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Posts Tagged ‘raised bed’

How to Plant Tomatoes in Raised Beds

If you’re still shopping for tomato seedlings for your small kitchen garden, consider buying large plants that are already flowering or setting fruit. If a seedling is over six inches tall, it should have a fairly tick stem at the base—perhaps as thick as your pinky finger. If the plant is setting fruit, the stem should be even thicker. This three-foot tall tomato cost $20 and came with a pot and a tomato cage: everything you’d need to manage it on your patio or deck. For around $5, I could buy a two-foot tall plant ready to transplant into my garden.

If your small kitchen garden is in raised garden beds, you shouldn’t have to work real hard to plant in the spring. Soil in a raised planting bed gets little or no foot traffic. This means it shouldn’t get compressed, and it shouldn’t require deep tilling to make life easy on plant roots.

That said, you really need to get moving if you haven’t yet planted your small kitchen garden. At this point, cold-weather crops should be well under way; perhaps you’re even eating spinach and lettuce, and there are flowers on your pea plants. If you’re growing tomatoes, you’d have done very well to keep them indoors under lights until now; April and some of May have been the coldest I remember in 14 years of kitchen gardening in hardiness zone 5/6.

As of the first of June, I can hope to see four solid months before any threat of frost; that’s 100 days for the slowest-growing plants to mature, and only twenty days of tomato harvest. Of course, I should get a much better harvest if I plant tomato varieties that mature quickly; some claim 65 days to maturity, which would provide 55 days of tomato harvest.

Prepare a raised bed by weeding, spreading three inches of compost or manure, and marking off planting zones. I set potted tomato seedlings on the soil to evaluate their spacing in the bed.

Plant Tomatoes Now

If you want to ensure your best harvest from slow-growing tomatoes, buy large plants. At garden stores and nurseries in late spring, you can usually find plants so mature that they are already flowering… and maybe even setting fruit. Such plants are pricey, but if you can plant them this week, and start harvesting within a month, they’ll easily pay for themselves.

To plant a seedling—tomato or otherwise—in a small kitchen garden raised bed, dig a hole through the compost layer into the soil. Pile the soil you remove from the hole to one side, and dig deep enough to set the root ball of the seedling completely under ground.

Use the soil you removed to make the hole to back-fill around the root ball. This combines soil and compost, providing a rich mix for the seedling. Other photos below illustrate appropriate planting depths for tomatoes and for nearly all other produce seedlings.

Look for leafy plants with thick stems—perhaps as thick as your index finger (or your thumb) where they emerge from the soil. Don’t buy a large tomato plant that has long, skinny stems between leaves. Chances are it hasn’t received enough light or it’s severely pot-bound, or both.

If you still have time to get in 120 or more frost-free growing days, you can plant four-to-six-week-old tomatoes from flats. Again, be cautious: by late spring, garden stores may be selling off the last of the year’s seedling inventory. If you have a choice between tall, slender plants with few leaves, or short, thick-stemmed plants with lots of leaves, buy the short ones. But if your only choice is tall, slender plants (many gardeners call them “leggy”), that’s OK. Under your expert care, they’ll fatten up and produce beautifully (it’s a simple trick I’ll explain in an upcoming post).

When your seedling is in a peat pot, you can plant the pot along with the seedling. I encourage you, however, to tear off the pot. Though roots can grow through the peat, as you see here they tend to wrap around inside the pot and slow the plant’s growth. I buy tomatoes in flats which are usually plastic. To remove one for planting, gently squeeze the cell it’s in a few times, then pull up on the stem of the seedling.

How to Make the Bed

That sub-head is metaphorical, referring not to the actual building of a raised bed, but rather to adjusting the pillows, sheets, and blankets to make a bed look tidy after you get up in the morning. I wrote several posts about preparing soil for planting, the last of which described one method for preparing a raised bed: remove weeds and other debris and then cover the bed with three inches of compost or manure. Please read the entire post here: Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation

With the organic layer in place, planting a seedling is a snap: dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball, insert plant, back-fill with compost and soil. The photos in this post illustrate how to plant a tomato seedling in a raised bed. In an upcoming post, I’ll explain some characteristics of tomato plants that make them easy to grow. I’ll also explain how to deal with problem tomato seedlings to get the best possible results from them.

