition to the shade, a single orange tree can produce 130 pounds of oranges each year, for 50-100 years. That’s a lot of citrus! Almond, peach, pear, nectarine, avocado, plum, cherry, fig, pecan, hazelnut, walnut, hickory, and apple trees can often produce more food than a single family can eat in a season! Luckily, there are plenty of ways to put food by, and friends and neighbors are usually very happy with gifts from your foodscape! If you have a pergola or apartment balcony, you can also grow grapes or kiwifruit. [Check out this article in TreeVitalize, The Best trees For Small Gardens, where yours truly was counted as one of the experts!]
Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. Once established, they generally prefer to be left alone. The oils that make them so delicious to us tend to make them less desirable to many garden pests. Rosemary, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, oregano, lavender, bay laurel, sage, chives, marjoram, and dill can all be grown indoors or out and they make great additions to your culinary efforts, without costing a dime at the grocery store.
Depending on your local climate, there are many perennial food plants that can add shape and structure to the garden and put food in the pantry. Rhubarb, asparagus, lovage, ginger, artichokes, horseradish, mint, Saffron crocus, and strawberries are just a few edible plants that will come back each year, providing your family with fresh food.
Many edible plants are not technically perennial, but can be regrown from uneaten parts. These plants include garlic, onions, leeks, potatoes, dill, fennel, peas, and sweet potatoes. When harvesting fennel, simply cut off the portion to be eaten at ground level, leaving the roots intact. New plants will continue to emerge from the same root system.
Annuals are the mainstay of most gardens, but they don’t have to be limited to traditional garden beds. Lettuces and spinach can be used as colorful accent plants around trees, among roses (pictured), or in containers. Sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, celery, and radishes make lovely additions to the landscape, transforming what was simply visual into something delicious and useful. A note on radishes and Napa cabbage: If allowed to go to seed, these plants can provide hundreds of delicious seed pods that work well in salads and stir-fry. The seed pods that fall to the ground can be allowed to grow, giving you an even bigger harvest next year.
Seeds and starts
Most seed packets contain far more seeds than you will ever need. Rather than allowing these potential food plants to go to waste, you can host a seed party, where guests are invited to bring a particular seed packet. Guests then swap seeds, so everyone ends up with the quantity and variety they need to get started. Many public libraries are now offering seed libraries, as well. Seed libraries allow people to take just a few of the seeds they desire, making the rest of the seeds available to other visitors.
While it isn’t recommended, due to the risk of disease spread, I have personally used the seeds from store-bought tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, pumpkins, squash, and avocados, without any problems. I also use potato eyes, scallion, onion and leek ends, and celery bases. Many commercially grown food plants are sprayed with growth inhibitors, to prevent sprouting in transit, but you can rinse these chemicals off in most cases. Some seeds, however, should not be used. Trees, such as apples, are grown on grafted rootstock. The seeds from your grocery store apple will not produce what you want to eat.
You can transform your entire landscape into a foodscape, or you can slowly phase out ornamentals and replace them with food-producing plants. Whichever way appeals to you, I urge you to begin the process of providing your family with food grown by your own hands.
If we say something is sustainable, we mean that it can keep going. Since agriculture and gardening are critical to our food supply, being sustainable is pretty darned important.
Until the 1980’s, food production was focused on the industrial production of single species (mono crops), using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, until the soil was exhausted. You can only do that for so long, before you run out of places to grow food.
In 2002, at the International Society of Horticultural Science’s First International Symposium on Sustainability, it was agreed that sustainable agriculture and gardening were critical for the “well being of human societies”.
Sustainable gardening incorporates practices that reduce water, energy, time and chemical consumption, while producing food year-round and protecting the environment. These practices take the following issues into account:
Design for sustainability
Whether you already have a garden or are just starting out, you can design a garden or landscape for sustainability. Native plants are always your best bet because they put millions of years of evolution to work for you, conserving water, reducing the need for chemicals, and freeing up your time. Lawns are notorious water wasters and, quite honestly, most of us are not British aristocracy. Other plants, such as oregano, yarrow, or clover, make excellent, low-growing ground covers that use less water and rarely, if ever, need mowing.
