In Part I, I discussed the history of row cropping and a bit about how and why this became the “standard” for home growing. And despite the modifications that have been widely accepted for home growing (like hills and trellis’), almost every packet of seeds you see or scholarly write-up on a variety refers to 100-foot rows.
When you look at kitchen gardens of the past, however, they were much less focused on rows and more on practicality; there was no Piggly Wiggly down the street. It is unfortunate that most attention on growing history focuses on heirloom vegetables, and to a lesser extent, heirloom fruits, when our foremothers were using floating row cover, cold frames, forcing and other techniques that have lately become trendy. (Suggested: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way.)
For those new to historical methods, one surprise is that fact that defined beds — usually raised — were the standard for the kitchen garden. Much of this is probably from sheer practicality: the mule and plow couldn’t maneuver in a small space and they didn’t stop and start gardening all at once the way many backyard gardeners do today from frost to frost. (Ignoring all those lovely cool season vegetables.) Another reason, no doubt, is that the line between “vegetable” and “ornamental” was less strict than today. Today we grow borage as an ornamental, but the flowers not only attract pollinators but also make excellent edible garnish. So mama’s prized hand-me-down perennial was in the kitchen garden, and you don’t want to plow over that.
Raised beds are another kind of gardening technique which is sometimes viewed as new or trendy, but it’s not. The “new” part is paying several hundred dollars for a kit to build one, when old lumber, fairly straight tree branches, rocks or any number of materials will do. They also tend to be associated with gardening systems like square foot gardening, but they work equally well for other spacing techniques, including so-called “traditional” row spacing.
While there are advantages to the “raised” part — particularly for gardeners in wet spots, with heavy soil or in cold climates — it isn’t strictly necessary. The major benefits to a defined bed is 1) you don’t walk on it and compact the soil, and 2) you can focus on just amending and improving the growing area. It is possible to grow in beds without edges at all, but a token and highly visible edge is useful. Otherwise, over time, toes and hands tend to creep in and reduce the bed size.
If there is a downside to raised beds, it is that you must plan ahead and be sure you have beds to suit all the plants you would like to grow. Next time I will talk about planning a garden of defined beds and how those bed edges can be used to assist with shade cloth, row covers and even low tunnel hoop houses.
(By Nicole Castle)