Planting Depth in a Small Kitchen Garden

Most kitchen garden plants will rot and die if you plant their stems too deeply. Tomatoes, on the other hand, benefit from having a lot of stem underground. As a rule, plant according to the photo on the left below. When planting tomato seedlings, plant according to the photo on the right.

For nearly every type of seedling you might plant in a small kitchen garden, set the top of the seedling’s potting soil even with the soil of the garden bed. The green line on the photo to the left emphasizes that the top of the root ball of the pepper plant will sit even with the soil of the container in which I’m planting it. Plant tomatoes deep. The stem of the six-inch tomato seedling I’ve planted on the right was already hardening off and would not have thickened as the plant grew. So, I’ve buried the root ball deep enough that only the top three leaves of the seedling are above soil (the green line shows the path of the stem from the roots to the surface). Roots will sprout along the buried stem, and new growth above ground will thicken out, making a strong plant.

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 3

I’m fortunate to have a heap of mature compost accumulated over 13 years from lawn clippings, leaves, weeds, and kitchen scraps.

Preparing to plant a small kitchen garden in a classic raised bed should be very easy to do. Actually, whether raised or in-ground, the issue is more whether you walk in the planting bed. If you don’t walk in the planting bed, you don’t compact the soil (much) so you don’t need to dig deep and turn the soil as you do in a traditional in-ground planting bed.

The classic raised bed is narrow enough that you can reach every point in it without putting weight on the soil—usually not more than 4 feet across at its widest point (assuming you can reach into it from both sides). Depending on your sensibilities, preparing a narrow planting bed can resemble the low-till preparation that I described in my last post, or a traditional preparation as I described two posts back.

I “manage” compost in a heap. I say “manage” because there are only two procedures I follow: 1) Add organic matter as my yard, garden, and kitchen produce it. 2) Occasionally, toss a bit of soil from the garden onto the heap (this often comes as clumps of soil attached to roots of weeds I remove from the garden). My compost might take a year or longer to break down, but I’m not in a hurry. The liability of a compost heap is that it nurtures weeds; my heap grows mostly dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass. So, when I harvest compost, I pick through it looking for roots. On the left in this photo is a section of root from elephant grass; left in the soil, it’ll send up a gorgeous stand of grass leaves… and it’ll spread quickly underground. I can’t identify the root on the right, but it looks hearty; were I to plant it in my garden, I’m sure it would grow into something annoying.

Spread three inches of compost or manure evenly over the entire surface of the raised bed.

Ideally, autumn is when you start preparing raised beds for planting, but if you’re just getting started in the spring, things should work out just fine. Here are steps you can take to prepare your soil for planting if your beds are small enough that you never walk in them:

1. Excavate all weeds from the planting bed. A soil knife is ideal for this as you shouldn’t need to pry out large, cohesive blocks of compacted soil to get at the tap roots of weeds.

2. Cover the bed with a layer of organic matter. Ideally, use mature compost. Alternatively, use manure or mushroom soil. If you were preparing your raised planting bed at the end of your growing season, I’d encourage you to spread six inches of manure over the entire bed; rain and snow will leech nutrients into the soil and the organic material will break down a bit before spring.

However, if you didn’t add material in the fall, spread only about three inches of organic stuff on your raised bed in the spring. For the most part, you’ll leave this material in place; it will serve as mulch, and will feed a rich bath of nutrients to your vegetables’ roots during rainstorms and watering.

Measure along the retaining walls of your raised bed and attach twine (or yarn) to delineate planting zones. A one-foot by three-foot space might hold a “hedge” of lettuce, a small forest of spinach, or a jungle of pea vines… what to plant, and how much space to reserve depends on your tastes and your sensibilities. Upcoming posts will make specific suggestions about planting in raised beds.

If you need tools heftier than a hand trowel or a soil knife to work the soil in your raised beds, it may be because there’s too much clay in the soil. Add sand and humus and mix it in well to reduce the soil’s tendency to clump. If you’re installing raised beds this spring, fill them with soil that is at least 40% sand. Add humus every season.

