Despite still frosty mornings and seesawing spring temperatures, Nolan is already planning out her raised garden beds.
Author of the bestselling book, Raised Bed Revolution, and founding member of the Savvy Gardening blog, Nolan has ample experience building, tending, and evaluating raised beds. She’s also created some unique and memorable containers that allow her to snip greens right outside her door. So how does a professional maximize space and radically improve her harvest from one year to the next? Read on for her tips and advice about getting the most from your raised garden beds this season.
To start, inspect and rejuvenate your beds
“Give your beds a once over in the spring, because sometimes with frost, some of them may have started to heave,” Nolan says. “Last year I noticed two of my beds had shifted a little bit, so one thing I do recommend is putting mid-point stakes along the length to hold them firmly in place…I find those midpoint stakes really keep it a lot more uniform.”
Next, remove any weeds that came up in fall or spring—checking first to see if there are any volunteers or herbs you want to preserve. “I generally keep in mind that things may have reseeded, so I might not pull everything out,” Nolan says.
If you didn’t add compost to your beds in the fall, do so now. Says Nolan, “Usually in the fall I’ll prepare at least one of my beds for an early spring planting by top-dressing with compost. If I haven’t done that, I’ll do that in the spring, adding a nice, rich layer of nutrients to the top.” Nolan also removes any mulch added to the beds before the dormant season—which includes leaves or straw protecting any plants she harvested through the winter. This ensures those areas are ready for planting.
For new beds, get top quality soil and amend with compost
“If you’re getting six to eight hours of sunlight per day, whether it be on the corner of your driveway, on a balcony, or the corner of a deck or patio, you can still have a raised bed—even if you don’t have a big yard.”
If you’re starting with new beds, or topping up containers, consider carefully what type of soil you’ll need to grow healthy crops. “I like to recommend the best soil that you can afford and that’s available in your area,” Nolan says. Don’t be tempted to fill your beds by purchasing bags from your local garden center. This is usually too costly. “I usually recommend delivery because it’s more economical,” says Nolan, adding that it’s worth asking your neighbors if they’re also in the market for garden soil. If they are, you might be able to split a load and save on the delivery charge.
Before having the soil delivered, talk on the phone to your supplier to ensure you’re getting good quality. You want something meant for gardening, with adequate nutrients and organic matter. Even with this, odds are you’ll still need to amend the soil with compost. “Put a few inches on top in case there’s anything lacking,” Nolan says. “That’s also whatever you can afford or what’s available to you. It could be mushroom compost, shrimp compost, etc.” To learn more about building and improving your soil over time, read 6 Tips for Building Soil for Your Raised Garden Beds
Photo credit: Donna Griffith
Plant the right varieties densely
When planting your raised beds, consider planting more densely than what’s recommended on your seed packages. While this may create a jungle for some varieties or make things harder to water, denser plantings also have benefits. “I have been experimenting with this over the last few years and it’s really nice for weed control,” Nolan says.
Additionally, watch for patio varieties of your favorite vegetables. Patio varieties are bred to produce more food on smaller, more compact plants. They’re perfect for container gardening and generally do very well in raised garden beds. Nolan’s favorites?
“I have a blueberry called Pink Icing that’s really pretty and produces a good number of berries to snack on. You can also add raspberries and blackberries… Bushel and Berry continue to come out with great patio varieties.” These varieties work well in the urban garden and provide options for people with limited space. Says Nolan, “You don’t have to live on a farm and have a sprawling raspberry patch to get a nice crop.”
Nolan’s other recommendations include the Little Birdy cherry tomato series from Sakata Seeds, which can work well in a conical hanging basket. “If you don’t have enough space on your patio, it’s nice to be able to hang it from something.” She also likes the greens collection from Renee’s Garden, and is looking forward to trying Little Crunch (container snap peas), Green Curls (container kale), and Little hero (baby leaf spinach). All are compact and easy to grow.
Use companion plants to help crops thrive
Companion planting is a fine art, and for Nolan, some combinations are essential. Not only do the plants do well together, they help her make the most of her space. “I always plant columnar basil around my tomatoes. It can get to be about three feet tall, and I try to keep on top of harvesting it.”
