Chickadee Snow

Before I get into more practical matters, I want to share a garden experience from Sunday morning.

You may remember the snow of the night before, a few inches of light snow that nestled in the forked twigs of dormant shrubs, capped dried seed heads in flower beds and dusted the high, bare branches of trees. By morning it was over, the sky clear and blue, and I went out to move the snow around before heading to church, more an excuse to be outside than a real need.

Suddenly it was snowing again, a shower of feathery flakes floating down from the high branches of a yellow birch. A single black-capped bird pecked at a sunflower seed taken from the porch feeder, and snow fell through blue sky. Chickadee snow.

Benefits of a raised bed

Interest in vegetable gardening is at an all-time high with new gardens for backyards and schoolyards now on the drawing board. One of the first decisions must be whether to grow in the ground, in raised beds or a combination of the two.

There are several good reasons to garden in raised beds, but for many gardeners in Maine a compelling reason is that our gardens sit on barely buried ledge, leaving us with little topsoil in which to garden. This is the case in Marjorie’s garden; in most spots we can’t drive a stake more than a few inches into the ground before striking a shelf of stone.

Our raised beds were formed from the ground up. Few have wooden frames and few of them run straight. They were started by moving the soil from the walkways into the bed areas, adding topsoil when needed and digging in compost every year. The beds average about 3 feet in width and vary in length from several yards to just a few feet. The top surface of each bed is slightly narrower than the base to minimize erosion and the sides are buttressed with large rocks, of which there are always plenty.

We can plant, fertilize, weed and harvest these beds from walkways on either side, avoiding compaction of the soil and thus improving drainage while allowing air, water and solar energy to penetrate to the root zone. The well-drained raised beds warm up faster in spring, giving us a jump on the growing season. They also hold the sun’s warmth longer at day’s end and in the fall — a real boon to Northern gardeners trying to grow heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, melons and summer squash.

Laying out the garden in raised-beds enables easy planning of crop rotations necessary to interrupt disease cycles in the garden and thus increase yields. Root crops, cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, etc.) and solanaceous crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes are particularly vulnerable to soil-inhabiting insects and diseases and thus benefit substantially from crop rotation.

Growing our vegetables and small fruits in raised beds has allowed us to make the most efficient use of our garden space and left us wondering why, in an age of smaller gardens and busier gardeners, anyone would use a planting scheme based on long skinny rows separated by wide expanses of cleanly cultivated soil. Studies show that only 32 percent of conventional garden space is used for plants compared to a full 63 percent for raised beds. The difference is in plant spacing; raised bed gardeners use the “in-row” spacing throughout the planting area, eliminating the “between row” space. In raised beds, the plants form a “living mulch” over the soil.

If you have yet to try raised bed gardening, why not begin this year? Start by tilling the garden area to improve drainage under the raised beds. Then mark out the beds with stakes and string or with frames. Shovel topsoil from pathways onto the beds, rake them flat and dig in 2-4 inches of compost. Finish by mulching the path-ways around your beds with straw or wood chips.

If you prefer to frame your beds, be creative! Make your own frames out of logs, stones, cinder blocks, corrugated tin or wood (cedar or spruce hold up best). Make the beds anywhere from 6 to 24 inches high, or even higher if you are like me and gardening on your knees is not as easy as it used to be!