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Why I grow in raised beds instead of rows

Apr 12, 2011

I live in a rural part of Northern Kentucky. Around here, lots of people have a vegetable garden. They are not Kitchen Gardens. They are usually fields full of rows of vegetables. They consider me unusual because I grow in raised beds with "Square Foot" spacings. I have been gardening this way for over twenty years but haven't asked myself why until recently.

When I was a child, my mom had a garden with corn, tomatoes, beans and cabbage. She planted them in long rows like everyone else. One of my chores was to weed those rows. I found the hoe to be clumsy and I often chopped right through a young been or corn plant. The work was hot and monotonous. I vowed that when I grew up, I would never have a vegetable garden! My mom stopped raising a garden when I was in Junior High School (thank goodness) and gardening for me was all but forgotten. Until...

While I was in college my mom re-married and my new step-dad decided to have a garden. He chose to locate it in what used to be a large tobacco field that was tended for us by a neighboring farmer. Since the field was much bigger than he needed, and I would be spending the summer with him and my mom, he approached me about vegetable gardening with him. He also wanted to recognize that I was growing up, so instead of getting me to work on his garden he offered to let me have one half to tend on my own. I don't know why I even entertained the thought, but I agreed. I knew nothing about growing vegetables or even which vegetables would grow in our area. I went to the college library to research it and luckily I happened upon a book about organic gardening with French intensive techniques. It was published by Rodale and outlined how to create raised beds with double-digging and mounding up soil from the paths. It described how to use block planting (what Mel Bartholomew calls Square Foot Gardening), trellises, companion planting, succession planting, using compost and other organic techniques. Wow - this book got me excited!

Summer arrived and it was time to start the garden. My step-dad bought a new fancy tiller to prepare his plot. I used my youthful energy to dig a series of raised beds but only used half of my allotted space. He planted long rows of many different veggies; I planted them in blocks. I got a job cutting grass with a landscape service and brought home bags of grass clippings and bags of straw. With these I set up a series of compost heaps and learned how to create finished compost every three weeks. He used chemical fertilizers and pesticides; I used compost. My step-dad weeded with his big tiller; I pulled weeds by hand until the plant leaves touched and shaded out the weeds.

We had two major problems that both of us faced. The first one was rabbits! This location was far away from the house and rabbits began eating everything, especially the green beans. I'm not sure if my step-dad did anything to combat them, but I utilized a tip from my Rodale book. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) was a hairdresser at the time, so she collected all of the hair clippings that the beauty shop swept up. We brought home bags and bags of the hair and spread it all around and in my part of the garden. The human scent actually kept the rabbits away - especially since there were more veggies lined up in neat rows on the other end of the field without the human scent! My step-dad's beans were eaten by rabbits; my beans were eaten by us!

The second big problem we both had was that there wasn't enough rain. He bought a fancy pump and hose system to pump water from the creek; I watered with had-carried buckets and jugs. He had the advantage here at first - until the serious drought hit. The creek completely dried up and so did much of his long rows of veggies. I carried milk jugs of water out and placed them in the middle of the beds as drip irrigation. I repeat this technique even today in my garden. I wrote a post about it with pictures, if you are interested.

Now for the conclusion of my story.

My step-dad's garden took up 3/4 of the field and I had the other 1/4 but my side yielded twice as much produce! Not everything I did that year was a success, but seeing the side-by-side comparison was amazing! I was hooked on gardening from then on. Too bad I was almost finished with college at this point. If I had just been starting, I seriously would have switched my major to horticulture.

Now, I use untreated lumber for most of my raised beds and try to grow as much vertically as possible.

So what about you? I'd love to hear from some of you. Do you grow vegetables in rows, in blocks or in raised beds? I'm not putting down any of the methods. It is important to garden the way that works for you. What problems do you see with either method? What kind of success (or failure) have you had?


