The Island Garden
Plants like to grow in loose, friable soil that allows their roots to penetrate easily. When you grow in a straight line and walk between the rows, you compact the soil between the rows and make it hard for plants to expand their root system.
To get the best out of your plants, you might want to consider making a raised bed. Raised beds can be any size, but it is important that you can reach into the bed without having to walk on and compact the soil. For practical purposes that means the bed should be no more than 4 feet wide if it is accessible from both sides, and 3 feet wide if it is accessible from one side only. The length of a raised bed can be anything. As long as you can access the vegetables or fruit, you can make it a mile long if you want.
To make a raised bed, the first step is to decide on its size. I’d suggest 3 feet by 8 feet as a firsttime bed. Measure the area carefully and hammer in a 2-by-2 inch stake at each corner. Check the diagonals to be sure that the bed is square. This is important if you are going to add a cold frame or hoops to help protect your seedlings. If the diagonals are equal, the bed is square. I use 2-by-10 inch planking, not pressure treated. Pressuretreated lumber may put unwanted chemicals in your growing bed. Conventional or rough sawn lumber will last around 10 years as the border to your growing bed and contains no chemicals that might harm your plants or get into your food chain.
Nail or screw a 2-inch-by-10- inch-by-8-foot plank to both of the longest sides. I prefer to screw the planks to the stakes because hammering in nails can knock the stakes out of alignment. Measure the end lengths. They should be 3 feet by 3 inches to cover the ends of the longest planks. Cut them and screw them in place. That is your raised bed. But wait, there’s more.
With the bed built, you need to fill it. You can, of course, simply shovel loam into it and call it done. But for spectacular plants, you might want to put a little more effort into building your bed. The first step might be to put down several thicknesses of newspaper to control weeds. Then add 2 to 3 inches of material high in nitrogen to help get the bed cooking. This might be horse or cow manure, grass clippings or another high nitrogen source. Next put 2 to 3 inches of material high in carbon. That could be brown leaves, straw, wood chips or another brown material. Next, add 2 to 3 inches of loam. Repeat the entire procedure.
Hose the pile down and wait. Your pile will stand up above the bed for a few weeks until it begins to rot. The internal temperature of your pile should get to around 140 degrees and stay there for three to five days. In about six weeks, dig the pile over, turning the bottom material to the top, and leave it to rot again. It will not get as hot this time, but six or eight weeks later you will begin to see fluffy compost and a lowering of the pile height. Turn it again in six to eight weeks and leave it for another few weeks. Turn once more and begin planting. The combination of loam and compost should help to get your plants off to a fine start.
As a farther improvement to your raised bed, you can bend 1/2-inch plastic water pipe over to make a curve across the width of the bed. Space these arches about 6 feet apart and cover the entire bed with spun fleece to keep animals and insects out. You can also set two panes of glass on edge to form a simple cloche. This will help to keep your tender seedlings warm on a windy day.