These tips can help you create your own sustainable garden:
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life forms found in a specific habitat or ecosystem. Your yard is its own ecosystem, with distinct weather patterns, soil structure, rainfall (or irrigation), and insect, invertebrate, microorganism, plant and critter populations. To better understand what happens in a limited gene pool, check out Eddie Izzard’s hysterical video about Royals.
Limiting genetic diversity, such as the monoculture of commercial agriculture, makes it easy to decide when to plant, how to plant, and what treatments to apply. It also makes a crop (or species) profoundly vulnerable to pests and disease. The more diversity found in a habitat, the more likely that that habitat will be healthy.
Urban and suburban areas are considered concrete deserts by birds, bats, and beneficial insects. Creating a diverse environment, suited to your microclimate, in your yard, garden, or even on a balcony, provides many benefits. These include natural pest control, increased pollination, water and energy conservation, and emotional well being. Read on!
Natural pest control
In a diverse ecosystem, everything is relatively balanced. Natural predators and processes limit the population of pests and disease. For example, rodents are considered pests in the garden and in our homes. Gophers can be poisoned or trapped, but barn owls will eat 1 or 2 rodents every night. Would you rather catch an occasional glimpse of an owl, soaring across an evening sky, or dispose of a squished or poisoned gopher? The choice is yours. Family Food Garden has a nice comparison of good bugs and bad bugs.
Rather than automatically spraying for pests, such as aphids, you can leave the earliest pest populations to their own devices. Lady beetles, soldier beetles, and lacewings will be attracted to this easy food source and you get to eat chemical-free produce. In a bird-friendly environment, caterpillars and other larval pests are gobbled up each spring, before they can destroy tender new plants.
Pollination processes work in tandem with healthy environments and population diversity. Spraying pesticides and herbicides can interrupt this balance. Honeybees are not the only pollinators in a garden. Beetles, hummingbirds, bumblebees, ants, moths and butterflies, and bats help to pollinate garden produce. Whenever the life cycle of one member of a community is interrupted, it affects all members of that habitat.
Water & energy conservation
Encouraging biodiversity can also protect water and energy resources, especially when that biodiversity is geared toward indigenous plants and animals. These living things have evolved to thrive in specific microclimates, which reduces the need for water, feeding, and weeding. For example, most varieties of lawn seed originated in areas with significantly more rain than what your yard may receive. Current estimates for water consumption in this area see an increase of 40% in the next 25 years. Since most of our water is already imported from other areas, we need to do what we can to conserve.
The Children and Nature Network research, in conjunction with their No Child Left Inside program, has shown that children behave and learn better in more natural environments. The same must be true for adults. Also, one type of soil microorganism has been shown to improve mood!
Basics of backyard biodiversity
So, what are specific things you can provide to improve biodiversity in your habitat?
Food (natural sources):
* Native Plants
Plants are near the bottom of the food chain. They have evolved to create a fixed set of protections and processes that depend upon other native flora and fauna. Native plants have evolved in tandem with local climate, soil, flora and fauna populations, and seasonal changes, without human assistance. These plants require the least amount of water, weeding, pruning, and other resources. They reduce pollution because they do not require pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. There is no runoff pollution from a native plant garden. These plants commonly emit chemicals that minimize weeds in their immediate area. Native plants are far more resilient, which means less work for you!
Plants and animals have co-evolved over thousands of years. Local birds, insects and animals are looking for plants that have certain characteristics. Those characteristics are found in native plants. [Did you know that some plants have indicators that let nectar eaters know how much nectar is available?]
Native bunch grasses, which were replaced by the eastern grasses that cover local foothills, were able to stay green all summer. The golden hills we see are the result of an invasive plant that has interfered with many native life cycles. Another example: Sudden Oak Death. Our live oaks have evolved to deal with drought each summer. As the live oaks are watered, the fungus that causes Sudden Oak Death is able to overcome and kill these massive beauties.
