Archive for October, 2008

Raised bed construction

October 25, 2008

This post goes out to my friend Carol Kizis in Buffalo who is thinking of starting to vegetable garden now that she has her ornamental growing down pat. She asked me about building raised beds and asked for some sketches so I thought that I would just do a post with picts to show her, and anyone else who’s interested, how I do it. First, let me say that I have been building raised beds for almost 35 years and I  have used a lot of designs. Even in my current garden I have several. But I now have settled on one because it is easy and cheap.

My beds are always 4 feet wide. It is the maximum width to work across and one wants to maximize bed space. My beds are also always 8 or 16 feet in length. Both of these dimensions take advantage of normal lumber sizes. My beds are made of treated lumber … if you are concerned about arsenic in treated lumber read this article from Fine Gardening.  It is fairly comprehensive. The bottom line is that migration of the arsenic from the wood into the soil is minimal and can be rendered inconsequential by a few minor cautions. Treated lumber has served me well for a long time and the beds last 20 years or so.

I now build my beds solely out of 8 foot treated 2 by 4s. The reason is simple … they are often on sale at the big-box hardware stores. You can build one 4′ by 8′ bed for the cost of 7 boards (plus a few 3″ deck screws). A 7 board bed is 7 inches high and has room to add another board later on as the bed soil level rises. Or you can build a 10 board bed that is finished at about 10 1/2 inches high which is deep enough for most anything you plant.

seven board bed - two beds joined

seven board bed - two beds joined

Bed made with 10 boards

Bed made with 10 boards

I cut one board in half for each of the end pieces but I  make sure that “half” is 48″ since this lumber is notoriously uneven in dimension. So, every one board high takes three boards … two 8′ boards for the sides and two half boards for the ends. Also, each bed requires one board cut into 2′ lengths as the upright corner anchors.

So, for a seven board bed, cut one board into 4 2′ lengths, two boards into 4 4′ lengths and make sure that 4 boards are 8′ in length.

I use a drill and 3″ deck screws to put them together. The end pieces and the side pieces are screwed together to form a box. The the box is screwed to the anchor post. Here is a picture of a corner with the screws.

Better view of anchor post

Better view of anchor post

If you are building a 7 board bed, leave room on the top of the anchor post for one additional board to turn it, eventually, into a ten board bed. See the seven board bed picture above.  When you have the bed assembled, set it in place and mark where the anchor posts go into the ground. Remove the bed and dig post holes to accommodate the anchor posts.  When the holes are dug, set the bed in place and back-fill the holes. You may have to dig a bit under the ends and sides to get the bed level. Once the bed is level, turn the dirt in the bed over and fill with other good soil/manure/compost.

I said I did other variations and here are some pictures:

Bed made of 2 by 12s - 16' long

Bed made of 2 by 12s - 16

Very (too) deep bed made of 2 by 6s - 16' long

Very (too) deep bed made of 2 by 6s - 16

If you have any questions, let me know.

Garlic day

October 20, 2008

The potatoes came out yesterday ( 10/19) , and that turns the bed over. A little fresh compost and then the garlic and shallots went in. This year we planted the best of our saved shallots (about 24 bulbs). I planted an early hard necked garlic (Music) and a midseason  softneck (Susanville) both from Territorial. They were unbelievably nice bulbs. Music has four giant cloves per head and Susanville had 4-6 large cloves and 6-8 more smaller ones per head. The garlic and shallots consume about 4′ X 12′ of garden bed space and give us enough output for a year of cooking. We store both in a produce bin in the refrigerator where it is dark and cool but not cold.

The Frostman commeth

October 20, 2008

October 18-19, 2008 was the occasion for our first Fall frost … no maybe’s here. It went down to 30 and the frost was heavy. Another 30 degree night followed that one and so we are now definitely into the Fall garden. I got a paper shopping bag of jalapenos out, a similar bag of sweet peppers and about a dozen of the remaining heirloom tomatoes before the frost hit. I put floating row cover over the more tender greens (escarole, frizee endive, and a few lettuces) and they are fine for a few weeks. The brassicas are lov’n it … especially the kale and collards.

We were out in the forest yesterday and it was truly Fall … the frost dislodged the leaves from the maples, ashes, and other non-oak trees and we walked in a constant leaf-fall. It was very sunny so the effect was spectacular.

This is the time of the year when my compost goes crazy … lots of green stuff to chop up with lots of dry leaves to balance green and dry.


October 14, 2008

Of course I compost. As a matter of fact I may compost more than garden. Or, put another way, my composting may drive my gardening and not the other way around. You see, I have always loved free stuff … like wild berries or forest mushrooms. And I love to use stuff up … in a normal month my wife and I may only have a full 30 gallon bag of trash to put out. Even when we had our kids at home it wasn’t much more. So, what uses up lots of stuff and gives you something of value for free like composting does? Not much.

