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Benefits of Permanent Raised Garden Beds

Author Jean-Martin Fortier

Today’s excerpt is from the best-selling book The Market Gardener: A successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming by Jean-Martin Fortier.

Jean-Martin Fortier and his wife Maude-Helene Desroches are the founders of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, an internationally recognized micro-farm famous for its high productivity-profitability using low-tech, high-yield methods of production.

Excerpt from the book The Market Gardener

Raised beds form the foundation of our intensive cropping system. They provide the most space and labor-efficient layout for the market gardener and the most beneficial growing environment for the plants. The fact that they are permanent is key as it allows an optimal way of building and maintaining soil structure. After many years growing in such a system, I find it hard to even imagine growing vegetables any other way. Here is a list of the benefits of growing crops on permanent raised beds.

Given the right conditions, soil organisms can perform much of the tillage needed to create and maintain loose, fertile soil.

Better drainage.

Raising the soil above ground allows excess rainfall to drain away from the crop zone and moisture to stay in the root zone, where it is most needed. In our northern wet climate, this practice is critical.

Soil warms faster come springtime

Since the beds are raised several inches off the ground, they intercept more of the sun’s rays during early spring. Faster drying and warming soil permits earlier seeding and transplanting. Plants will also grow faster once they are established.

No soil compaction.

Beds are never walked on during the growing season, let alone compacted by heavy machinery. In this system, only the pathways get compacted by the grower’s footsteps. Avoiding compaction promotes loose soil structure, which in turn allows vegetable roots to extend deeply into the soil.

The pathways in our gardens are wide enough to allow the passage of a wheelbarrow or to work in a crouching position without damaging the adjacent bed. Our beds are oriented according to the natural slope of our site to encourage surface drainage.

Higher yields.

Unlike the typical single rows separated by pathways, plants in a raised bed system are uniformly spaced over the surface of a wide bed, allowing for a high plant density. In other words: increased yield per square foot of growing space.

Soil building.

Using the same layout of beds and paths each year restricts organic amendments to the large volume of amendments and compost required in an intensive system, it is the most economical approach to soil building.

Depending on the size of the garden, establishing permanent beds may take a few days or even weeks.

Leaving out the tractor.

A permanent bed system saves the work of building new beds every year and is the most efficient way of farming without a tractor. Working and shaping large quantities of soil every year would otherwise require a tractor in order to work efficiently. For all of the reasons mentioned above, I strongly encourage beginning growers to adopt permanent beds when organizing a market garden.

But this being said, note that such a set way of doing things does require initial onsite preparation. Any major earthmoving project has to be dealt with first. Bumps and dips in the soil surface should be corrected, and if tile drainage is required, it will also need to be installed. When taking over a previously vacant site (e.g., a field or unused farmland), it might inevitably be necessary to use heavy machinery (plow, chisel, rototiller, etc.) in order to bring the land into a “workable” state. A tractor may also be needed to remove any large rocks from the site. When planning for this kind of work to be done, it might also be a good idea to establish an action plan for eliminating persistent perennial weeds such as quack grass, dandelion, and thistle. Repetitive tillage with large disks or harrows might help in that regard.

Once the groundwork is finished, then the real work begins. Depending on the size of the garden, setting up permanent beds may take a few days, or even a few weeks. Creating ours took a while since we had about 180 of them, each 100 feet long. The first thing we did was to mark off the perimeter of each plot (calculated to contain 16 beds of 48 inches center to center). We then used strings to indicate the width of each bed and dug the earth from the pathways onto the beds. It was a lot of work, but we were motivated by the fact that we would only be doing this once.

While laying out the beds, we also added large amounts of organic matter to improve the soil’s quality. In our case, the initial soil was already a desirable gravelly loam soil, and we incorporated about 7 wheelbarrows per 100 foot bed of a compost mix rich in peat moss. We also added lime to raise our pH, which at the time was on the acidic side. We’ve seen other market gardeners add sand to clay-based soils and clay to sandy soils. Along with adding compost, these amendments help improve a soil’s texture.

With regard to the height of the beds, I recommend mounding the soil about 8 inches. Over time the soil will settle, and after one or two growing seasons, the beds may be only 4 to 6 inches high. Raising the beds higher than 8 inches does not produce any significant advantages and only creates more work and higher costs. Many market gardeners seed their pathways with clover, but at our farm, we don’t follow this approach. We use the soil in our pathways to pile on top of beds that have already settled, and we also use the pathway soil to weigh down tarps and floating row cover.

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