Sunday, July 8, 2012

Railing Against Raised Bed Orthodoxy

Earlier this year, I said something about un-raised beds. At the time, no allusions were made to the religious overtones--phoenix, messiah, or otherwise-- of the "raised" bed, and there will be no comment here other than to say I like the bumper sticker, rarely and courageously displayed in Born Again counties, that says "No thanks, I was born OK the first time."

Because today, sisteren and brotheren, let us instead turn our eyes to the earth, humble ourselves, and ask, "What do we when we pen our gardens in raised beds?" The answers speak to the soil, the people who would control it, and to their politics. That's right, this siblinglish English seeks not to sweet-talk your sacred center, it's after your political skin, the dermal you that touches the world, what everyone else is gonna see and feel.

In this physical plane, we can be good animals who adopt and adapt, or crazy ones who try to control, and end up starving. Not you personally (maybe), but the species at some point. When human populations reach a certain density, misery ensues on the coat-tails of a flea or a leader of men or maybe just a drought. 

Before the fall, we convince ourselves that we are smart enough to avoid the fate of the desertified Fertile Crescent and pauperized Aegean soils, or the overtaxed Yucatan and raped Rapanui palms. We thing that agriculture is better than nature, and never learn that as soon as we seek to select, to replace god or evolution with human intellect, things spin out of control, and one day land at a place where we humans are screwed if we cannot go elsewhere. Especially when we reach too far; take as an example the corporate American agricultural ideal: a single genetically-modified strain drilled into fumigated soil, fed aquifers, augmented with chemical feed and protection. What could go wrong?

All of which is my long-winded, overly-dramatic, tired-as-shit, fingers-doing-whatever-they-want on the keyboard way of saying that raised beds fool a lot of gardeners with promises of miracles that will one day be ground into the dirt.

Why would I besmirch the sterling reputation of the raised bed? People love 'em, and talk about getting great production, the ease (it's getting hard to concntrate here with a Cobain crazed jam going on).

By way of answer, this list of the characteristics of raised beds that you are not likely to see in the article with all those pretty pictures urging you to get out there and raise a bed (or better yet, buy one):
  • Use untreated wood, and you'll be repairing the thing every year. Seems like a waste of wood, unless you pulled it from a demolished building (in which case, watch out for the lead paint), which leads me to
  • Use treated wood, and you're putting your gardening taste (and quite possibly your desire to cut corners) above the health of the soil that you are asking to feed you. And, therefore, your health. This is especially troubling because
  • Most raised beds don't last more than a few seasons. I admit that this statement is not backed up with data here, but there are a lot of neglected, abandoned, and ultimately forgotten raised beds. 
  • When a raised bed dies, it often becomes a nursery for invasive weeds. They spread into the driveways and roadsides, and into neighbor's gardens. The un-tended raised bed often becomes a haven for weeds because
  • Very few people make raised beds using the native soil. Often as not, they dump "soil" that fails to meet the actual definition of soil, comprised hereabouts of composted wood and food, bearing no relation to the stuff under the grass in your yard. Even if it does not carry a crop of weed-seeds, it is just what the invasive weeds want. You know why a certain wine appellation or coffee estate can make genuine claim to excellence? It's the soil there, the delicate balance of microbes, worms, and arthropods that stir it up. That does not come in a dump-truck.
  • Speaking of arthropods, every time you install a rectangle of cinderblock or boards, you create ant havens. By way of thanks, they will repay you by opening aphid dairies on your plants, sucking honey shit from bugs sucking your plants dry. 
  • Not speaking of dry, those same boards and masonry create slug havens as well, and I'm assuming you know that that ain't good for a garden. IF slugs are a problem, it's good to lay a board down in the path and turn it over once in a while to dispatch a few slime-bellies, but don't build a freakin bed for them.
  • This idea of an unchanging perimeter is hardening, not gardening. My bedds ebb and floww with the seasons. As plants grow, I dig out more grass so they can expand. If you hill up potatoes in a raised bed, you either have to bring in more fake soil or pull it away from the edges, which end up being pointless free-standing walls.
  • Not only is changing the size of a raised bed difficult, so too is moving the damn thing when the neighbor's tree grows and puts the original location in shadow.
  • ...  
There are plenty more reasons, but it's late and even though the music is done I am getting no better at concentrating. If you are not convinced by now, you're probably not reading this far anyway. If you are, stay tuned, because next time I'll get back to the benefits of another approach to garden beds. Much better than that March post, I promise.


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