Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Raised beds for better gardening

2016-6 Barb Sahl and raised bed w pavers - Barb GOrges

Barb Sahl made raised beds from concrete pavers and two by fours that are sturdy enough to sit on, saving her knees. Photo taken May 7 by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 29, 2016, “Got rabbits? Try raised bed gardening.”

By Barb Gorges

Rabbits made her do it.

Barb Sahl, a Laramie County Master Gardener, told me she was a ground-level vegetable gardener for the first nine years at her place on Cheyenne’s south side, but she switched to raised beds to keep the rabbits out of her garden.

There were other considerations too. Raised beds would help keep her dogs from running through the radishes and it was a way to deal with a persistent weed problem.

Sahl was also thinking about her aging knees, knowing her days of kneeling would end in the future.

With that in mind, she installed eight beds using a system of landscape pavers, then added five stock tanks.

2016-6a raised beds 2

Sahl’s dog patrols the vegetable garden in late August 2016.

Below you will find information about the history, types and benefits of raised beds in our area.

Genesis of the raised bed

The stereotypical vegetable garden has rows of vegetables. The bare ground between must be kept weeded.

An alternative is to grow vegetables like flowers, using wide beds, 2 to 4 feet wide (depending on how far you want to reach) and grow your plants more closely. This shades out the weeds and you never step into the wide beds, keeping the soil from getting compacted. The paths between beds can be mulched.

A wide bed can be planted at ground level, or with a bit of soil excavated from what will be the paths, made into a flat-topped mound. The soil in the mound will warm up earlier in spring, allowing earlier planting, though the plants themselves may still need protection from frost at night.

If the bed is amended with compost or with soil brought in, fertility and drainage can be improved.

In 2012, I tried the mound method. I had few weeds and great results. The path around the bed was deep in tree leaves collected the previous fall. However, the edges of the mound had a tendency to erode after heavy rains.

Last summer my husband and I converted to what gardeners normally envision a raised bed to be, a contained mound.

Types of raised beds

Gardeners have been inventive at using whatever is at hand to make the walls of a raised bed: bales of straw (hay has too many seeds that will sprout), wood, rock, brick, concrete block, old stock tanks. Raised beds work for flowers as well as vegetables. Sahl even has her raspberries in one to keep them from spreading.

IMG_1866

Wood: Raised beds can be built to workbench-level (“elevated” beds) or the sides can be as low as a single 6-inch wooden board—though that won’t keep the rabbits out. However, Sahl soon realized plain wooden boards would decompose and she would have to replace them sooner than she’d like.

Thirty years ago, raised beds using old railroad ties were fashionable, but it was found that wood preservative chemicals from that era are toxic and can migrate into vegetable plants.

Currently, “ground contact pressure treated” wood has an environmentally friendlier preservative but there is still controversy.

If in doubt, use cedar or redwood. Either, though more expensive, should last a lifetime.

Raised bed kits often contain posts with brackets that hold wooden boards. Another version I’m trying this year, available locally, is steel plates 18 inches tall and bent 90 degrees which fit around the outside corners of the bed and screw into place.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed - Barb Gorges

Plastic lumber raised bed.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed detail - Barb Gorges

Galvanized steel bracket.

In another bed we built 15 years ago, using plastic dimensional lumber, the corners are held together by brackets on the inside. Surprisingly, the galvanized steel has not rusted out.

2016-6 Raised bed w pavers detail

This detail of Sahl’s raised bed system shows the brackets used to hold the concrete pavers upright, connecting them to the 2 x 4s along the bottom and the top. She will put drip irrigation (the black plastic hoses) back in when planting the beds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pavers: Sahl used a system she found from Lee Valley Tools that starts with a frame of pressure treated two by fours outlining the shape of the bed. She made hers 2.5 feet wide by 8 feet long. Steel brackets attach to the frame and are designed to hold pre-cast concrete pavers upright. Sahl’s pavers are 16 inches square. More brackets along the top edge of the pavers attach to another frame of two by fours, making the structure strong enough to sit on. The brackets are ordered as a kit and the gardener buys the wood and pavers locally.

 

2016-6 Concrete block raised bed - Barb Gorges

Raised bed made with stacked concrete blocks. Photo by Barb Gorges.

2016-6 Converted trash can holder - Barb Gorges

An enclosure for trash cans has been converted to a raised bed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Concrete block: Mark and I tried a concrete block raised bed for our vegetables last year, but we didn’t stack the blocks on boards like Sahl did her pavers. After this past winter’s freezing and thawing, the walls undulate. Also, for the nine months of the year nothing is growing in it, the bed looks just like a pile of ugly gray concrete—right in the middle of the view from our favorite window.