You can learn more about native plants from the CA Native Plant Society.
Keyhole gardening is a method developed for areas experiencing severe drought and limited resources, specifically Africa. However, the concept is just as useful in other parts of the world and in your backyard. Keyhole gardens conserve water, and they provide plants with easy access to nutrients.
Keyhole gardens are a variation on raised bed gardening. Keyhole gardens are round raised beds that feature a notch in one side that provides access to a composting tower, or basket, in the middle. As compostable materials and water are added to the center of a keyhole garden, the water and nutrients spread out within the keyhole garden to feed and irrigate your plants. The loose, nutrient-rich soil makes it easy to grow edibles in even the worst conditions.
How to build a keyhole garden
Keyhole gardens are easily made with curb-scored old bricks, stones, or cinderblocks. You can also use landscape cloth, wood planks or branches, wine bottles, old fencing panels, corrugated metal sheets - really, you can use anything that isn’t toxic. Use your imagination! Follow these steps to create your very own keyhole garden:
Sources of compostable materials
Most people know that yard and kitchen waste are compostable, but there are many other sources of perfectly acceptable materials for the basket of your keyhole garden or any compost pile. Remember that compostables are designated as “browns” or “greens” and that you should aim for a 50:50 mix of the two. Some interesting source of “green” compostables include coffee grounds and tea bags, often available for free from coffee shops, and fresh manure from local barns. [Manure from veterinary clinics is not recommended.]
We throw away a profound amount of compostable “brown” material. Some sources you may not have considered include any paper or wood products (simply avoid the colored, slick, or waxed varieties), dryer lint, vacuum cleaner waste, shredded, unwaxed cardboard, and even clothing made from 100% natural fibers. Rather than adding these materials to local landfills, you can transform them into plant or worm food in your compost pile, worm farm, or in the central basket of your keyhole garden.
Building a keyhole garden can help you get around the problems associated with heavy clay, compacted soil, and difficulties bending over. Check out this video about a heart-warming solution to starvation around the globe and a fun new way to grow edibles in your own backyard!
Invasive plants are those non-native plants that infest an ecosystem. Unlike normal weeds, which have evolved within a specific ecosystem, invasive plants generally do not have any natural enemies, so they grow out of control. They use up water and nutrients, pushing out local flora and fauna. Some, such as Scotch broom, can be poisonous to your pets.
Invasive plants are often introduced to your yard on purpose, by buying and planting something just because it "looks nice”. According to the UC Davis IPM (Integrated Pest Management) page: a 10,000 acre infestation of giant reed (Arundo donax) on the Santa Ana River in Orange County is estimated to use 57,000 acre feet more water per year than native vegetation. One group, PlantRight, has developed a list of invasive plants that should be avoided. Another group, Calflora, offers extensive lists (with photos) of plants that are invasives and plants that are under consideration as invasives.
Taking the time to plant species that are native to your area reduces water waste and prevents the disruption of the natural lifecycle of countless plants and animals.
Urban drool is the water that runs off improperly watered lawns, carrying fertilizers, pesticides, and valuable nutrients to ground water, local streams and the ocean, causing potentially devastating bacterial and algae blooms and chemical pollution.
When watering your lawn, think of how a dry sponge absorbs less water than a damp one. Urban drool can be prevented by watering with hourly pulses of short durations that give the soil enough time to absorb the water. As the soil becomes moist, it can hold on to more water
Take a look at other hard surfaces, such as driveways, walkways, and patios. Instead of impermeable concrete, consider permeable pavers, wood chip paths, and growing strips. These breathable materials allow water to be absorbed into the soil, filtering sediments and pollutants, and allowing the water to be stored for later use by plants, rather than creating flooding, pooling, and runoff problems. These more porous surfaces also allow the soil and plant roots to breath.
If you have an area of your landscape that regularly receives excess water, you may want to consider installing a rain garden to reduce urban drool and ground water pollution.
If you see urban drool occurring at a local park or business, take a moment to reach out and let them know. They may not be aware of the problem.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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