Master Gardener Linda Harris volunteers her time helping area schools, churches and organizations plant their own gardents. (Staff photo: Laura Williams) Master Gardener Linda Harris volunteers her time helping area schools, churches and organizations plant their own gardens. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)
Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to plan and plant a garden will get an awesome urge to share their knowledge with youths, especially those with special needs. The excitement of teaching what to plant, when to plant, where to plant and how to plant are many ways the input will be helpful.
However, teaching youths how to grow their own vegetable garden is a way to positively inspire them through gardening. A fall garden has a cool-growing crop to teach with, including such vegetables as greens, salads, herbs and root vegetables.
One of the most exciting ways to teach youths is with a raised bed garden, which will help them learn how to build a bed for their garden through a DIYK (Do It Yourself Kit), a ready-prepared kit available in a variety of materials. These controlled experiments in plant parenthood are so easy, in fact, they’re well-suited to young people who are planting for the first time. The main skills to teach are light, water, disease and insects, including what viruses to look for. Overwatering is the No. 1 killer of plants next to plant diseases and viruses. Watering is one of the most important jobs in the gardening process.
A raised bed is filled with a customized soil and compost blend purchased at a local garden center. Drainage is built into the bed walls, which hold the soil in place to keep erosion in check. Greater exposure to the sun warms the bed, which allows more plant diversity and extends the growing season. Plants can be spaced closely together, so yields go up, water-use efficiency is maximized and weeds are crowded out. Finally, raising the soil level by even a foot reduces the back-bending effort needed for jobs such as planting, weeding and harvesting.
Beyond the ease is the control — as youths become eager to grow their favorite vegetables. Each young gardener feeds and soaks his or her plants with just what they need for optimum growth. Another way for youths to maintain the excitement of gardening is choosing the proper vegetables to plant. Companion gardening is a great way to teach which vegetables grow well together.
A raised bed is most productive and attractive as a bottomless frame set into a shallow trench. The sides can be almost any durable building material, including rock, brick, concrete and interlocking blocks. Watering troughs or claw-foot tubs can work, as long as they have the capacity and drainage.
Finding a flat spot spares a lot of digging — you want the walls to be level. In general, a north-south orientation takes full advantage of available light. Stay close to the kitchen, but avoid sites shaded by the house or beneath messy trees. Leave at least 18 inches between beds for walkways, or 2 feet if you need room for a wheelbarrow or lawnmower.
To prepare the site, get rid of turf and weeds. Outline the bed dimensions on the ground with chalk line or string, then dig with vertical strokes along the outline, just deep enough to bury about half of your first course of lumber. Raised beds are designed so water trickles down, eliminating most of the problem of poor drainage. But if your only viable location is bogged in a marsh, you can prevent the “bathtub effect” by digging a few inches deeper and putting a layer of coarse stone or pea gravel in the excavation. (You can also install perforated drainage pipes in trenches under or around the bed or just drill weep holes at the base of the sides.) Likewise, if there is no turf between your beds, put down some landscape fabric and cover it with pavers or a layer of gravel to improve drainage. (After running out in the rain for a fresh bell pepper, you’ll appreciate the mud-free shoes.)
A simple framework of hoops and a lightweight cover can extend your growing season in cool areas, conserve moisture in dry areas and protect plants from birds or insects. Use clear polyethylene film to raise soil and air temperatures in early spring or fall — to get an early start on heirloom tomatoes, for instance, or to try your hand at exotic squashes. But be careful not to bake your plants on warmer days. Remove the cover or slit vents in it to avoid excessive heat buildup. For pest control, cover the bed with bird netting or with gauzelike fabrics known as floating row covers, which keep out flying insects but let in both light and air.
Linda Harris is a Master Gardener Extension Volunteer and member of the Southwest Georgia Master Gardeners. For more information, contact Dougherty CEC James Morgan at (229) 436-7216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.