2016-6 Stock tank raised bed w raspberries

Sahl’s recycled stock tank helps contain the spread of her raspberry patch. Large holes in the bottom of the tank are necessary for good drainage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Stock tanks: This style is simpler, but perhaps harder to find, prep and install.

Sahl uses this method and got the idea from a relative who uses rusted-out tanks in her garden.

Sahl found her own stock tanks on Craig’s list. We’re talking about the long, narrow ones made of galvanized steel. Sahl’s are 2 to 2.5 feet across by 6 or 8 feet long by about 2 feet deep. Since they weren’t rusted out on the bottom, she drilled lots of holes for drainage. If she were to do it again, she suggests just cutting out portions of the bottoms.

How to install a raised bed

Find a flat, sunny location within range of your hose or drip irrigation system.

Plan the bed’s width so you can reach the middle comfortably, and maximize the dimension of materials to be used. The shape can be square, rectangular or even L or U-shaped. Sahl left enough room between beds for her wheelbarrow.

Because Sahl has a weedy infestation of skeleton-leaf bursage, she chose to cover her site with weed barrier cloth and then covered that with bark mulch between the beds.

Under normal conditions, you would remove pre-existing vegetation as you would for any other garden, especially if you aren’t building your raised bed very high—you need to allow for root growth.

Unless your building materials are ephemeral, temporary like straw bales, be sure to use a level to keep everything square and neat looking. Get corner posts set straight and boards horizontal.

How to fill a raised bed

Sahl wanted completely different soil for her beds than what was in her yard so she ordered a load that was a little sandier, with less clay. It’s important that it is good quality, she said, and not full of weed seeds. She has grown a wide variety of vegetables in the eight years since and is very happy with the results.

If you are growing vegetables, you may want to mix in a lot of compost like that available through Cheyenne’s compost facility. In future seasons you won’t have to till, just add a couple more inches of compost, perhaps in the form of the organic mulch you use on the surface—leaves and grass clippings, etc.

For flowers, be aware that hardy native perennials do best with less fertile soil.

Accessories

Sahl has made tomato cages from concrete mesh that fit her raised beds perfectly. She can wrap them in plastic to protect the plants from frost early in the season.

Raised beds also lend themselves to the addition of trellises, cold frame covers, mini-hoop houses, hail guards and drip irrigation systems. See previous columns on those subjects at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Details of Sahl’s raised beds, late August 2016: (clockwise from top left) onions, cabbage, raspberries, tomato, carrots.

2016-6a Gorges raised bed in JulyGorges raised bed, July 2016.

 

 

Advertisements


Planting gardener partnerships

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor let their pregnant goats clean up last year’s high tunnel garden and fertilize for next year’s crops. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 18, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to plant a partnership. How do gardening duos work out what to grow and who will weed and water?”

By Barb Gorges

Last year, I relinquished our small vegetable garden plot my husband, Mark, so he could experiment with all the new information he was learning as a Laramie County Master Gardener intern.

I even refrained from harvesting any cute cherry tomatoes and popping them in my mouth when I walked by.

Well, almost.

This year, I want to grow vegetables again. This has me thinking about how gardeners work as partners. How do they split decisions and the maintenance? Before I learned to grow a tomato three years ago, it was easy: Mark grew our vegetables and I grew flowers.

I’ve interviewed people from four partnerships to see how they work.

Sisters

Jennifer Wolfe and her sister, Gina John, own the house, now 100 years old, in which they grew up. Because its location is close to the Capitol, they decided to turn it into office rental space. Because the city requires a landscape design for commercial properties, their gardening decisions are based on those requirements.

Jennifer, with her master gardener training, said they decided to make providing habitat for wildlife their objective, rather than waste money on lawn watering. So she and Gina have converted the space to mostly perennial flowers, with many of the plants contributed from their home gardens. You may have seen it on the Master Gardener Garden Walk in 2013.

Because her sister is still working, Jennifer is the primary gardener. Gina comes sometimes comes in the evenings to help and seems to be in charge of adding garden art.

Employees of the tenant, a health services company, appreciate the effort, often strolling the garden and opening windows to let the garden sounds and fragrances in.

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor were in business together for 30 years before they became serious gardeners. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Business partners

A quick perusal of the Laramie County Master Gardeners directory shows there are 15 sets of people who share the same last name and address. Presumably they are couples in which both take a serious interest in gardening.

