Growing Vegetables in Raised Beds (and What’s Going on With This Soil?)

One of my backyard gardens is on the site of a former garage. We removed the one-car garage last summer and replaced it with a larger building to store cars and tools. The site of the former garage is now where I grow vegetables in raised beds and am trying to grow some perennials, shrubs and vines on the extremely poor soil.

The tomato has a fruit, but it’s so small, you can tell its struggling. Photo take July 15.

Raised beds can be a terrific way to grow vegetables, but as I am finding out, your beds are only as good as the soil in them. Witness the photo at left. The bed this sad tomato was planted in was one of two that were filled with a soil mix that was labeled as being specifically for raised beds, including those with vegetables. I planted beans, parsley, tomatoes, squash and marigolds in the two beds—in late May/early June. For weeks, they have sat there. And sat there.

With the exception of marigolds, which seemed to be growing a tiny bit and are flowering, none of the plants were thriving—or even growing much. On many of them, the leaves turned yellow. Nothing has up and died yet, but they sure have been struggling. Witness the photo below, a small raised bed (with less sun than other raised beds) where I used an organic bagged soil mix and some manure. These tomatoes and basil plants were roughly the same size as the ones in the other beds when they were planted a few weeks ago, yet they are growing, producing flowers and fruit and generally doing what a plant should do. (Update: Since I wrote this post a week or so ago, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to lash their trellis to the fence.)

Planted in a bagged soil mix, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to tie them to the trellis. Photo taken July 15.

So what’s up? It could be the plants have gotten too much water, but given the size of the beds and the dryness of the top 3 inches of the soil, I doubt that. I checked out this article on what yellow leaves on plants means and my yellow leaves don’t perfectly match any of the pictures—though they are close on a couple of them.  A couple of weeks ago, in absolute frustration, I decided to add some more nitrogen to see if that helped. One bed got composted manure; the other got liquid fertilizer. The plants have grown more since then—one of the beans has finally latched onto the trellis I want it to climb and a few bean flowers have emerged.

I also sent a sample of the soil to the U of M Soil Testing Lab to find out exactly what kind of soil I’ve got here. (I contacted the landscaping firm that sold me the soil, but have not heard back from them.) The U turned around the soil test results quickly and I found out that while the mix had a good percentage of organic matter (12.5 percent), it had sky-high levels of potassium (that’s the K in the N-P-K ratio on most fertilizer bags.) Potassium’s main role in plant growth is to regulate how other nutrients are taken up by the plant and to regulate certain processes. Too much potassium in the soil will interfere with up-take of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. The U recommended I add nitrogen but nothing else to the soil to improve plant growth.

One of the main reasons to grow vegetables in raised beds is that you can control the soil better. In my case, the dreadful soil that was already on the site made growing vegetables impossible without raised beds. If the beds are tall (mine are about 14 inches tall), they should be treated like a container, with regular watering and fertilizing to enrich the soil. Needless to say, come fall, I will be adding leaves, compost and manure to all my beds in hopes of getting the soil in better shape for next year.

Do you grow vegetables in raised beds? What’s your favorite soil mix?

5 Early Chores for Weary Gardeners

For instant spring, plant some pansies. Garden centers are full of them now.

Imagine if the hunter or fisherperson in your household was told that the opening weekend had been moved back two, maybe three weeks? Anxiety? Disappointment? Lots of pent-up energy? Yes, to all that, as we gardeners well know having endured one of the most protracted ends to winter that I can recall. But, this weekend is it! The weather promises to be pleasant and warm. So, here’s what I plan to do:

  • Clean up the gardens you can reach easily. You don’t want to be tramping around the yard too much (something I’ve been guilty of already this year). And you absolutely do not want to rake — let the soil firm up and dry out. But, if you can reach a bed from the sidewalk or other terra firma, clean up spent perennials and uncover any of those plants that want to grow.
  • Buy some pansies! If you think you have been anxious to get out in the garden, imagine how nursery and garden center owners feel. Many garden centers will be open for the first time this weekend. Visit them, enjoy the beautiful plants they have in their greenhouses and buy some pansies to pot up for instant spring.
  • Plant a little lettuce. I’ve started some lettuce indoors and those plants have been moved to pots and put on the front porch. But it should be warm enough now to  plant out lettuce or even start some from seed. Hold off on tomatoes or any warm weather crops.
  • Prune Annabelle hydrangeas and other plants that bloom on new growth. Hold off on pruning lilacs and other spring-flowering shrubs until after they bloom.
  • Build a raised bed. Easiest garden project ever. I’ve built several and have a new one in the garage ready to go out to the vegetable area in the next week or so. (If you want to get really fancy, check out my brother-in-law’s deck garden.) You can fill your bed with compost and soil to create a fabulous environment for vegetables.

What will you be doing this beautiful weekend?


Fun with Wood

It’s still too early to be tromping around in the garden, so the great weather on Saturday seemed like an invitation to finish some garden building projects. So, after picking up some deck screws and 2-by-2 posts at the local lumberyard, I started work on my new raised bed. (I bought the cedar for the sides last fall.) This bed will be 3-feet-by-5-feet and will be devoted to tomatoes.

upside down raised bed
A raised bed under construction

I’ve built raised beds myself twice before, and several years ago, my dad built a pair of them at my old house. His beds turned out nice and square–mine, not so much. I followed the guides set out by Sunset books on how to build the bed. I liked the idea of putting the posts down and basically building the bed from the top down. To put it together, I used deck screws. It worked better for me to drill a pilot hole for the screw, then to put it in and use my power drill to install the screw. This bed is 11 inches deep, with a 3-1/2 inch board on top and a 7-1/2 inch board underneath. (In the photo, it’s upside down.) On the next sunny day, I’ll go out and dig the holes to fit the posts in, and fill the bed with soil. The mix that I have heard recommended is one-third garden soil, one-third compost, and one-third sand. The Sunset guides indicate you can put the bed together in a few hours, which proved true. However, I’d recommend having someone around to hold the boards in place while you are attaching them. With the long boards especially, it’s tricking to keep them in position without a little help–hence, my somewhat trapezoidal bed.

The other job I finished is the building of a frame to use to hold up my raspberry canes. For the frame, I used four 1-by-2 boards with a pointed bottom, and four 2-by-2 boards for cross-beams. I will be adding eight hooks and then running wires between them. The idea is to create two channels of wire through which the raspberry canes will grow. The frame is supposed to improve air circulation and make the raspberries easier to pick by keeping them at eye-level. When I was installing the frame on the raspberry bed, I noticed that the raspberry canes left standing over the winter had buds on them. With any luck, there will be a July crop of berries, as well as the early fall crop that we had last year.