During extended weeks at home, some have found comfort in returning to the earth—looking at our back and front yards, balconies and rooftops in a new way. I’ve always felt most at ease in places with sidewalks; yet over the decades, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of digging, planting and pruning—striving to reclaim from the always-encroaching wild an environment of modest beauty, rather than one serving a useful purpose.
That perspective changed this year. At the urging of a gardening friend, I took the plunge—as so many have before—finding beauty in growing vegetables and herbs in raised beds. There are abundant benefits to gardening off the ground: not having to bend down as far; starting out with enriched soil; choosing among containers from humble pots and planters to custom-designed raised beds you can construct or commission; or simply elevating and enclosing an existing garden bed.
For an apprentice, raised beds are the perfect way to start small. Best of all, for farm-to-table, you can’t beat stepping outside your own kitchen for fresh lettuce or basil to serve in minutes—clipped at eye level.
Growing your own holds special appeal in times of limited access to fresh produce. That was the case during both world wars, when the government promoted “victory gardens” and families rallied to plant crops at home, in public parks, even in schoolyards. By the end of World War II, victory gardens accounted for 40 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S.
Back then, government pamphlets instructed homeowners on how to cultivate edible plants. For today’s beginners, I asked two experts for advice: Amanda Helin, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden; and Carly Mercer of Love & Carrots, which helps clients plant and maintain vegetable gardens. To raise a garden bed, Helin advises mounding at least six inches of compost within walls—or even better, 18 inches of compost mixed with topsoil—and digging it in deeply with a garden fork; or, for a container, simply filling it with 12 or more inches of commercial potting mix. Convert grass to a raised bed by layering five sheets of newspaper, piling on compost and topsoil, and eventually digging it all together. “Adding leaf compost is a great way to go for really rich veggie garden soil,” she says.
At least six hours of direct sunlight daily are necessary for a vegetable garden to thrive. “Think about commercial agriculture in an open field,” says Helin. “That’s ideal.” Mercer suggests placing tall crops on the north side of a bed, so that shorter ones like carrots, beans and salad greens are not cast in shade as the sun moves across the sky.
Allow space for a plant’s mature size. Tomatoes, for example, can reach five or six feet tall. “If you plant five tomatoes in a space where one should grow, you’ll get five pretty unhealthy plants,” Mercer warns. “If you put one in that space, you’ll get one robust and very productive tomato plant.” She adds that tomatoes also need pruning for good air circulation along with staking, caging or trellising.
Raised beds require more water than those in the ground. In dry, hot summer weather, that may mean watering two or three times a day, according to Mercer, who recommends drip-irrigation systems to deliver water directly to the plant’s roots, where it’s needed.
When it comes to keeping out critters and pests, a 24-inch-tall bed will prevent rabbits from jumping in, while only fencing deters deer. To protect lower-growing crops, Mercer recommends netting.
Plan ahead. Mercer points out that late August is ideal for planting cool-weather vegetables from seed, such as beets, carrots, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard; or starting an herb garden, with potted oregano, rosemary, thyme, chives, parsley and cilantro available at garden centers.
“Fall is a great time to plant crops that you can enjoy into winter,” agrees Helin, naming broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, spinach and bok choy.
In my own Maryland backyard, raised planters are blooming mid-season with lettuce, chard and cherry tomatoes starting to form, as well as a towering trellis of peas beside parsley, cilantro and dill. Tending and watching the plants as they grow, this suburban novice has discovered joy each day, marveling at nature’s miracles and grateful for the link to our edible roots.