Ever notice how every seed packet says the plant grows best in loam soil? Loam is the perfect balance of sand, silt, and clay which allows for the best drainage and soil nutrition. The thing is, most people don’t live in an ideal, well-balanced world with perfect soils. So what happens then?
Here is what we have in Bexar County, Texas:
- If you live in the middle of Bexar County, say inside the 1604 loop of San Antonio, you have heavy, alkaline, clay soils. It has a high pH and doesn’t drain well.
- If you live in the northern part of Bexar County, closer to the Hill Country, well, good for you, but your soil is all rock. You might have an inch of top soil.
- If you live in south Bexar County, closer to Wilson and Atascosa counties, then you have acidic, sandy soil. It doesn’t hold water.
There is a solution that solves all of these problems and more: Raised Beds.
Raised beds are garden beds where the soil has been raised up, and usually held together by some sort of structure. Most of the time it is a wooden frame, but it doesn’t have to be. Potato cages and mounded rows are also examples of raised beds.
They can be made out of anything and fit most anywhere. I mentioned my friend who put a baby swimming pool on his apartment balcony so he could grow his own food. And it worked! I have another friend who used cinder blocks and then planted marigolds and herbs in the holes of the blocks.
Here are seven ways raised beds help the gardener grow in all soil conditions:
1. Soil Correction
It is near impossible to change what years of geology has already created. In a raised bed you typically add soil to the frame and can localize where and how much you add amendments and fertilizer. It is prohibitively expensive to truck in soil from the Ohio River Valley and change your entire property, but it’s not that expensive to add soil to a 4′ x 8′ frame. Therefore, your native soils of clay, sand, or rock, are no longer problems.
2. Soil structure
Any root vegetable, like carrots, turnips, potatoes, etc., grow down into the soil. If it is rock or compact clay, then they can’t do that. The soil structure needs to be looser, or else you’re going to have stubby little nothings instead of food. On the other hand, you don’t risk damaging soil structure in raised beds because you aren’t tempted to step into the bed in order to pick a veggie, whereas that is A LOT harder to instinctively avoid in ground beds.
3. Intensive Growing
Raised beds allow you to grow intensively, which means you can maximize output by planting or sowing seed close together. You can really pack in the plants and have an abundance of food production in a raised bed. This also helps keep weeds down because the close proximity of the plants can out-shade the weed seedlings (because you’ve already picked out the more fully grown weeds, right?) and then they die off.
4. Proper Drainage
Related to soil structure is drainage. Sand has large, coarse particles and doesn’t bind up, so the water easily drains through it. That’s unfortunate when the roots of plants need that water to, you know, live. Clay particles are fine and they bind up really tightly. Then our Texas sun bakes the clay and you basically have pottery urns for garden soil. Soil in raised beds can easily be mixed with organic matter to create proper drainage which allows roots to drink deeply, while not drowning.
5. Proper pH
Now for some science: pH measures the acidity of a thing. On a scale of 1-14, with neutral being 7, something is acidic if it measures below 7 on the scale, and alkaline or basic if it measures above 7. There are soil tests you can do to find out the pH of your soil.
Most plants like a balanced pH. They can survive in un-ideal conditions, but you might not be able to get the best out of your acid-loving carrots and potatoes in alkaline soils. Here is a link to the Farmer’s Almanac on pH levels. You see how many vegetables like higher pH soils? Not many. Raised beds let you focus your soil amendments (like lime for acidic soils, or peat moss for alkaline soils) so that you can have the proper balance for your specific growing needs.
6. Weed Control
Weeds are going to happen. But they can be planned for and managed. Weeds compete for nutrients that you want in your leafy greens and vegetables instead. This applies to turf grass too. We have a lot of bermuda grass in this region; great for golf courses and lawns, but horribly invasive for your landscape and garden beds. In a raised bed you can control weeds by having a biodegradable weed barrier at the bottom of the frame, and then filling the frame with a quality soil. This means the weeds that do show up are fewer and further in between than they would be if the bed was just tilled up turf in the backyard.
Within city limits properties get teeny, and space is limited. When we think of crops, we think of commercial farms with long rows spaced about a tractor tire’s width apart. Most people do not have that kind of space in their garden. Raised beds take up just a limited amount of space. If you use the cinder-block method, then you can modify the bed to fit anywhere like side yards and odd angles made by your fence (just make sure you get enough sun light in those places).
That is seven ways raised beds can help you grow your own food in any soil condition. Let us know if you have used the raised bed method, and if there are other ways they can help the home gardener!