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Starting Your New Garden
...Spring in the Midwest

Article by Ann Dennis


Spring is here and the sap is rising in the trees and perennial plants... and in the gardener in all of us. If you're like me you've been drooling over the seed catalog's since December and have a humongous garden in your mind. Of course the reality will hit sooner or later and you'll have to face the fact that you can't plant that lemon tree except in a greenhouse and coffee plants don't do well either.

When reality sets in it's time to begin your garden. If you've already found that spot that gets six to tens hours of full sun you're ready for the next step. I have three words for you, Raised Bed Gardens. If you want to see one in action go to the Sinnissippi garden greenhouse in Rockford. When you drive into the parking lot, if you park facing Hwy 251, you will see the Cooperative Extension's trail plots. The trail plot farthest south of the greenhouse is the raised bed plot. The Extension provides a small booklet that explains what's going on in all the beds. You will see that the raised beds have been in production for a few years. And has had no tilling or fertilizer except for the mulch used for weed control and moisture retention.

So raised bed gardens will attract many people for different reasons. I hated hoeing in baked clay as a kid and when I first tried weeding a neglected bed that was originally mulched I was shocked at how easy it was. During that same year of my conversion my family had to take a two week trip. We returned to friends complaining about how dry it had gotten and how their weeds had taken over their garden, yet they had watered faithfully. Our own mulched beds had a few weeds (nobody's perfect), but with a few minutes time we removed the offensive survivors and remulched. We hadn't watered but we weeded to the strangely soothing sound of the neighbor's lawn sprinkler. You know the one. It goes chit..chit..chit.. chee..chee..chee ..chit..chit..chit.., well you know. Nor did we have to resort to watering even after our return. We had to do some digging at first to make the raised beds but after that the only thing dug were those cursed quackgrass roots, and later our bumper crops of potatoes and carrots. Our worm population thrives, the beds are ready to plant earlier in the spring, and in our older beds (you don't think we did this all at once did you?) we can sometimes use a gloved hand to plant. No chasing down that small shovel that's just the right size for a five-year-old.

To make your beds is simple, bare the ground, preferably by mechanical means as an herbicide could render your plot useless for gardening. Scoop some dirt from your future aisles and save it for your future beds. Aisles can be as wide as you want but make sure some can accomodate the garden cart you will need for moving mulch in and produce out. Beds should be about 3 feet wide. You can change the bed size if you have a longer reach or a shorter one, but if there are several people working in your garden please have mercy on those that have a shorter reach. They might not come back. Length is your preference but remember that you might be working on one side and want to go the other side for whatever reason and will have to walk around. Note: You should avoid walking on your garden beds - this compacts the soil and the plants' roots can't grow. The worms won't like it much either. How you keep that dirt on the beds is up to you some people use wood.

Do NOT use treated wood no matter what the salesman tells you. It is not safe for food production. Neither should you use railroad ties. If you want the look of wood plan on replacing it every few years, more often if you don't like the look of weathered wood doing what it's supposed to do - rotting . Others leave the bed mounded and just replace that which flows back into the paths. Still others including our family tried the field stones any farmer will be thrilled to have you take from his field. These are good except you can't mulch every single crack between the stones so weeds grow there and you have to move the stones to weed and then try to put them back. The material we like the most is the patio blocks. Those rectanglular pieces of cement are economical (cheap), easy to handle, look nice (you can buy them in colors), and hold the dirt in the bed. When weeding if you find a weed poking its nasty head out between then you can just flip one block out, pop the weed out and replace the one block. We also like these blocks because we can do some terracing on some sloping land we own. On the high side the blocks lay on their long side and on the low side we stand them on their short side. This gives us a level bed to work from.

When you're done making your beds you might want to have the soil tested. You can contact your co-operative extension for instructions. If you don't care if your garden is "organic" you can follow their instructions on fertilizer. If you want to garden without chemicals as much as possible, (modified organic?) you can still use the soil test and find out what materials you can use to enrich your soil. Or you can just mulch those beds with straw, unsprayed grass clippings, black and white newspapers, leaves, wood shavings (except walnut) etc. Some people even use coffee grounds and eggshells.

At this time of year every one that's anyone is chomping at the bit to get their hands dirty and get those plants in the ground. The last frost date date for our area is around May 20th. Now that doesn't guarantee that we will not have frost after that date. It's just an average date that's considered relatively safe. El Nino will, or course, affect that date. The local plant salesman just love to see us come in the end of April/first part of May and buy tomato plants. They know there's a good chance that they'll get to sell you more of those plants later on when the frost has killed your first bunch.

So, around May 19th, you buy your bedding plants and put them somewhere safe for that early morning planting spree you're planning on. How do you make sure that those little plants will make big food returns if we do get frost on the 21st? Mulch and cover. If your family can't live without broccoli, (I know a famous family that does), you could have planted the seed in April in the garden or planted the hardened off bedding plants from "Plants R Us". But tomato plants need to wait until at least the 20th. Place them where you want them to grow. Please keep in mind a small plant takes only a couple of inches of space but the full grown tomato-producing plant will cover a couple of feet. Give them room to grow and if you want a second layer of mulch the living leaves will provide it if the plants are grown so that the mature leaves just miss touching. With your small plant in the ground put mulch around but not touching the stem. For frost protection pile on the mulch high and then allow some of the mulch to bridge over the top. Straw is good for this. But do not block the sun from your plants.

If you are planting seeds in your new beds you need to leave the bed bare until you've scattered the seeds (lettuce, radishes, spinach, carrots, etc.) Then instead of raking dirt over the seeds, tamp the seeds into the soil with your hoe (it's gotta do something and everyone seems to have one), then sprinkle grass clippings, shredded leaves or some other fine material over the seed bed. As your seeds grow you may have to thin out the areas that are crowded. Re-mulch when you do and keep bare soil covered.

Beans are good things, but in the old flat garden you could only get two rows in a four foot wide area. With a raised bed you can grow four rows in the same 4 foot wide area. Make a trench with your lazy hoe and plant your bean seed. Lay fistfuls of mulch between the trenches then as the beans pop up mulch a little deeper. Eventually the bean leaves will form a canopy of leaves and will add that second layer of mulch.

If you've already gotten the mulch bug whether you use raised beds or the flat kind you must remember to pull back the mulch from last year (or what's left of it). The sun will warn the bed better and quicker.

Mulching your trees and shrubs offer many benefits. The mulch breaks down and fertilizes the tree, it prevents grass from stealing water and nutrients from the trees and shrubs and it protects them from lawn-mower-itis. You know, you tell your kid to mow the grass and the wonderful little soul thinks he has to skin the tree to get every blade of grass that exists. Or Dad bams into the front tree because his "more power" lawnmower gets away from him.

My husband teaches gardeninging classes for Rock Valley College Continuing Education. You've missed most of them for this year but if you want the outline he uses for raised bed mulched gardens, Email me to request a copy.


Ann Dennis is a former Master Gardener for cooperative Extension. She has a two year degree in Greenhouse Management and a life-time of experience in the garden. She also assists her husband in growing and selling water lillies. Together they have raised some things that the "experts said could not be grown in this area" by creating micro-environments for some borderline plants.

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