Planting Time: Creating Environments

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Spring has sprung, the rains have come, and now it’s time to get seed in the ground. But before nestling those precious seeds into the warming earth, we want to be sure we have prepared for them a safe and healthy home.

One of the advantages of using a raised bed garden is that you can individually tailor the soil in each box to the needs of the plants you will put there. A pH meter or test kit is a handy tool to have. Sulfur and lime can be used to adjust pH up or down as needed. Compost adds organic matter and nutrients. Sand increases drainage; vermiculite retains the water. Straw, wood chips, newspaper, cardboard, and grass clippings can all be used as a mulch to retain moisture and deter weeds.

In addition to the soil they grow in, some plants do better with some structure to their lives.

Here I’ve put a trellis panel in the center of a garden box. In the far front is the last of my winter spinach; a new crop has been seeded and will soon be taking the place of the current plants as they lose their vitality. Just in front of the trellis I’ve planted cucumbers. Behind the trellis is lettuce. Right now the sun shines through the trellis to encourage the lettuce to grow in our cool spring days. As spring turns to the heat of summer, cucumber vines will climb up the trellis and provide shade for the lettuce and extend its growing season into the summer.


The grape vines grow on a trellis as well. This one forms the back of my berry house, wrapped in bird mesh, in which grow my grapes, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. The grapes have been pruned and are ready for another season, and the strawberries (below) are poking their heads up through their protective bed of pine needles. The pine needles protect them from winters harshness, acidify the soil and break down into compost.

While some veggies are happy to merely crawl up a trellis, others are acrobats by nature. Sweet potatoes, for example, love sunshine and will clamber up towers and walk along high wires trying to get as much sun as possible.

So I made this tater tower out of two tomato cages wired top-to-top, stuck in the ground, and guy-wired to the fence box. The sweet potato vines will climb the 7-foot tower, walk out the guys and run around the top of the fence box as well as filling in the box with greenery.

Most veggies, however, do not require circus equipment to do well. In fact many are perfectly content to remain close to the ground.

Last fall I put most of the garden to bed for the winter by covering the unused boxes with straw. Over the winter this breaks down and adds some nutrient to the box, but it also helps to exclude fall weed seeds that overwinter and spring up to compete with my food crops. Seeds that do sprout in the moist straw are easy to pull out. When I plant some things – like these black beans – I just open up holes through the straw and plant the seeds in the soil. Wind and spray from a garden hose can close up these holes, so I have to watch them until the seedlings are tall enough to fend for themselves. But, again, the straw helps to retain moisture and discourage weeds.

Straw does, however invite slugs, so I have to watch for them and set in a slug trap (shallow dish of beer) if they decide to move in.

Companion planting also helps. This year I am planting borage around my tomato plants. This is reported to attract beneficial insects, repel horn worms, and is edible. This is a new plan for me, I’ll let you know how it works out.

What kind of things do you do to prepare your seed beds?