Raised-bed gardens are similar to inground gardens in that crops are planted directly into the ground. What makes them distinct is that the garden beds are boxed in by wooden or concrete frames. Raised-bed gardens offer many benefits for growers. Soil in a permanent raised bed is generally looser and healthier, and even the slight elevation offered by raised beds offers more light and heat to plants.
RAISED-BED GARDENS AT A GLANCE: Gardening outdoors with the use of wooden framed raised beds.
- Setup time: Medium
- Overall cost: Medium
- Maintenance: Medium/Variable
When evaluating a potential location for your garden, the two most important things to consider are the site topography and soil. Unless your location is extremely flat, the land will possess a slight incline in one direction or another. Sunny, south-facing gentle slopes are ideal for gardens, as they allow plants to capture sun throughout the day. North-facing gardens, conversely, get the least amount of light, and are generally wetter and colder.
As you talk with stakeholders at your corporate campus about the location of the new garden, keep in mind factors such as landscape aesthetics and transportation to and from your space. Consider how people and produce will get to and from the garden. If the food service team is managing the space, the closer you can locate it to the kitchen the better. When the garden is constantly in sight, the culinary team will be more likely to remember to harvest that mesclun mix for the salad bar at lunch.
After appraising the site’s direction and topography, you should turn your attention to the soil itself. A soil test can be obtained from your state university’s Agricultural Extension, and will provide you with a wealth of information that will prove important to your garden’s success. Critically, you’ll know if the soil is safe to grow food in, and if it possesses any structural, nutrient or mineral deficiencies that can remedied with widely available soil amendments. You may also want to reach out to the Grounds or Facilities department at your company and determine if any pesticides have been sprayed on the soil recently. If so, contact your Extension and determine if the presence of these pesticides is potentially hazardous.
Another important factor to keep in mind when picking out a site for the garden is your access to water. Water needs and access differ greatly between gardens, depending on factors such as the size of the garden, the area climate, and proximity to running water. For example, along with some hand watering when necessary, relying on rain to water your garden can be an option in some climates. In dry climates, though, you’ll need to water the garden yourself. Depending on the garden’s size, watering by hand may be an option. If the plot is larger, you will want to consider other methods. The Old Farmer’s Almanac details how often specific plants should be watered. The Pennsylvania State University Extension walks you through setting up irrigation using a common hose spigot as your water source. Systems such as rainwater catchment can also be employed as a water source if your garden is in relatively close to a building.
GET FAMILIAR WITH FRAMES
Now that you’ve selected a site and gotten buy-in from stakeholders, your next step will be establishing the raised-bed garden itself. First, think about where you’re going to source the wood for your raised beds. Whether you’re buying the frames as part of a commercially available kit, or obtaining your own wood to construct the frames yourself, it’s critical to ensure that the wood you are using is “untreated” or natural wood. Treated or “pressure treated” wood contains arsenic, chromium, or other chemicals, and is hazardous to human health. Once you have your frames, you can get started with site establishment.
To go from grass to a beautiful raised-bed garden is fairly easy to do. Start by measuring and marking the area that the raised beds will be placed on. As the Cornell University Cooperative extension details in How to Make a Raised Bed Garden, you can then either till the area that’s been marked, or simply do it by hand, using a shovel to scrape the sod off of the surface and loosen the soil. This simpler method saves you money and is better for the soil, as tillage breaks up important soil aggregates and kills microbial life important for your plants to thrive. Once you’ve prepared the soil that your raised bed will rest on, you’re all set to install your frames. Consider watching this helpful video from OYR Gardening, which will help you visualize the process further.
Raised beds will need to be filled with soil once established, and where you source soil from is an important consideration. Compost companies, local gardening stores, municipal composting facilities, and even big-box stores like Home Depot generally sell large amounts of compost and topsoil in bulk. If possible, try to purchase OMRI-approved products, which are in compliance with USDA Certified Organic standards. Consider using mostly topsoil as the base in your raised bed garden, with compost mixed in and applied next to plants, or side dressed, throughout the season.
CHOOSE WHAT YOU’LL GROW
In opting for an raised-bed garden, you are limited in the varieties and quantities of produce you can grow only by the climate and the space you have. Look for local seed suppliers near you. If not, consider purchasing USDA Certified Organic and/or Non-GMO seeds from High Mowing or Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which are both widely regarded as industry leaders. Before purchasing seed, determine the kinds of crops you can grow in your climate, using a last frost date chart and USDA Agricultural Zone map. Compare your findings with the hardiness of the plants as described on seed packets or seed company websites (i.e. hardy in Zone 7 or warmer).
After you have an idea of the varieties of produce you can grow, get strategic. Depending on where you intend your food to go, you may want to consider growing the most amount of food you can in a small space. For this strategy, leafy greens and herbs are a perfect fit, and can be used creatively in dishes, smoothies, and aguas fresca. Alternatively, you could grow lesser-known vegetables like kohlrabi and chicory. If you have a significant quantity of excess produce, consider donating it to a local food bank or charity.
CREATE A COMMUNITY
You’ve put in the work of establishing and maintaining your garden, and now comes the fun of enjoying it! Campus farms are the perfect venues for lots of exciting events with folks in your community. Consider the following ideas:
- Garden dinners or potlucks
- Garden tours
- Cooking classes using garden-grown ingredients
- Plant-identification scavenger hunts for kids
- Volunteering opportunities (I.e. Spring planting, Fall harvest)
- ‘Speed Weeding’ event for singles
Operating a campus farm or garden of any size can sometimes be a challenging endeavor, but don’t get discouraged! Depending on your location, you may deal with any number of issues in the garden. These can come in the form of disease and weed pressures, intense rain or drought, early frosts, nutrient deficiencies in the soil, and more. You may also experience employee turnover both within your own team, and key community stakeholders within the Facilities and Grounds department. We’ve included resources below to help answer questions that might arise as you run into these challenges.
One Yard Revolution | Youtube Channel Entertaining and useful raised bed gardening tips and how tos
Cornell Cooperative Extension | How To Make A Raised Bed Garden
USDA | Agricultural Zone map
Garden Tower Project | Last Frost Date Chart
University of California |Tarp Solarization
Oregon State University | Harvesting Rainwater For Use in the Garden
Pennsylvania State University | Building and Operating a Home Garden Irrigation System
The Old Farmers Almanac | Watering Guide
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Growers Library
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Winter Cover Crops
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Tools and Supplies Library
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Garden planning tools.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Hardiness zones.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to making compost.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to controlling pests and disease using IPM
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Weed management basics
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Basic information on soil health
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to Controlled Environment Growing
High Mowing | Resources Page
High Mowing | Controlling Japanese beetles
High Mowing | Fall soil amendments
High Mowing | Tomato blossom end drop
ATTRA | Publications
International Seed Saving Institute | Comprehensive guide to saving seeds
Book | The New Organic Grower: Eliot Coleman
Book | The Market Gardener: Jean Martin Fortier
Book | Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Elliot Coleman
Book | Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work Reissue Edition by Mel Bartholomew
Book | Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza
COMPANIES AND NON-PROFITS
Cultivate the City is a non-profit that maintains raised bed gardens throughout Washington D.C., working with schools to grow food and educate on their properties.
Farmscape is a company that installs and maintains gardens and farms at a wide variety of venues all over the country, including on corporate campuses. To date, Farmscape is the largest company of its kind providing this service, and has established 700 projects nationwide.