Raised beds transform an empty lot into a productive garden

Mel Monsen’s garden is to vegetables what the perfect closet is to clothes: everything has its place. Vegetables grow in neat raised beds by kind ― tomatoes in one bed, green beans in another, pumpkins in yet another. There’s a place for growing raspberries (along the fence), a place for compost (in the corner), a place to hang the hose and to mount a rain gauge (by the retaining wall), and a place for fruit trees (beside the entry trellis). Decorative trellises dotting the garden are home to climbing roses, clematis, and sweet peas.

But the best part about Monsen’s garden is that he did the work himself, transforming part of the empty lot behind his new house in Anchorage, Alaska into a productive vegetable garden in just four months. The four-step plan below shows how he did it and, in the process, gave new meaning to the expression starting from scratch.

Working in his garage, Monsen built 22 raised beds of varying widths and lengths. He also built the trellises. Then he planted. A few tricks (see below) helped his garden grow.

Four easy steps to bountiful raised beds

1. Build raised beds. Monsen used cedar 2-by-8s set on edge and capped with flat 2-by-4s. Most of the beds measure 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and are 10 inches deep. Also build trellises.

2. Prepare the soil. Use a rented rotary tiller if necessary to turn soil. Move the raised beds and trellises into place. In gopher country, line the beds with chicken wire or hardware cloth to keep the critters from nibbling plant roots.

3. Build retaining walls and paths. Monsen used 4-by-6s set on sides to edge two sides of the garden. For paths, he covered the ground with black plastic sheeting and topped it with a 3-inch layer of gravel.

4. Fill beds with soil, then plant. Monsen used a rich mix of commercial soil, compost, and well-rotted horse manure, then blended in some granular fertilizer (8-32-16). He planted nursery seedlings, giving the largest beds to the crops that need room to ramble.

Monsen’s secrets

Mulch. To warm the soil for heat-loving crops (necessary in cool climates), Monsen covers it with infrared-transmitting plastic sheeting. He cuts slits in the plastic and plants seedlings through the slits. For added heat, he fills clear 1-liter plastic beverage bottles with tea and lays them atop the plastic over the plants’ root zones. The dark liquid absorbs solar heat during the day and releases it at night.

Row covers. If spring and summer weather is chilly, Monsen covers beds with row cover, a lightweight spun fabric that transmits light and holds in heat. It’s available by the roll at nurseries.

Crop rotation. To keep diseases at bay, Monsen never grows the same crop in the same bed more than once in a three-year period. Each year he makes a map of what was planted in each bed.