For many dedicated gardeners, raised beds are a life-changer…
You may wonder why you waited so long to make the switch! Your back will thank you: just perch comfortably on the wooden edge to plant or weed. Your knees will thank you: no more painful kneeling on gravel or mud. Your plants will thank you: no more competition for essential nutrients with lawn grass or far-reaching tree roots. Your soil will thank you: the sturdy beams prevent erosion and leaching, and mulch stays in place. The earth never gets compacted because no one walks on it: no-till gardening becomes much easier. Your garden will look beautiful, organise easily, and produce bountifully.
For urban gardeners, container gardening is often the best (and sometimes the only) option. No yard? Pavement as far as the eye can see? No problem, if you have a balcony, fire escape, or sunny stoop — even an accessible rooftop. Landlord won’t let you dig up the lawn? Ask about adding tidy and removable planting containers. Containers can be small beds with slatted bottoms to hold soil in place, or large pots or window boxes for small groups of plants. Some small planters are so portable you can start them inside before the last frost, then move them out when the weather’s fine. The past decade has witnessed a revolution of gardening city-dwellers, making creative use of every corner of sun available!
But once I’ve set up my lovely new raised beds or planters, what do I fill them with? Can I just dig the soil out of my current garden or yard? If I’m buying soil, how do I choose? Keep in mind that your local conditions may have special considerations but there are some guidelines which will help you get started.
Find out what’s beneath your feet!
In many cases, using your own topsoil as a starting point makes good sense. For one thing, if you’re filling more than a few deck planters, buying bagged soil at your local garden center gets expensive. But before you start shoveling, now is a good time to test your soil. Knowing your soil’s pH is essential, so you can create optimal conditions for your crops — or choose plants likely to thrive. Rainy, woodsy areas tend towards acidic soil, while droughty regions are likely to be alkaline.
Luckily, adding compost to either acid or alkaline soil will buffer the pH, bringing it closer to neutral. For acid soil, you will also add some lime (dolomitic lime will help if you also have a magnesium deficiency). Five pounds of lime per 100 square feet will raise your pH by 1 point, although clay-heavy soils may need more. Applied sparingly, wood ash will also help alkalinize. If you want to increase your soil’s acidity, generous amounts of shredded leaves or peat moss will help lower the pH. Your soil test will also shine a light on any major nutrient deficiencies, pointing the way to the most relevant amendments.