Local gardener offers tips on raised gardens

Hoops and covers protect cabbage during colder months. Courtesy photo

STRASBURG – James Evans, gardener and raised garden connoisseur, can be found many afternoons during growing season tending to his raised garden beds full of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. It’s his happy place of sorts.

Evans said he learned about raised gardens, also called garden boxes, from a book, “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew.

“Ten years ago this book came out and it was like everyone jumped on the band wagon,” he said. “I became interested because it was another way to garden. Simple as that.”

Raised garden beds are popping up more and more across the Northern Shenandoah Valley. Evans said he believes it’s because not only are raised gardens more convenient and easy to manage, but they’re also quite attractive.

“I don’t really know what makes them so popular,” he said. “But I know for myself, when you’re crawling around on your hands and knees for a few hours, it can become exhausting both mentally and physically. Putting the raised gardens in was one of the best decisions I made.”

James Evans

For many gardeners, raised gardens are a convenience. Their easy construction allows for continued success throughout all four seasons. Raised gardens give gardeners the option to plant a wide variety of annuals and perennials, depending on needs.

Evans said for construction, the most important thing to remember is to never make it wider than you can reach.

“Typically I tell people to build them either 4 feet by 4 feet or 4 feet by 8 feet,” he said. But it’s up to the individual, he added.

Yard size can also play a large role in placement and construction.

Picking the right materials is also valuable in successful construction. Evens suggests using lumber – not pressure treated – or other materials including rocks, cinder blocks, bricks or downed trees.

Lumber creates the boarder around this raised garden bed. Courtesy photo

“Raised garden beds, put simply,” Evans said “are gardens built on top of native soil.”

Sustainable soil comes from peat moss and vermiculite, which Evans said would last forever –  just add compost each year with fertilizers.

“Vermiculite holds moisture better,” he said. “Layering in nature, mixing soils is not the way to go long term. Compost on top and it naturally fertilizes every time you water.”

When it comes to planting, Evens suggests what he calls companion planting, including tomatoes, basil, garlic, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Loner plants include eggplant, pumpkin and gourds.

“Working your beds for three seasons is something I try to do, he said. “It allows for a more successful planting season, I believe.”

Here is an example of material James Evans uses in raised garden construction. Courtesy photo

In the early spring, mid-March, Evans plants cabbage, onions, peas, kale, swiss chard, dill, rosemary and parsley. In early spring when the soil temperature is about 55 degrees, he plants tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and basil. Late spring, when the soil is still consistently warm, Evans adds cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

“Harvest and rotate,” he said. “When the peas are done, harvest, pull, and sprinkle with compost and plant your sweet potato in that spot. Or even cantaloupes or pumpkins. When cabbage is done, plant some green beans and when lettuce is done, pull, re-compost and plant some squash. It’s all about timing.”

Evans follows the same harvesting and rotating plan for fall planting.

“Cool crops timing are everything.” He said. “You want to get the fall crops in early enough so they have time to develop. But not so early that the heat stresses the plants out.”

As for fertilizers, Evans follows the NPK rule: Nitrogen, Phosphorus andPotassium. Evans said plants need more nitrogen during the vegetative period then any other. He also added that leafy vegetables suck up a lot of nitrogen. Phosphorus aids in root development and flowering while potassium aids heavily in flowering and fruiting development.

“I don’t recommend chemical fertilizers, but they do work,” he said. “You need to be careful not to try your plants. Most importantly, don’t use them on edibles.”

Evans opts for organic fertilizers such as manure base, cow or chicken. Along with plant base, such as kelp, seaweed or leaf compost.

Watering depends on each individual plant Evans explained.

“Let your plants and soil dry out between watering,” he said. “This helps the plant strengthen.”

Tomatoes and cucumbers, for example, like a lot of water, while peppers  like to dry out big time between watering, Evans said.

Evans is a classical French trained chef who’s always had a passion for herbs and gardening.

“Gardening is trial and error,” he said. “Don’t get discouraged over failure.”

Lecture Series

To learn more about raised gardens, join James Evans at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Pot Town Organics, 181 W. King St., for a lecture series sponsored by the Lord Fairfax Soil & Water Conservation District.