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What do you do in September and October in the vegetable garden? Harvest, plant a few short season cool vegetables, but for me it is time to plan a new raised garden. Last year, I thought I’d wait until spring and the whole season flew by so fast, I didn’t have time to get my raised beds ready or even built. So, this year, I just bought two raised beds made of metal. This is only one choice. You can use plastic crates or wood (not chemically treated), old livestock cisterns, planter boxes – anything you can fit a plant into is probably fair game.I was going to build a wooden-sided one, but my back is just not what it should be, so I wanted the sides a bit higher. My metal bed came in a 17” height which should help me reach my veggies. Think about your configurations, square, rectangle, width and height – so you can reach. That way you can have flexibility for your personal garden space.I wanted to get a head start so I wasn’t caught with my “plants down” when it came to spring. My husband and I put the 6 feet-by-2-feet frame configuration together. We have a southern exposure section of our land near the house with the 6- to 8-hour requirement of sun each day. The area performed well this year with my 4 feet-by-2-feet raised garden box that I planted.In the city, I was always “vegetably challenged” as I grew my tomatoes in pots. They were not amazing. This year, even in the very small, raised bed, the tomatoes were six times more prolific.One of the most important things that folks setting up raised beds forget to do is till, or at least turn over, the soil under where the raised bed is situated. Roots for vegetables or flowers can be 2 or even 3 feet. If I have a 17” raised bed, I’m still going to want to dig down into that soil so when the roots get there, they aren’t greeted with a hard pack wall. This will stunt the growth of your plants.After breaking up the soil and leveling, you can put your choice of raised bed on top. Later, you probably will want to mulch or wood chip the ground around the bed so it doesn’t turn into a mud bath.Next is soil. With a 6 feet-by-2-feet container and 17 inches high, you multiply length times width times height. This equals18 cubic feet for each bed in my case. To get the best yield, you want a mix of soil, peat moss and/or manure, and non-organic matter that helps to retain water and aerate your soil.Rosie Lerner, one of my terrific instructors with the Purdue Master Gardener Program, recommends, “Lightweight, well-drained and well-aerated media is best for growing plants in containers. Garden soil alone will soon become compacted in a container garden, leading to poor aeration and water drainage. Many garden supply stores offer premixed potting soil or soilless mixes and are ideal for small containers. For large-scale container gardening, mixing your own media may be more economical.”Lerner recommends this recipe: To make 1 bushel (1.24 cubic foot) of soil mix, combine: 1/3 bushel of soil1/3 bushel of organic matter (compost, peat moss, well-rotted manure)1/3 bushel of vermiculite or perlite (non-organic)1/2 cup of fertilizer (5-10-5, 6-10-4, or a similar fertilizer formulation)For gardens or large raised beds, I personally like the soil/peat and manure/vermiculite. I think I have a little more soil in my mix, but whatever soil you get, do not cheap out. The growing medium is the basis for good growing for this season and for years to come.Cheap soil might have weed seeds, contaminants, and poor-quality nutrients. Some gardeners like the soilless mix that I use for hanging baskets, indoor plants, and window boxes.Ms. Lerner’s recipe for 1 bushel (1.24 cubic feet) of soilless mix, combines: 1/2 bushel of peat moss (organic)1/2 bushel of vermiculite (non-organic)1/2 cup of ground limestone1/2 cup of superphosphate 1 cup of fertilizer (5-10-5, 6-10-4, or a similar formulation)Vermiculite helps the plants retain water, while perlite helps the plants have little air pockets for oxygen. If you want your plants to have more moisture, use Vermiculite, if you want a dryer lighter soil, perlite is your choice.Since I’m doing this before the winter, once the bed is prepared, I might throw a layer of mulch or pine needles or even black plastic over the planter soil till spring. My favorite is to use a cover crop of oats. It grows quickly and then dies back in the winter as a mat of organic material. Just leave the dead oats in the planter and that becomes your spring mulch. You can plant right through the oats.The oats help provide beneficial nutrients in the soil, protects against weeds, and retains moisture. Once the oats start to decompose and disappear into the soil, you can add your mulch for the remainder of the growing season.If you use an organic mulch such as wood chips or straw or even dried (make sure it is dry) grass clippings, the material decomposes and helps to add nutrients to the soil. Wood and straw might help raise the pH in the garden soil where pine straw tends toward helping the soil become more acidic.This is where it helps to know what your plants need. If you have no idea what the pH of your soil is, a soil test is highly recommended. If you’ve been adding material to your soil for several years, have a soil test again! Make sure your additives are helping you move in the direction you want.Soil tests are very inexpensive and can be performed a local lab. Labs include AL Greatlakes (Fort Wayne) or Agri-labs (Auburn). They will provide a basic test with analysis and recommendations. https://algreatlakes.com or https://www.agri-labsinc.com/Mulch allows the soil to be cooler on hot days and allows for slower evaporation. It helps to discourage weeds and some pests. With wood mulch, you may need to mound the mulch just up around the plant making a well that doesn’t touch the plant. The decomposing mulch can cause tender plants or even some trees to rot, giving insects a green light to come in and do their damage.If you want reliable information on raised bed gardening, see the full article at https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/pubs/HO/HO-200.pdfNow I must start thinking about what I want to grow. Happy planting!
Cecilie Keenan is a Purdue Master Gardener in Noble County and the author of The Noble Gardener. Contact her at [email protected] for information on gardening topics.
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