3. Stretch twine to mark planting zones in your raised vegetable bed. You can set nails or staples in the tops of the raised bed retaining walls, or sink stakes in the soil as you would in an in-ground bed.

In a narrow bed, rather than restrict planting to rows, plant in zones. For example, in a 4’ X 4’ bed, a zone might start at one retaining wall and stretch for one foot into the bed. You could distribute lettuce plants evenly within this one-foot-by-four-foot zone. Or, divide the bed into 2’ squares, planting a particular type of vegetable in each square.

4. When you’re ready to plant, your technique will differ depending on whether you’re planting seedlings or seeds. An upcoming post will discuss how to plant in a narrow bed that’s covered with compost or manure.

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Small Kitchen Garden Design: Layout

Perrenials fill two traditional farmyard planting beds: asparagus on the left and raspberries on the right.

I can’t tell you exactly how to build your small kitchen garden. That’s because I don’t know exactly what conditions you face as you make your plan. There are a few design considerations to have in mind as you make decisions about how to build your own planting beds.

How Big Your Bed?

Forget, for the moment, the soil conditions at the location you’ve chosen for your new planting bed. More importantly: how much space are you going to convert into a small kitchen garden?

A square that is 10 feet by 10 feet can hold 7 crowded rows of vegetables with 18 inches between rows. For plants that require little space—radishes, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach, peppers, and beans, for example—you can get away with such crowding… but you’ll be wiggling between rows when the plants are full-grown.

You might crowd larger plants such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, to two feet… but again, you’ll be hard-pressed to find places for your feet when you’re in the garden.

Do You Need to be In Your Garden?

Here’s the key question in choosing a layout for a small kitchen garden: Do you need to be in your planting beds? A traditional vegetable garden on a country farm is a ploughed area in the yard. If it runs 100 feet by 30 feet (modest for someone to live off of year-round), then someone needs to walk in it to till it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it. But, if you’re going small, perhaps you should design a garden with planting beds in which you never walk.

Walk Versus No-Walk Planting Beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds whose management requires that you walk in them. I’ve color-coded the characteristics where green=advantage, yellow=neutral, and red=disadvantage:

  • They are generally more than three or four feet across at their shortest dimension
  • You can easily use a power-tiller to turn the soil and mix in amendments.
  • The soil gets compacted from regular traffic
  • You must reserve tilled areas between planting areas where you can stand and walk while working the garden. This significantly reduces yield per square foot of tilled earth.
  • You must manage the open spaces to keep down weeds
  • There is enormous flexibility for how you arrange crops in the garden and for how you rotate crops from year-to-year.
  • For the same total square footage of planting beds, it takes less fencing to protect a single large bed than to protect multiple smaller beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds you can manage without ever walking in them:

  • Beds are no more than three to four feet across—two feet across if you can access them from only one side.
  • A small kitchen garden of no-walk beds typically has several adjacent planting beds with room to walk between them and work them from all sides. If multiple beds aren’t an option, then a long, narrow bed provides the most versatility for rotating crops from season-to-season.
  • For equal areas of tilled soil, you need far more space for no-walk planting beds than for planting beds in which you walk… but remember: you can grow far more per square foot in a no-walk planting bed than in one where you must walk to work the garden.
  • Without someone pressing down on it, the soil doesn’t get compacted quickly. That makes it easier to work when you’re amending, planting, and weeding.
  • Areas between planting beds can be lawn, permanent mulch, paving, or other easily-maintained surfaces.
  • A no-walk bed can support far more plants per square foot than a large planting bed can. Consider: In a bed that’s only 18 inches wide, you can plant a row of vegetables near each boundary of the bed—you don’t need to get between the rows.

In a traditional in-ground planting bed, it can be difficult to distinguish where the yard ends and the garden begins.

Cutting-in a Planting Bed

I’m sure I’ve overlooked several notable characteristics of both walk- and no-walk planting beds. Please chime in if you want to share pet peeves about your planting beds, or identify advantages I’ve missed.

My next post will explain (with photos) how to lay out and cut-in a traditional farmer’s-style planting bed in your yard. In later posts, we’ll talk about differences between these traditional in-ground planting beds and the somewhat more European raised beds.

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