Hi there, here in tropical Australia I am continually working with what I have and trying to produce as much as I can year round. Some of the tropical plants I grow in the wet season are an acquired taste. In the dry season I can grow more of the "normal" type of vegetables, but still have to deal with a lot of fungus and insects. I have lasagne type raised beds and tend to grow in short rows, and if anything can be grown vertically it is, as this creates more air movement around the plants. I originally had wood along the sides of the beds, but as this rots so quickly I am now replacing the edges with flat rocks. I make lots of compost and add comfrey juice, seaweed, and also bury prawn shells. In a tropical climate with so much rain you have to be continually replacing the nutrients. happy gardening, Gillian
Excellent post! It seems that many of us owe Rodale tribute for waking us to organic gardening. As a child, I worked at my families nursery and produce stand. We didn't grow anything, but trucked everything from the farms. I learned from the small farmers, whom in those days didn't use chemical fertilizers nor pesticides. They basically didn't exist. This was during WW ll, and even though we lived on a small city lot , as anyone who had a small piece of ground there was a "Victory Garden". Long rows were not possible, so we planted in spaces, similar to the square foot system. Later, when I could legally drive a truck (14 yrs.), I trucked in nursery stock and produce from most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and parts of Oklahoma, getting to know the farmers and some of their growing methods. They were lovely, hard working people who were in tune with the land. When I could not buy a load or a field and had to wait for a load, I would get a job as a "stacker" with the railroad or a trucking company. To stack watermelons,about 40 lbs. avg., in boxcars. The pay was 50 cents per ton and you had to pay the loaders that pitched them to you. Some times I could clear $20 a day. That may have something, along with 11 yrs. playing football, to do with my constant back pains even after surgery. I definately use raised beds combining features of French Intensive and Square Foot gardening. Ruth Stout was also inspiring as were other writers. My current guru is Howard Garrett,, who is a champion of natural (organic) gardening in North Texas. I wandered around a bit here, but we survived well without the chemical giants that, with government sanctions, are pouring polutants into our food and water supplies. They want to force the world to buy their GMO seeds and fertilizers that have made it near impossible to buy unpoluted corn. Thank you for your patience and listening to a senior who has memories and a lot of living left to do. Stay natural, David
As a 13 year old boy on the farm I noticed that volunteer tomatoes were growing in a 8' x 8'ft.(2meter-61cm squared). I moved them into rows & weeded them untill they were so big, I could not find the ripe fruit. As I hunted the ripe fruit I began to understand that this was not an everyday garden dirt(we did not have soil).:-) When I was 15, We sold all the cow & I planted the 4' X 16' strip of land at the feed barn in vegetables. I had more fruit then I could carry. The first frost killed the tops of the tomato vine, but not the bottom or the fruit there. I picked the last turning tomatoes the first week in November, the evening before the hard killing frost. I found a book at the Public Library"ORGANIC GARDENING" Rodale Press, read the book & lost it. I paid for it out of my own money(I worked with a Nursrey man on weekends & summers. I found & still have the book in my library. It changed my life, boy was I surprised to find out you need to turn compost, all the compost I had used just laied in the mud & rotted with out my help.
Hi Marc. Great post. I use raised beds as well. I just find them simpler to use than just growing in a larger space. My raised beds are about four feet wide by about forty feet long. I never walk on the beds but use timber scaffold boards to cross over them. I did have mine edged with timber boards, but as the boards have rotted i have not replaced them. I now use plastic binding tape to define the position and width of the beds. I look forward to seeing photo,s of your garden. Glenn
My husband and I often compete with our 50 foot greehouse and my 1/2 acre vegetable garden. I make my own compost and tea, and use that in my garden, and my vegetables come out great. My husband uses 10 10 10 and miracle grow on his tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers (thats what we grow in the greenhouse). His vegetables come out okay too, but I would rather eat and preserve without all that junk in it. I have very good soil for over the years adding compost every Spring and Fall. I have so much tomatoes, that I make tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, pizza sauce, taco sauce, and so much more and then can them. I love vegetable gardening and preserving so much. Its the dirt that I love really. LOL My mom said I ate a lot of dirt when I was little. Oh and I do the raised beds too. Then I place cardboard or newspaper down with straw down on top to make it weedfree. I love the Vegetable Gardeners Bible for Edward Smith, and I learned a lot from it.
My plan for 2014 is to build raised rows with a home made row hipper. Plant seed into the raised rows with a JD PA700 "Lister Planter" Use a JD RG40 and the row hipper for shallow cultivation to control weeds. This Fall I plan to use a middle buster to open the top of the raised rows to add compost. I'll grow Austrian Winter Peas all Winter in the trenches filled with compost. This is just a plan. Please offer your thoughts. Johnny

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