- From the gently rotting Studios of Univest at Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, PA.
It is time for another raised bed episode of chemical-free horticultural hijinks, You Bet Your Garden.
Many people still have questions about the makings of raised beds.
I'm Mike McGrath, and on today's show, we'll discuss how to best contain those beds, and what to fill them with.
Even some hugelkultur.
Plus your fabulous phone call questions, comments, tips, tricks, suggestions and fascinatingly fortuitous fromage fixations.
And now, on with the show!
At... Tom, welcome to You Bet Your Garden.
- Hi, Mike.
How are you?
- I'm just Ducky, Tom!
Thanks for asking.
I can't get too rough with Ducky, or little Sprout will fall over.
How are you, sir?
I am fine.
I have a question for you that hopefully you can answer, give me a little bit of support on.
I have a garden plot in a local community garden, the Haverford Friends Community Garden, a wonderful garden community.
And I grow your standard peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers.
But I am absolutely dreadful at growing carrots.
I wind up with washed-away seeds, and whatever I do get are just little stubs of carrots.
I'm just dreadful at it.
I'm just hoping you can give me a little bit of guidance, maybe a Huey, Dewey and Louie on how I can go about get better carrots.
- Oh, you need that handbook they had in that little club of theirs.
So carrots are not the easiest thing to grow.
I'm always amazed that they're often recommended for, like, gardening with children, you know, because I guess the people who recommended it like to see children cry, because they are very finicky.
Now you're in a community garden, and I presume the beds are raised, but not by much?
They're raised, and I treat them with mushroom soil that I get from Kenneth Square, the organic mushroom soil.
I fold that in every year.
I use my hand.
I literally use my hands to go in and loosen the soil every year, and they are raised beds.
I don't like that.
Now the mushroom soil that you're using, is it fresh, or is it completely composted?
You have me there.
It's usually about...
I will put it in the garden about five months prior to its usage.
So I wouldn't say that it's been cooked well through.
So do you have any area in this community garden where you could pile it up, let it cook down, and nobody would steal it?
- I could try that.
That makes sense.
I do not want you to mix it in.
That is a rookie mistake.
All you do is bring weed seeds to the surface.
And if the soil is in relatively good shape, you could ruin it by excessive tilling or spading, or even with your hands.
Because every time you expose different parts of that soil to the air, you lose nutrients.
The reason I don't want you to use the mushroom soil at all is it's all nitrogen, which is fine!
But carrots don't like a lot of nitrogen.
I know they're technically not a flowering crop, but they're going to do much better with a mix of nutrients.
Carrots do not grow well over the summer, and sometimes it's a little difficult to get them started in the spring.
The best carrot crop you're ever going to grow, you would start it in the fall.
Looking at the days to maturity on the package, you would start it to ripen up around September 15th, and then you would pick them first thing in the morning after a cool evening.
Now, that's not going to change the structure, but it's going to increase the sweetness of the carrots.
In the spring, I recommend you grow miniature carrots, really fast-growing varieties.
And I think we're going to use the beds, but not use the beds.
I think the simplest thing would be get a cardboard box that is twice as deep as the final height of the root as described on the seed packet.
Fill it with half sand, one quarter bagged compost, which won't be too expensive at this point, and one quarter screen topsoil, or even better if you can do it, organic potting soil.
And then, you'll just sit the box on top of one of the beds.
It is the cheater's way of getting the height and the loose soil you need.
And remember, kids, cheaters always win.
- Okay, that makes a lot of sense.
And I think you're the biggest piece of guidance is don't grow them over the summer, get them in the spring and fall?
- Oh, yeah, no, they'll be terrible tasting and they'll look weird.
You got to have a crop.
Spring crop needs to be out before the weather gets really hot and the fall crop is easier because, you know, there's no harm in picking them in October or November.
But no, that's a crop that is not grown in the summer.
All right, man?
- Excellent advice.
I will do that.
Thank you very much.
- My pleasure.
You take care and good luck.
Catherine, welcome to You Bet Your Garden.
- Well, thank you.
I'm very excited to be talking to you.
- Well, I'll remove all that excitement within about two-and-a-half minutes.
How are you doing, Cath?
- I'm fine.
- And where is Catherine fine.
- In West Windsor, New Jersey, which is right outside of Princeton.
So basically, central Jersey.
- All right.
What can we do you for?
Well, I all of a sudden started to see a lot of articles about using creeping thyme, basically to try and replace some of your lawn.
And this seemed very attractive to me, but it almost seemed too good to be true.
That, you know, you could just... You know, it's a lot of initial work of either planting seeds or planting plugs.
But then, the creeping thyme will take over your lawn and you won't have to mow.
It'll be sweet-smelling, it will attract beneficial insects.
It'll keep away the animals which might have ticks or other bad insects.
It seemed like perfect.
And I don't know how good an idea that's actually is.
- Well, a creeping thyme is one of those plants...
I guess the biggest brand name, if people want to look them up, is called Stepables.
And these are plants that are deliberately installed between pavers to protect against weeds, and also to do the other things you mentioned, you know, give off a nice scent when you step on them.
Creeping means it will not stay where it is planted.
