Raised Bed Gardening and Organic Mulching

photographs and text by Sharon Kitchens

When I decided to purchase my home it was in great part a response to my growing interest in gardening.  As much for the purpose of feeding myself as for aesthetics. I have always found solace in beautifully designed gardens, and specifically with those featuring a number of raised beds.

Raised-bed gardening is a common and practical method for growing vegetables for a number of reasons.

1. Soil in the beds is deep, loose, and fertile. Plants benefit from the improved soil drainage and aeration, and plant roots penetrate readily. – For more information check out this website on organic gardening.

2. The beds are isolated and you can rotate the varieties of vegetables you plant in them each year. *Rotating discourages insect pests and pathogens from remaining in the garden soil over the winter and infecting next season’s crop. Everything you ever needed to know about crop rotation and a WHOLE LOT MORE is here.

3. They are an accessible way (especially for beginner gardeners) to to maintain an organized and beautiful garden. Jennifer Bartley’s book Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook is wonderful for designs of how to organize a garden with raised beds with information on planting design, container gardening, companion planting….One of my most referenced gardening books.

Raised beds can be supported with wooden boards, stone or simply (and most inexpensively) raked into hills six to eight inches high. The Backyard Homesteadfrom Storey Publishing is a solid resource for beginner gardeners/homesteaders. This illustration is on page 23.

When planting certain crops i.e. melons and squash, I’d read and been told to apply a floating row cover (lightweight, permeable white “garden like blanket” requiring no support) to the area (in this case bed) immediately after transplanting to act as Eliot Coleman describes as “a physical barrier against insects.”

To help me create my first raised bed I employed Daniel Rennie, a Food Corpsservice member looking for part-time work, for a half-day. In addition to being a terrific instructor (admittedly he did most of the digging) he is the one who advise me to apply for the Maine Master Gardener Program (I am for 2013).

Here’s his lesson on using straw as mulch (I did this on my own this past week):


Getting straw to mulch in and around entire bed. Tuck plants right in and cover all the soil. This will keep down weeds and conserve moisture in the soil.

To protect the mulch from wind drifting and being moved by water, it must be covered with a netting. The mulch should cover the entire seed or bare area. The mulch should extend into existing vegetation or be stabilized on all sides to prevent wind or water damage which may start at the edges.

Here’s what I’ve learned on my own about straw and organic mulching.

Straw is a by-product of harvested crops (barley, wheat) and is a naturally occurring substance. It’s usually available in abundance and it replenishes itself. Straw mulch is truly a green, organic mulch to choose for your garden. It is great for weed suppression, retaining soil moisture and adding organic matter to the soil when it breaks down. Some people use it to line chicken coops.

There are two cardinal rules for using organic mulches to combat weeds. First, be sure to lay the mulch down on soil that is already weeded, and second, lay down a thick enough layer to discourage new weeds from coming up through it. It can take a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch to completely discourage weeds, although a 2- to 3-inch layer is usually enough in shady spots where weeds aren’t as troublesome as they are in full sun.

FYI (because I keep getting “straw” and “hay” confused)

Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, the plant material finer. Hay smells really nice, too. You would not want to use this stuff as mulch, or you’d end up sprouting a yard full of alfalfa or whatever. It’s also more expensive than straw, about three times as much, depending on the grass type. No one would use hay as bedding.

And now…to my Green Hubbard SquashBlacktail Mountain Watermelon andSweet Reba Bush Acorn Squash. These are what I planted in my new raised bed. Their growing requirements are similar – all are vine crops and need plenty of growing space.

Dig a hole, put a layer of mulch in, put the seedling in, put mulch around the seedling and cover it.

And tools …

A pitchfork (very common farm tool, multiple uses).

A potato rake (goes by other names, I just don’t know them…but any hardware store in Maine will know what you are talking about.)