One dilemma facing many aspiring vegetable gardeners is sub-prime soil, shall we say. Compacted, clay soil is not uncommon in Kentuckiana but it is especially common in newer developments.
One way to off-set the problem is to employ a system of raised beds.
Raised beds are practical for many reasons and they are not just for the clay-challenged.
Practical because you do not have to till, dig, double dig or battle clay in a raised bed. The soil has been added by you so it is as good as you want it to be.
A mixture of top soil and compost is a great place to start, working in a little compost or leaf mold every year thereafter will keep it good and rich.
This soil mixture also ensures good drainage and provides proper nutrients to the plants.
In a raised bed system you avoid soil compaction or root damage because you are not walking or tilling between the rows. Instead, you lean in from the outside of the elevated bed.
It is much easier to work in, plant and harvest from a raised bed than it is in an in-ground garden where you have to stoop or crawl around on your hands and knees. Raised beds are ideal for people who have difficulty getting up and down or for those who may have other physical limitations.
The No. 1 benefit, in my mind, is that raised vegetable gardens are a more controlled environment.
Remember all those springs that you waited for the soil temperature to heat up to 55 degrees and then when it finally did, it rained for two weeks straight?
Well, with a raised bed you can keep the soil dry and heat it up, getting your vegetables out earlier than anyone else in the neighborhood.
In the early spring, the soil in a raised bed naturally warms more quickly.
If this isn’t quick enough, you can fasten plastic over the bed or cover it with old storm windows, anything that will collect and trap warmth.
Seed germination is directly linked to soil temperature, not air temperature.
Certainly air temperature is a factor after seeds germinate, but the storm windows in my garden continued to act as a cold frame when night time temperatures dipped below freezing or there was a treat of frost.
I propped the window open with a couple of bricks when the day time temperatures go above 45 degrees and remove it all together when they go above 50.
I have been harvesting spinach that wintered over from last year for about two weeks now.
Another space-saving technique to consider is vertical growing in order to maximize your growing potential.
You can plant closer together therefore producing more crop in less space. Vertical growing also promotes better air circulation which is a preventative measure against insect and disease problems.
Powdery mildew and aphids, alike, are deterred by moving air.
Vertical growing, because the plants grow upward along a trellis, also reduces a plant’s exposure to disease causing soil pathogens.
Construction can be as easy or as elaborate as you choose.
The very first raised bed I ever made was from old 2’’ x 8” boards that were in the barn.
All it cost me was the price of some heavy-duty hinges that I used to secure each corner (and a load of soil mixture).
Now you can buy prefab kits, purchase landscape timbers, cinder blocks or look around in the garage... It really is simple.
Early blooms not
True to most springs in Kentuckiana one day is sunny and warm, the next cloudy and cold.
It’s an anxious time of the year for most gardeners as we watch the sun coax open a little patch of crocus or we catch sight of an old landscape filled with waves of blooming white snow drops.
Must we wait for the forsythia to bloom as we pray for warmth? No, there are plenty of other early bloomers to keep us happily occupied until spring truly arrives.
Right now I am looking out the window watching our Cornus mas literally pop open. I noticed the buds had begun to swell during last week’s warm spell and now it is in full bloom.
Cooler weather now will help to preserve the bloom.
It is surprising we don’t see more Cornus mas, or cornelian cherry, in our landscapes; it is the perfect small tree with all kinds of ornamental value.
Disease and insects free, the cornelian cherry has mottled, peeling bark; is the first tree to bloom in late winter or very early spring (and if the temperatures stay on the cool side the bloom time can last for weeks), and has lustrous foliage and red edible fruit in the summer.
Although the cornelian cherry is not really a cherry, rather in the dogwood family, the tart fruit can be used to make anything you would use cherries in.
Fresh from the tree, you will enjoy a tart treat; or add sugar and make a syrup for ice cream. If you ever go to international markets you will see the cornelian cherry in beverages and fruit spreads.
The genus Hamamelis, or witch hazel, has long been a favorite out here at the farm. Some species bloom in late fall and early winter; others pop open on warm February days.
The bloom, best described as crimped, twisted and curled, by Chris Lane in his book Witch Hazels, has a whimsical quality.
The blooms also offer up a spicy fragrance in the garden when not much else is going on.
The different species have subtle differences, but on the whole, the genus is a large, vase-shaped shrub at maturity with excellent landscape value whether you are looking to naturalize or formalize the landscape.
I can’t say enough good things about witch hazels. Sun or shade, average soil (certainly rich and well-drained is best), no pest problems, multi-seasonal interest and a selection that includes H. virginiana, the common American witch hazel the blooms in fall, H. japonica (Japanese witch hazel), H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel), H. vernalis (vernal witch hazel), and a group of hybrids represented by, H. x intermedia.
Corylopsis glabrescens, or the fragrant winter hazel, is from the same plant family as the witch hazel (Hamamelidaceae) and you can easily see the family resemblance in the foliage.
Most “hazels” have thick, sturdy leaves with a fluted quality to them… quite attractive, in fact.
The winterhazel has an open, sculptural quality to its habit, flat-topped but spreading. It is a multi-stemmed shrub, but can be trained into a single stem, small tree, with diligent pruning.
The plant does have multi-seasonal appeal, but the best part about it happens in early spring. Before the leaves emerge, the winterhazel is covered in pendulous pale-yellow blooms dangling from the wide reaching branches. It is nature at its finest.
The winterhazel is virtually pest-free, likes rich, well-drained soil, full sun to part shade and is best situated in a protected area because it blooms so early for us.
Unlike the crimped, curled and twisted blooms of its cousin, the witch hazel: a heavy April frost or freeze can damage the winterhazel’s blooms.