It will constantly expand its territory.
So if you want to do this to replace a portion of a lawn, you also need to install good, deep edging so that it stays in place, and doesn't go into areas where you would consider it a problem.
I believe creeping thyme is not as low-growing as some of your other potential choices.
I believe it can get a foot to two feet tall.
- Oh, wow.
- So I could be wrong.
I was wrong once, back in '65, then I realized I had made a mistake and I was right.
But you want to look at the final height of the plant, but to me, that wouldn't be a deterrent.
I mean, it is probably, even though it may achieve a bigger height, it's almost certainly slow growing.
And so, maybe you'd have to run it over with a mower or a weed whacker once or twice a year.
Now, how big an area did you want to do, so to speak?
- Well, so we have a little bit of an area around a patio where nothing but weeds is growing.
And so, you know, at the very least, to do that and some of these articles made it seem like you could just do your whole lawn, I mean, the whole backyard.
And it's hard for me to figure out how much space that is.
Technically, we have a half acre, but it's the backyard, so maybe a quarter acre, maybe a little bit less.
And if we could just replace the whole backyard, the back lawn, I would be thrilled.
- I have given up on reading any article that isn't from a university extension service, or someone with incredible knowledge.
I was just looking through things this morning, and I read the worst article in my life of, quote, "peat-based composts versus non-peat composts".
And I'm thinking, "What is peat compost"?
The issue with peat is it's great in seed-starting mixes and container mixes.
It is inappropriate to use to make...
So the whole concept was hooey from the beginning, and I see more and more of that all the time.
You know, the only thing that you need to be an expert on the Internet is fingers, you know?
You have to know how to type.
- So I like the idea of this being up front.
Now, is this area surrounded on all sides by like the house and concrete or something?
- It'd be concrete on one side and the house on the other, and then, the other two sides are shady, and there's actually nobody there, so I don't have to worry about reaching into other people's lawns.
I would definitely do that.
I would definitely give it a try.
What do you have to lose?
If you don't like it, if it doesn't turn out to be what you want... You know, you can install a better lawn installed more correctly in the fall, and you know, you'll still get good results.
But I do like the idea, again, the small flowers will attract beneficial insects, but I want you to go online and look up Stepables.
Now that's a brand name, and go through all the different plants they have that are recommended for planting between paving stones.
- All right?
I'm going to look.
- All right!
- Thanks very much.
- My pleasure, Catherine.
You take care now.
Ralph, welcome to You Bet Your Garden.
- Hey, Mike, thanks for taking my call.
- Well, thanks for making it, Ralph, how are you?
- I'm great.
I'm out in the garden in mid-February.
I'm in High Falls, in New York.
What can we do you for?
- I'm looking to plant ranunculus this year, and I've done some research.
They seem a little bit finicky, but doable.
And from what I've gathered, I should soak them, sprout them, and then, put them in the ground.
But I'm looking for maybe dates and any pointers to have success this first year.
- Okay, I'm no expert on these bulbs, but the first thing I'm thinking is they're not winter hardy in your area.
- No, I treat them as animals.
- Well, that's one option.
Your other option would be to either dig them up at the end of the season and store them over the winter, and replant them in the spring.
The advantage to doing so, as opposed to using new bulbs every year, is the bulbs would be larger, they would produce more flowers, and perhaps even kind of get associated with your climate, and not be so finicky about cool soil at the beginning and the end.
The other option is to grow them in containers, and then, bring the containers in, in the winter.
So there's no digging.
You know, you would just drag the containers into an unheated garage or basement, as long as it's not going to get freezing in there.
So that's the biggest thing to me.
Now, I've never planted them, but the soaking before planting, to me, that's absolutely imperative when you buy a bare-root plant.
Like, bare-root roses or shrubs.
I mean, especially if you're buying mail order, bare-root plants are so much easier and less expensive because you're not paying for the shipment of all that soil.
But the plants, raspberry cane, same thing.
The plants are generally dehydrated.
And one way to give them a good start is to soak them in water for like 12-24 hours before you plant them.
Clear the area where you're going to plant them.
If there's any kind of mulch or any debris is on the surface of the soil, scrape that off, rake that off so that the soil can warm up naturally.
And then in your region, I would not put them out before June 1st.
I would plant them... - Wow.
- Well, I mean, cowards win in these games.
So think about it.
You know, you got all of June, all of July, all of August, and who knows how much of September?
I mean, if that's not enough for them, they're just not for you.
But if you put them out too early and they get a cold shock, not freezing, but just not warm enough for them, you'll set flowering back by two weeks to a month.
Whereby, if you just distract yourself with shiny objects and put them out two weeks later than you thought, you'll be ahead of the game.
- All right.
That's very doable.
- All right!
Good luck to you, sir, send us pictures.
- I will, thanks a lot, Mike.
Thanks for your help.
- My pleasure.
As promised, it is time for a very interesting Question of the Week, which we're calling... Marsha, in Rapine, Virginia has a lot of questions, all of which are perfect for this time of year.
In fact, you'd be practicing a form of hugelkultur when you do it.
