Raised Beds: A Small Garden Solution

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.

RBs at school garden
Raised beds at a school garden. Copyright Matt Watson

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.

intensive planting cc by-sa3.0
Example of intensive planting. Copyright SRL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raised_bed.jpg


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.


7. Space!

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).

bobby's raised bed
Apartment raised bed. Copyright Bobby “Royal Flush” Kazanski


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!






Four Tips for Growing Your Own Baby Food

You do not need a ton of space to grow your own food. A few containers, or some repurposed materials to form a raised bed, can serve you well to grow fresh vegetables. I know one friend who bought a kiddie pool so he could grow food on his apartment balcony.

First Disclaimer: I don’t have kids. But I hang out with a lot of people who do. A few years ago I was having a beer with a friend from church at his house while he was watching his newish son so mom could have a night off. He went to the freezer, popped out a few multi-colored ice cubes into a bowl, warmed it up, and then fed it to his son. My mind was blown.

Which is weird when you think about it because men and women have had to make their own baby food for a lot longer than we have had access to the jars and pouches at the local grocery store. My friend used a bullet blender to puree the same foods they ate, would freeze it in ice cube trays to control serving size, and then would even use this process to introduce new foods to his child, like citrus and salsa (just a dash!).

For some, I get how this isn’t appealing: you don’t even have time to make your own food let alone have the time to make some for your baby. But for others this is a great way to control what your child is eating. You can purchase the food, or if able, you can grow your own healthy and organic food to blend for your baby. And it could potentially save some money. Even though those pouches just cost $1.19-$1.79 each, that adds up a lot over time. If you spent the equivalent amount of money buying the fruit, vegetables and protein yourself, cooking them, blending them, and then freezing them, you could have a lot more on hand for cheaper than the jars and pouches. And less garbage for the recycling center.




Second Disclaimer: I’m not a pediatrician. Obviously follow the nutritional guidelines set by your doctor and whatever works for your family.

There are a lot of sites out there on making the food. Like this one and this one. (I like how the Food Network site suggests veal. I cant afford veal for myself let alone little Johnny.) Here are some ideas about growing your own food:


1. Start Small and Scale Up

Like working out, you don’t need to go hard immediately. That is just asking for burnout and frustration. Work your way up by starting small. Herb gardens take up very little space, just a few small pots or planters that fit in most window sills and apartment balconies. Take that idea and move up from there. Get a tomato plant in a container. Next time you mow your yard, take a few moments to start making space where you can for a few containers and a trellis or two for peas. Don’t psyche yourself out of starting because your condo will never look like Jefferson’s Monticello.




2. Raised Beds are Key

We’ll focus on why raised beds are such a key to home gardening in a later post. For now, just know that you can use bricks, cinder blocks, scrap lumber, cedar fence boards, old totes, and 50,000 other things as seen on Pinterest to form a raised bed in your backyard. Fence boards are cheap, as are a few nails. Hardware stores will make simple cuts for you. In this space you can grow intensively by grouping plants closer together which controls weeds and maximizes your production. You will be surprised how many tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions, herbs, etc., you can get out of a 4×4, 3×6, or 4×8 rectangle. Or a kiddie pool.

first raised bed
Doesn’t need to be pretty. First raised beds at our first house. Cedar fence boards are cheap and easy to cut. Copyright Matt Watson


3. Grow the Basics

Focus on what you will use all the time. I saw a lot of peas and carrots with chicken in jars at the big box store. I also saw a lot of spinach in things. Depending on where you live, you can maybe even grow fruit like apples and apricots. In San Antonio where we live those are hard to grow. And you probably aren’t growing bananas and cereal grains. So buy what you need to buy, and grow the rest. Spinach and leafy greens are insanely healthy for you and fairly easy to grow, and then you don’t have to worry about all those national recalls.


4. Storage

You can get small mason jars at any big box retail store. In fact, you’ve probably walked past them a billion times and never noticed. Make sure you keep those in the fridge or freezer if you aren’t going to go full-prepper and can them. You can also use portion it out into ice cube trays and then collect them in a ziploc. They even sell those baby food pouches that you can fill yourself and reuse.


Comment below if you have tried this. Also, what was the craziest food combination you have fed your baby?

What’s Growing: 1015Y Onions

As of 01/11/2019 we have in the ground 45 or so 1015Y Yellow Onions. Developed by Texas A&M University, these Texas Super Sweet onions are the king of yellows and a staple with any Texas barbecue.

They are in a raised bed for drainage and so that I could add peat moss to the native alkaline soil. They should take about 110 days to mature, around early May. This is our first try with onions and I look forward to testing the results with some brisket after they cure and dry.

Flower Pot Frog guards our raised bed of onions.