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How To: Make a productive garden bed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Spring weather is back (more or less), and with it would-be gardeners are looking toward empty spaces in their yard for places to plant. The temptation is to just grab a shovel and some seeds, dig in and hope for the best, but to get healthier plants with better results, take a little time to lay the foundation for a good growing season.

Here's what I learned at a recent workshop given by Melissa Stewart, agriculture and natural resources specialist with the West Virginia State Extension Service.

Before you get started, settle on whether you're doing a traditional garden (digging straight into the ground) or a raised-bed garden (building a bed on top of existing soil or surface). Raised-bed gardens are clearly more popular and have many advantages over traditional gardens, but they can seem more expensive.

After you've settled on a garden style, get a lay of the land. Before you scoop the first shovel full of dirt, determine if where you want to plant gets enough sun. While some plants thrive in partial shade, most fruits and vegetables need upwards of six hours of good sunlight a day to produce. Less than that and they may wither.

A good gardening site also needs access to water and sufficient drainage for when the rains come. Not enough water, and plants will shrivel and die. Too much water, and plant roots can rot or choke -- and standing water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

With a traditional gardening site, it's usually easy to determine if growing conditions are right: Things are already growing there. A lush growth of grass and even weeds can help point toward healthy soil.

Still, even if the grass is green and thick, the West Virginia University State University Extension office recommends having soil from the proposed garden space tested, mainly to the determine pH and to find out if nutrients need to be added to the soil to improve it. Soil samples, they said, should be collected from different parts of the intended growing space for a more complete picture of the soil's needs.

Simple soil testing kits are available at lawn and garden shops. The extension office also offers soil analysis.

Testing should be done early in the season to allow time for whatever minerals and nutrients added to be absorbed.

The extension office also recommends adding organic matter to gardens, but cautions that before anything is added into the soil, it should be well composted, especially animal manures.

Heat generated by active compost can damage young plants.

For a traditional garden, once the soil is "fixed," you're ready to begin digging.

With raised beds, the process begins with making sure the site is level, which helps with drainage.

Remove large rocks and objects, then smooth the area where the bed will be constructed. This also includes mowing grass down.

Next, put a layer of newspaper or cardboard down over the cleared site. This serves as a biodegradable barrier inhibiting grass and weeds, one of the big advantages of having a raised-bed garden -- a raised bed starts with fewer weeds for gardeners to deal with.

If a raised bed is constructed on a "hard" surface, like gravel or concrete, the previous steps probably aren't necessary.

Otherwise, construct the raised bed around the newspaper/cardboard weed barrier, which should be in the shape of the planned raised bed. Different materials can be used to erect the walls, but wooden boards are often used. Untreated wood is advised for use in vegetable gardens.

After the frame is in place, add good-quality topsoil from a reputable source. As with a traditional garden, prepared compost can be added, particularly if the acquired topsoil has a lot of clay or sand in it.

Once the soil mixture is in place, like with the traditional gardening bed, the soil should be tested to determine if plant nutrients are readily available.

With the garden beds ready to go, you're ready for a successful growing season.

Tips for fixing soil

When it comes to fixing up soil, Suzie Bryant, the garden center manager at Valley Gardens, 1109 Piedmont Road, recommended adding organic matter, such as compost, and tilling it into the top 6 inches of the soil.

"I think that makes a huge difference," she said.

However, Bryant said she was partial to a particular kind of compost.

"We prefer mushroom compost," she said. "We sell that here, but you can buy it in bags or get it in bulk."

Bryant said mushroom compost is basically horse manure taken from stables and broken down into a soil-like product that's very rich in nutrients.

"It makes a wonderful organic matter," she said. "I've had some customers with raised beds who say they can plant straight into it. They've filled their raised beds with the stuff."

The Valley Gardens garden center manager advised small, neighborhood gardeners to try raised beds, but to be careful about the soil they use. She said gardeners want good topsoil, which can be fixed with organic matter like the mushroom compost. What they don't want is straight-up store-bought soil, the kind usually purchased in big, plastic bags.

"That's not soil at all," she said. "That's something synthetic."

Bryant said soil tests make sense because it can vary from place to place, due to a whole host of factors, including what's growing nearby.

While not every kind of plant is particularly sensitive to the pH balance of the ground, many are.

"Flowers and vegetable gardens are like your lawn. They like neutral soil."

Neutral soil, she said, has a balanced pH of 7. Below 7 is acidic; above 7 is alkaline.

However some flowers, like azaleas and rhododendrons, and some fruits, like blueberries, prefer more acidic soil.

"You add sulfur or peat moss to make it more acidic," Bryant said.

For soil that's too acidic, most people use lime, she said.

"It really doesn't hurt to get your soil tested."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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