It’s spring, and that means it’s time to make your beds!
Wondering how to bring life to an old raised bed? It’s spring and time to plant warm-season vegetables. Assuming that your vegetable bed receives full sunlight (six to eight hours), you can get started right away. Here are a few things to consider before you begin.
Your first and most important consideration is the health of the soil. Vegetables require rich, nutritious, well-draining soil that also can hold moisture. The key to restoring the health of your bed and providing the environment desirable to the growth of vegetables is to nurture the life in it. If your bed has not been planted in a couple years, the organic matter may be depleted.
Organic matter encompasses living organisms like fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, beneficial insects and worms, as well as living and dead plant parts, manures and residues from old roots. The interactions, life processes and secretions of the components in organic matter provide the nutrients plants require. The life under the soil equals or exceeds what we see on top.
You can restore the life in your raised bed by adding organic compost, which consists of decomposed organic matter. The diversity of materials in compost caters to a large variety of soil microbes. Compost enhances the water-holding capacity of sandy soils, and it facilitates drainage and aeration in clay-heavy soils.
You can buy organic compost at any garden store or home supply garden department, although you may start making your own as you gain experience. For tips on making your own compost or worm bin, watch our YouTube video at Composting - YouTube
After clearing the bed of weeds and debris, dig 3 to 4 inches of compost into the top 8 inches of your bed. With continued care, mentioned at the end of this article, the process of digging in the compost will not be needed or advised in subsequent plantings.
Now, for the vegetables. The choices of where to shop for your vegetable starts and seeds are many at this time of the year. Look for plant sales held by community gardens and schools and farmers markets, as they will have varieties of plants that will do best in Sonoma County. At these places, there are likely to be people who can help you make good selections for your garden. Local nurseries also offer an abundance of vegetable starts and seeds. Tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, cucumbers, squash, beans, eggplant, herbs and flowers are waiting for a home. Some do better planted as seeds (beans, cucumbers and squash) and others as starts.
Once you figure out what your family likes to eat and the space you will need for each vegetable, herb and flower, make a list. Documents (“Year-Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County” and “Focus on Spring Food Gardening”) on the Food Gardening tab on our website offer guidelines on spacing, plant varieties, irrigation and the best time to plant. While there, check out articles created for specific edible plants on our food gardening page and YouTube channel.
While providing food for your family, you can contribute to the stewardship of our environment.
Think of your vegetable garden as part of a larger ecosystem that supports a diversity of plants and wildlife. Incorporate early and late-blooming annual and perennial flowers in your box or around the perimeter of your yard to encourage pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Little saucers of water with small stones for them to land on will satisfy their thirst. Do not use pesticides.
Monitor your water use. Drip irrigation is efficient in distributing water to where the plant needs it, which is in the rooting zone. Mulch such as straw, chopped leaves or more compost will keep the moisture in and moderate the soil temperature. Mulch also will protect it from drying or cracking. Protect your vegetables from excessive heat or cold with umbrellas or cloths. Row covers will help deter pests.
Avoid disturbing the soil, to allow for the continual enriching by microbes and the storage of carbon. It also means fewer weed seeds will be released. Keeping plants in the soil ensures continual organic matter.
When plants are finished, cut them at ground level, leaving roots to decompose. Add compost between plantings by spreading it an inch thick on top of the bed. Microbes will pull it down into the soil. If extra enrichment is desired, consider adding manure or worm castings to the compost.
Most of all, enjoy your garden and the contributions it will make to your family and to the environment. Happy gardening!
Spring is the time prepare the garden for planting warm-season vegetables.
Adapted from The Press Democrat Advice to Grow By Column April 01, 2023