Raised bed gardens for rocky yards
Pocahontas County has lots of rocks. Those of us living higher up on the mountains have little topsoil, but lots of rocks. When it comes to gardening, rocks are good for nothing, except for rock gardens, and you can't eat rocks.
But people with rocky yards can still grow vegetables with a raised bed garden.
As food prices continue to rise, a good vegetable garden can save hundreds of dollars a year in grocery bills. The price of two plastic-wrapped tomatoes in a local grocery store this week was $2.50. At those prices, a few good tomato plants alone will save you a fortune.
Food from your own garden is as fresh as can be and the sense of accomplishment from growing your own food is extraordinary. Even a small, well-tended garden can be bountiful and you will be a neighborhood hero when you share your extra produce with friends.
You can put a raised bed in a rocky yard and fill it with good soil. A raised bed offers several advantages. You can mix different ingredients to adjust the soil texture more easily with a raised bed. In spring, soil in raised beds defrosts more quickly than the ground, allowing you to work the garden earlier. The soil in raised beds doesn't get compacted as much and drains better than an in-ground garden. If you build your raised bed with wood, it's easy to attach a PVC-pipe frame for placing netting over your garden.
Raised beds are excellent for growing vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit, including strawberries, grapes, blueberries, and raspberries.
Like many county residents, I have nothing but rocks in my yard, so I decided to build a raised bed garden for this summer.
The first step in planning a raised bed garden is to find a good spot. This will be the area of your yard that gets the most sunshine. Orient the bed so the long side is facing the sun, if possible.
The easiest way to build a raised bed container is with lumber, but you can use anything that will contain soil six to 12 inches deep, like landscaping blocks or rocks (rocks are good for something, after all).
I decided to use pressure-treated lumber for my bed. Pressure treated lumber no longer contains arsenic, which was used in the past as an insecticide to protect the wood. Some people worried about arsenic leaching into the soil, but that's no longer a concern. Alternatives to pressure-treated lumber include composite and cedar lumber, both of which are much more expensive than standard pressure-treated lumber.
My first raised bed garden would be 10x5 feet and 15 inches deep. The main concern with size is not making the container too wide to dig out weeds, tend the plants and harvest vegetables from the side. You don't want to walk on top of your raised bed and compact the soil. Many gardeners build four-foot wide beds, but I wanted a little more growing space.
The materials are fairly inexpensive, considering how much money you will save on groceries and how much fun you will have. A 10x5 container requires six 2x8x10s, one 4x4x8, 20 six-inch lag bolts and a couple furring strips. The total cost for these materials at Glades Hardware is about $75.
What you're doing is building a rectangular box, without a top or bottom. Two 2x8s on top of each other make the side rails. 2x8s are actually 7-and-three-quarter inches wide, so the container will be 15-and-a-half inches deep. Two 2x8x10s make the long-side rails on each side. Two 2x8x5s make the end rails on each end. Four 24-inch 4x4s make the corner supports and legs. The 4x4s extend eight-and-a-half inches below the rails to set into the ground for stability.
Make the long-side pieces first. Use lag bolts to attach a 10-foot board to a 24-inch 4x4 post, flush with the top of the post. Attach the other end of the board to another 24-inch post in the same manner and then attach another 10-foot board flush with the board you have already attached. That's your first long-side rail. Make another.
Cut your two remaining 2x8x10s in half to make four five-foot boards. Use nails to put the end pieces on your container and secure with a lag bolt. What you have now should look like a truck bed railing with eight-and-a-half inch legs at each corner.
Get some help and put your bed into position in your yard. Mark the points where the legs touch the ground and dig post holes 10 inches deep. Put gravel in the holes, as necessary, to level the bed. If there are gaps between the bottom of the rails and the ground, due to slope, use some rocks or bricks to plug the gaps to keep soil from spilling out (I'm sorry I insulted them earlier - rocks really are useful).
Now it's time to fill the bed with soil. A 150 square foot raised bed, 15 inches deep, will require about 55 cubic feet of dirt. Uh-oh, where to get topsoil in rocky Pocahontas County? If you're lucky, the Division of Highways will be doing some digging in your area and you can request a load of topsoil. You might not get the best soil but it will be free and you can add ingredients to make it great for gardening.
Some local farmers and landowners sell soil but you will have to ask around and you might not have any luck. A 40-pound bag of topsoil at Buckeye Country Mart costs $2.49. Garden centers in neighboring counties sell good topsoil in bulk. A garden center in Greenbrier County quoted $120 for 60 cubic feet of topsoil. If you don't have a truck to pick it up, they charge you about the same amount to deliver it to the Marlinton area.
Pick up a soil test kit at the WVU Extension Service office in the courthouse. Follow the instructions for taking a soil sample and mail it to WVU in the provided little bag. The Extension Service will receive the results in two to four weeks and send you a copy. The Extension Service is a great resource for backyard gardeners and can give you good advice to make your garden successful. Stop by their office in the lower level of the courthouse and pick up some informational materials and ask questions.
With a decent effort, your raised bed garden will pay for itself within a year or two and give you great satisfaction. Don't forget that you can donate some of your produce to those less fortunate. For information on how to donate garden produce to fight hunger, contact Corey Bonasso with the Grow Appalachia project at 304-653-4891.