Seasoned gardeners and novices alike know that, sooner or later, having a garden means work. Even folks with naught but humble pots and containers still must lug about soil, turn compost, dig, water and re-pot.
In my small, urban vegetable garden, I utilize raised beds of various sizes, shapes and materials. Each fall I pull the beds and stepping stones, turn over the soil, add compost and wait for the winter rains to percolate down. Come spring–or late winter–I turn over the soil again, add more compost and re-distribute soil into beds as The Plan dictates. This year, however, several of my faithful wooden raised beds are nearing the end of their life cycle.
Five years ago my husband and children made 2’x4’x1′ un-treated wooden rectangular boxes for me. Pressure-treated wood–while adept at withstanding the elements–can leak dangerous chemicals into one’s soil after a period of time. Opting for regular wood, we rubbed every surface of the garden boxes with mineral oil multiple times before use, but the moisture, soil, weather and insect life have still taken their toll. One more good growing season is about all they have left to give before the inevitable replacement becomes necessary.
In searching for a viable replacement I emerged myself in raised bed research this last winter, opting to utilize what I have on hand before buying ‘new’ things. I have long wanted to create “wattled” beds, or raised beds woven of stakes and green branches, a medieval growing system that transforms pruning cast-offs into a garden worthy of any Shire hobbit-hole. The concept is fairly simple: one drives thick, pointed stakes into the four corners of the bed area, with one more in the middle of each ‘side’, and then weave green, thin branches in and out, all around the sides, building from the bottom, upward, putting in more stakes as necessary to hold the woven branches in place.
Simple as the concept is, the execution thereof is another matter. My first bed measured approximately 4’x3’x1′ and took three hours and about one-hundred green sticks to make. I lined the inside of each woven side with dried leaves and filled the bed to capacity with aerated, dark soil.
Despite the work and time involved, the bed itself looked wonderful. A far cry from my warped and crumbling wooden boxes, it stood in whimsical contrast to both the solid soil underneath and the cascading leaves of the trumpet vines behind. My husband described the completed bed as “organic” and I couldn’t agree more. The woven sides held wet soil in beautifully, and I felt invigorated enough by my progress to make another the next day. This type of bed worked especially well for oddly-shaped areas, I found. I made a non-equal-sided hexagonal wattled bed for lettuces around the base of an alder tree, as well as a triangular bed for zucchini in a tight space that would have been useless for a traditional raised bed.
The second ‘new’ raised bed system I crafted this year was my very own vertical garden, ladder shelves made of reclaimed wood. Full sunlight–in my backyard–is rather sparse due to several mature cedar and alder trees; these help mitigate the amount of bearing Sacramento afternoon sun that falls on our roof, but they cast a dark scythe of a shadow over the growing areas of my back yard. Our strawberries especially need full sun, but their tendency to sprawl and multiply presents its own challenge; the six plants we began gardening with have grown tenfold.
Instead of pruning more tree branches for extra light, or finding more space to house the strawberries in, I put my plants in well-drained containers and built ladder shelves, which lean up against my fence. One simply cuts angles in the bottom of 2x4s (where they will rest upon stepping stones on the ground) and another set of angles where they rest against the fence. The “shelves” are put in at an angle as well (which took some trial and error to get right) but one can adjust the angle of these by simply moving the bottom of the system father, or closer to, the fence. Another perk of this system is that is can quickly be moved to another area without having to empty out several wheelbarrow-loads of soil. The strawberries are responding well to their new location, already putting out blossoms. I will build another soon for my cascading cherry tomatoes and lettuce wall.
Next week: The Planting
L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books