An offshoot of permaculture, the classic form of hugelkultur involves piling up big chunks of wood, like tree stumps, and covering them with soil to create a permanent planting mound for new trees and such.
The theory is that the wood will slowly degrade over time, releasing its nutrients as it does.
Now, I could never wrap my head around this big mound style of planting, but I recently came up with a way to use the basic concept in one of my newest projects, a big rectangular container containing three large squarish containers that I'm using to replace an ancient falling apart half whiskey barrel on my patio that only looked appropriate at Halloween when we planted skeleton hands in it.
"We," meaning my new intern, Sean, who does all the work, were emptying the soil out of the thing that was once a half barrel when he asked what we should do with the rotting staves.
Then it hit me!
No, not the staves, and not Sean.
The new containers are a little bit deeper than I need, and I wanted to make sure there was good drainage in the system.
So I decided to put the rotting wood staves in the bottoms before we filled the containers up.
Unlike stones, broken flowerpot shards, and other nonsense, the wood will slowly release nutrients to the soil.
Holy hugelkultur, Bat-fans!
Marsha continues... You can use just about anything except old railroad ties or pressure-treated wood.
Naturally rot-resistant cedar landscape timbers are a popular choice, and metal frames are the good-looking new kids on the block.
There are also composite materials like Trex, which looks like lumber but is made of half-recycled wood scraps and half-recycled plastic, which is what my beds are framed with.
The boards will last forever, and I really like the idea of buying the end-stage result of recycling, especially when it's keeping the plastic component out of our oceans and landfills.
And many people just buy untreated, regular old pine landscape timbers, which, like my rotting staves, will eventually become soil.
We go back to Marsha... As tempting as this option might be, garden soil is loaded with weed seeds, insect eggs and potential pathogens.
Now, if you have a really deep container to fill, yes, you can use some garden soil to layer on the bottom, as long as you save the top two feet for your garden mix.
Or better yet, let's go back to hugelkultur!
Use branches and arborist woodchips in the bottom.
Then you can cut the topping to around 18 inches.
Now I've been recommending the same raised bed and container mix for decades, and I see no reason to stray.
Finish compost, screen top soil, and a big bag of Perlite mixed into every 4x8 bed.
It should look like good soil, smell like good soil, and squeeze like good soil.
Look for it in bulk near you, and then, start making your own in the fall.
You want screened topsoil, which should have few to no clumps in it.
It also should be nice and dark when it's dry, and have no off smells.
Now, my best friend, Perlite, is a mined volcanic mineral that's popped in big ovens, creating lots of tiny spaces inside these popped rocks.
These crevices will both hold water and improve drainage, which is a nifty trick.
Buy a huge bag, which will weigh about 4lbs or less.
You can never have too much Perlite.
Note, Vermiculite is not the same.
Stick with Pearlite.
Marsha's final question... Well, as we all know, excluding deer is a highly complicated project.
But there are two products I highly recommend that would seem to fit this bill.
Number one, motion-activated sprinklers.
You hook them up to a hose, aim them at your garden, and they will toss cold water at whatever is moving too close to your string beans.
And yes, you will get nailed when you forget it's on.
It's not the worst thing that can happen on a hot summer day.
Number two, the wireless deer fence.
A short plastic stake that you prime by attaching a scent pellet that attracts deer to the top of the device.
Then you install batteries in the bulging belly.
Deer will be attracted to the scent pellet, attempt to lick it, and get a mild shock from electrodes on the top.
The theory is that the deer will remember this associated with your garden and run off to eat someone else's salad greens now and in the future.
Sold in sets of three, including scent pellets by the creator at WirelessDeerFence.com.
Well, that sure was some interesting information about raised beds and rotten wood, now, wasn't it?
Luckily for you, the Question of the Peek appears...
The peak Question of the Week appears in print at the Gardens Alive rebsite.
To read it over your leisure or your leisure... Can I get voice lessons?
Just click the link for the Question of the Week at our website, which is still and will forever be... Gardens Alive supports the You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week, and you will always find the latest Question of the Week at the Gardens Alive website.
You Bet Your Garden is a half hour public television show, an hour-long public radio show and podcast all produced and delivered to you weekly and strongly from the Univest Studios at Lehigh Valley Public Media, in Bethlehem, PA. Our radio show is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
You Bet Your Garden was created by Mike McGrath.
Mike McGrath was created when he was abducted by an alien race that couldn't tell the difference between our world's mammals.
"They all look alike to us."
And he ended up genetically engineered to be a bipedal dog that loved to swim with dolphins.
Good thing they picked a lab, although his shaving costs are now extreme.
My producer is threatening to de-rot my wood if I don't get out of this studio.
Is that even possible?
Anyway, we must be out of time.
But you can call us anytime at... Or send us your email, your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse teeming towards our garden shore at... And how many times do I have to ask you?
I am begging!
I'd say I'm on my knees, but I wouldn't be able to get up off my knees.
Please include your location!
Even if you think we know who you are.
I'm your host, Mike McGrath, and I'll continue to free my spring bulbs from a cover of occasionally frozen leaves.
Because, yes, I didn't do it when I told you to do it last fall when I should have done it.
But I didn't.
And so, I'll be out there raking until I can see you again next week.