I have two composters. The main one is a classic three bin composter.

It is home made from treated lumber and each bin measures about 4′ by 4′ by 4′. Raw stuff goes into the left bin,

it is turned after a month into the center bin

and the center bin is turned about 3-4 times a year into the right bin.

Final bin with red wigglers

Final bin with red wigglers

At the start of the growing year I have about 60 cubic feet of compost to use.

The three bin composter gets fed from three basic sources. The main source is lawn and garden clippings. I still have some lawn (unfortunately) but it is untreated. I run a bagging mower and all of the clippings go straight to the compost. Every Fall, I shred/mow up the garden waste including my wife’s considerable perennial garden waste. The second source is organic house waste which goes in year round.  I will sometimes pick up leaf bags from neighbors in the Fall to mix in with the house watse to provide more celulose. And then there is the kitty litter.

We use Good Mews which is recycled newspaper. We clear out the fecal matter religiously and the remaining urine soaked litter goes into the bin with the other sources. It all heats up well and the final product is fairly clean and weed free. I should also point out that the center and right bins seem to have developed their own huge colonies of red wigglers who do a great job on the final product (see above).

The other composter is a classic one barrel tumbler … purchased long ago.

We use it primarily for one thing and that is cat feces. When they break down, they go in the flower and perennial beds, not the food beds. We put some wood clippings in for celulose. We also get manure tea out of the collector that the tumbler sits on. I use it mostly for the plants that I start … heavily diluted.

All in all, we get a LOT of really good compost and we really keep down our trash and our contributions to the municipal sanitary system.

UPDATE:  Since this post is getting a bit of use by others at the start of Spring gardening season let me add a few more important points. The first is that compost needs to be moist in order to properly work It should, in the time honored metaphor, be like a damp sponge. I try not to use city water to do this because it has chlorine which kills bacteria but use what you have to moisten the content. Grass clippings and other newly cut vegetation have moisture built in.

The second point is that in small compost operations, and it is small if you don’t need a tractor to turn the pile, you will see a significant impact due to the ambient temperatures. In the winter, no matter what you do, it will be hard to keep a pile working very much. In the summer it is much easier as long as you don’t let it dry out. Like proofing bread on the kitchen counter, it does better in the summer.


October 13, 2008

This will have to be a pictureless post for obvious reasons.

I had about 6 really great Napa in the garden, just waiting to be made into a big batch of Kimchi. Each of them was in the 4-5 lb range. Then, all of a sudden they started to collapse. This Saturday I picked them and I was dumbstruck. Each, save one, was completely destroyed by a wide array of insects … slugs, catepilars, ants-aphids, and on and on. Most of these were ground-up insects, not flying ones. I had little warning they were there. What I do  not know, since one head came through unscaithed, is whether I held them in the garden too long … too much rot of old first leaves drawing scavenging insects. I suspect so.

The one head I did harvest (a whopping 7 pounder), as well as a few inner cores from a few others, gave me enough for some kimchi.  Last year my heads were eaten out by, ready for this, corn borers. Tough crop to grow since everything loves to eat it.

Overdue update

October 13, 2008

I’ve been busy doing non-garden things and I thought that it might be time for a brief update.  Two Saturday’s ago I did a minor clean-up in the garden. I took out all my Roma tomatoes and saved about a peck for ripening in the garage. Those have been turned into some sauce and paste by roasting them in the oven when I have had it on for other reasons. All in all I got some great production out of the Romas although as I said earlier, next year I will go back to Speckled Romans which are much better.

I also took out all of my heirloom tomatoes except for two plants, one Brandywine and one Romanesco, both of which I pruned back severely to just the fruits that have a chance to ripen.  Just after I did that we skirted with a frost that was not predicted.  It was OK … we got down to 36 or so but no frost. The peppers continue to be incredibly productive as do the eggplant, although the eggplant are not filling out as they once did. That same Saturday, I had the charcoal grill fired up so I roasted about 8 nice eggplants, put them in a colander to drain and then froze them.  We will drag them out later for Indian eggplant where structure is not an issue.

The pole beans were pruned back a few weeks ago to see if I could get a new flush of growth in the early Fall. I have had some luck with this before but this Fall is kinda dry so I am only getting a few here and there.

We harvested some great broccoli from the new (Fall) plants. Fall Broccoli tastes much better than the stuff that is ready in the Summer.

Most of my time has been spent keeping the brassicas sprayed with rotenone. I have terrific collards, kale, Tuscan kale, and savoy cabbage and I don’t need to share them with the cabbage whites. They have long ago outgrown the floating row cover although the cover gave them a terrific start.

Late arugula is going great as is my (to be) overwintered spinach. The rabbit (my version of !That One! ) got my fall snow peas.

Thus far a great Fall.