She also recommends inter-planting flowers with edible crops for beauty and pollination. Zinnias, cosmos, alyssum, and nasturtiums are some of her favorites. Sunflowers, while stunning, should go outside the bed or at the back, because they get so tall and will shade out or inhibit the growth of smaller plants. Additionally Nolan recommends planting garlic in raised beds, “but keep away from lettuces.” They don’t make good bedfellows.
Support vining plants to maximize space
Vining plants like cucumbers and pole beans do well in raised beds, but they need support to thrive. A simple trellis can increase your harvest substantially because it provides ideal growing conditions—sunshine, airflow, and space. “I love using obelisks, because they look stately and beautiful,” Nolan says, “but it depends on the size of the plant. You want to make sure you have something tall enough for your plants to climb.” As a general guideline, vertical crops go best on the northern borders of a garden. If you choose to trellis your squash, you may need to secure your crop to the trellis as it ripens, depending on the variety. Old stockings are useful for making a ‘sling’ around the ripening squash.
Check the growing heights on your seed packages and be sure you give each plant the height it needs. Nolan recommends pole bean tunnels and arches made from cattle panels, a simple design she learned from her Savvy Gardening co-owner Niki Jabbour. “Just stand two sides together and join them above. Attach with zip ties at the top. You can also create half an arch against a fence.”
For winter squash, consider a squash arch made from PVC piping and wire mesh. “Squash take up so much space in the garden, never mind a raised bed, but if you train them upwards, there’s space underneath to plant other things. It’s visually interesting but also a really nice space-saver,” Nolan says. The arch can straddle the space between two beds or remain enclosed in a single bed. It provides support for heavy harvests and looks impressive, too. Nolan loves the squash arch designed by Amy Andrychowicz of Get Busy Gardening—there is a photo of it in her book.
Ensure adequate drainage
If your raised beds were installed on top of an impervious surface such as concrete, check to see that your beds are draining correctly. “Drainage can be a big issue if your surface is not particularly level. Make sure you know where the water is going to flow by doing a test to see which way it runs.” For more information, read Gardening on Concrete with Raised Beds and Patio Containers.
If you’re putting containers or raised beds on a balcony or rooftop, consider what weight restrictions might be in place. “Fabric raised beds can reduce that weight a lot”, Nolan says, adding, “When you’re watering, you don’t want it running off the sides of the balcony. You can use some tray system or self-irrigating planters…to make sure you’re not dousing the people below you.”
Add containers to the mix
Upcycling old and unique containers is one way to save items from the landfill and add growing space to your garden. One of Nolan’s favorites is an old wooden suitcase that she lined with landscape fabric and perforated with drainage holes. Its galvanized metal legs fashioned from water pipes give it an industrial look. “I display this out front because it’s fun to see from the street.”
Her salad table provides even more space. Created from an old table she found at an antique sale, the salad table features a base made from hardware cloth to support the soil and provide drainage. Says Nolan, “I covered the edges with cedar strips so no one would get cut if they touched [the hardware cloth]…I lined the inside with landscape fabric. If you’re worried about wood rotting, you could put a thin layer of plastic between.”
Nolan fashioned this salad table from an antique table base to provide delicious and accessible greens.
Because of the cold winters where she lives, Nolan empties the soil from her table each fall and puts it away for the season to protect it for as long as possible. About to enter its fourth year of planting, the table usually sports a variety of greens planted according to the season. Nolan loves buttercrunch varieties, along with oak leaf. Red Sails is one of her favorite looseleaf varieties with deep color. She also plants larger varieties to harvest as baby greens. These include kale, peas (for their shoots), and baby amaranth.
Go for it!
Nolan encourages anyone with a little bit of space to try raised bed gardening for ease and results. The options really are endless, and the benefits are many.
“You can put a raised bed absolutely anywhere provided you have the right conditions,” Nolan says. “If you’re getting six to eight hours of sunlight per day, whether it be on the corner of your driveway, on a balcony, or the corner of a deck or patio, you can still have a raised bed—even if you don’t have a big yard.”
Year-round tips for raised bed gardening
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