One of these couples, Scott and Jackie Taylor, went so far as to take the advanced master gardener training recently.

They are cultivating a serious amount of space–15,000 square feet–including two high tunnels and an orchard, plus raising livestock, west of town, near Gilchrist Elementary. You may have seen some of their harvest for sale at the Tuesday and winter farmers markets.

In business together in Laramie for 30 years previously, they have learned how to disagree, come to a decision, and still be friends.

“We start with seeds, look at plot space, and it’s invariably a big discussion and I want more than there is room for and Scott reins me in,” said Jackie.

When it comes to the chores, Scott said, “I do the fencing and digging and bed prepping. Jackie does the seedlings.”

This is a fairly typical division of labor—one person is more attuned to the details of nurturing delicate plants.

Scott is also in charge of watering, with the help of timers, “I’ve got things on a rotation in my own mind.”

But Jackie, after weeding, will report on potential moisture level problems. And while the vegetables are a joint venture, “He’s more interested in the fruit trees and I’m more interested in the flowers,” said Jackie.

They’ve been married 44 years, “going on 70,” one of them said.

Scott’s advice, “Learn to laugh. You have to resolve conflicts, like over row spacing. You have to be able to talk it out and get on.”

There is a benefit.

“It’s nice to enjoy the fruits of our labors together,” Jackie said.

Family style

Riley Elliot digs gardening.

At a young age he was using his toy truck to move dirt in his mother’s garden. Now he, at age 11, and his mom, Carolyn, are newly fledged master gardeners.

You might run into Riley at the Paul Smith Children’s Village where he volunteers. It was when he and his mom visited in 2011, shortly after moving to Cheyenne, that director Aaron Sommers began encouraging Riley’s interest in gardening.

Last year, at home, out on the prairie west of town, his dad Reagan helped Riley build raised beds out of old shipping pallets and fence the deer out.

Riley grows vegetables he promises to eat, such as peas.

“Last year, my first year gardening, I grew peanuts, popcorn and pumpkins,” he said. “Peas do real well and the popcorn did real well, and probably the peanuts (if the chickens hadn’t uprooted them while searching for grubs), but the sweet potatoes need more sand.”

He and Carolyn have big plans for this year, hoping to do better.

“We are just starting to do some flowers,” said Carolyn.

Since there wasn’t time to install the automatic watering system, Riley helped out with hauling hoses.

“We really didn’t have to weed that much,” he said, because raised beds aren’t very weedy.

While Riley believes in eating what he grows, he only wants to eat some of what’s in his mom’s vegetable patch. When the deer got her cabbage and Brussel sprouts, Carolyn said his reaction was, “I wish I could find Bambi and pat him on the head.”

 

Botanists

Jane Dorn spent years holding down the fort, garden-wise, while her husband, Robert, spent summers out in the field working as a professional botanist.

Not that he wasn’t interested in what was growing and helping with the gardening—he’d worked in his uncle’s greenhouse when he was growing up.

When Jane retired, the couple left Cheyenne and built a cozy house on acreage outside Lingle. Recently, they built a greenhouse over their vegetable patch. It has become Robert’s domain for experimenting with vegetable growing. He has begun to keep extensive records, the scientist in him unable to be suppressed.

Now, when planning this year’s garden, Jane and Robert discuss the veggies: what has done well, what seeds are left over, what new varieties in the seed catalogs sound like they might do well.

“We plant multiple varieties because some work better one year than another,” said Jane.

They also discuss Jane’s native plant prospects. “I’m trying to grow native wildflowers,” Jane said. Robert helped her build a rabbit-proof fence.

She and Robert are co-authors of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” Jane will be speaking about growing natives at the Habitat Hero workshop March 28 sponsored by Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne Audubon and other organizations.

Discerning what the native plant catalogs are offering, whether they are new improved varieties, or just renamed originals, and whether they will grow at their homestead makes use of Jane and Robert’s lifetime of expertise.

While they have affinities for certain parts of the garden, Jane explained, “You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where one of you doesn’t know how to operate the rest.”

Both Jane and Robert weed, though with raised beds there is not much to do. While Robert has drawn up the watering schedule for the drip irrigation system, Jane can also run it. Jane seems to have a knack for harvesting beans, and Robert takes great joy in bringing greens in from the greenhouse every night for dinner–all winter long.

The Taylors

Scott and Jackie Taylor depend on two high tunnels to raise vegetables in southeastern Wyoming for local farmers markets. Photo by Barb Gorges.