Flowers planted at the ends of the raised beds obscure some of the visible wood

It was probably more than 20 years ago when Mike went to a customer’s house and came back raving about his garden. This gentleman was in his 80′s and was Japanese, and had tall raised boxes in which he grew gobs of vegetables. We assumed these raised boxes were common in Japan because neither of us had ever seen them used here. Mike talked about borrowing the idea and building some raised gardens for us, and finally built the first two boxes 5 years ago, each measuring 3′ x 40′.  We grew standard long rows of veggies adjacent to them for 2 years, and anything cultivated in the raised garden outgrew and outproduced the regular garden by a mile, so 3 years ago he built 6 more boxes, each measuring 3′ x 16′. Now we grow all our veggies in these boxes.

The boxes are made of salt treated lumber, obviously not by choice but for convenience and economy. Since I didn’t want all those chemicals from the wood leaching into my organic food, each box was lined with a thick layer of styrofoam against the inside edges of the boards. We get lots of thick styrofoam and heavy duty cardboard used as packaging around the fireplaces shipped into our business, so we have lots of free materials to work with. I have to credit Mike with this idea; it looked like holy hell but he convinced me you’d never see it once we had soil and plants in place, and he was right.

The first winter we filled the new raised beds with layers of cardboard, paper from our shredder at work, all the leaves we raked from the yard and some styrofoam we broke into little bitty pieces to lighten the developing soil a bit.

There’s grass between the boxes, no fancy pathways. But walking on grass allows you to go out and tend the garden, or harvest whatever is ready at the moment, at any time. No more waiting for the mud to dry between “regular” garden rows any more to get out and do what needs to be done. Here are some other benefits:

  • Easier to plant, tend and weed because you don’t have to bend over so far
  • Easier to water, since I can aim the hose to water just the beds and not the ground between rows
  • Easier to prepare; since you never walk on the soil, it’s always loose and “workable”

    Here are the beds in the early spring of 2011

Mike left upright posts so we can add boards to deepen the beds as we get older and less flexible. I also find that I incorporate them into what I’m doing in many ways. I’ve put some slate pieces across them to create little shelves for extra workspace and the like. I’ve used them as plant supports. I hang nets between a pair for beans, cukes, etc. to grow up. I set upside-down pots on the posts so they’re handy for little tasks like deadheading flowers, picking berries or dropping weeds into before taking them to the compost. Essentially, those posts make the beds look unfinished but they’re actually quite handy.

We have also adopted companion planting techniques which make it easy to use every bit of soil in those boxes to grow more varieties and greater quantities of food. If I harvest beets, I immediately plant something, like peppers, in the space it leaves. I’ve been studying which plants grow best together based on helping each other to fight off pests, increase production, improve taste or to simplify how much work I have to do. By filling every niche with another fruit, vegetable, herb or flower then there’s also less opportunity for weeds to take hold. This year I’m trying 2 new experiments with beans. In one box I’ve planted potatoes against each inside edge then a row of sunflowers down the center. Between the sunflowers I’ve planted beans that can grow up the stalks of the sunflowers. In another box I’ve planted corn and beans so the beans can grow up the corn stalks. Plus, the beans should hold up the corn so that it’s less likely to blow over in a storm, as has happened to me every year I’ve tried to grow corn.

Last year I had tons of zinnia and marigold seeds I’d saved from the year before. While a veggie garden is a pleasing sight to its owners, it’s not exactly PRETTY. So I threw in the extra flower seeds into the veggie boxes. Now, since these were seeds I’d collected myself, I knew the characteristics of the plants they’d come from. They really were just ordinary zinnias and marigolds. But the flowers that grew from the seeds I sowed in my magic garden boxes were extraordinary. I had marigolds over 5′ tall and zinnias nearly 7′ tall! From a distance, my raised garden beds looked like I was just growing huge mutant flowers but as you got closer you saw the tomatoes, peppers, etc. It really was a wild sight. The garden was so full of butterflies, hummingbirds, gold finches and bees that it was amazing. So now I’m hooked, I don’t think I’ll ever grow lonesome vegetable plants again.

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