Q. I have a bad back and am looking for some kind of raised bed (to grow vegetables and herbs) that won't require any bending. The space I have available is between 3' x 3' and 3' x 5'; and I'd ideally like something with wheels so I could move it around for optimum light. What do you recommend?
---Rosalie in Ardmore, PA.
A. I don't recommend that people with bad backs try and push heavy things around, so let's ditch the wheels. But I know for a fact that you can grow a surprising amount of stuff in a three by three foot space, because that's the size of an outdoor table I currently have covered with plants on our patio. It's part of a set we bought years ago; a circular wrought iron table with four chairs and an umbrella for the middle. You'll find similar pieces at every home store in the country.
Right now I have six rectangular containers on top of it. Each one is eighteen inches long and about six inches wide and high—the regular 'window box' style planters found at any garden center. I have some larger rectangular ones I could use instead but they're really heavy when they're full and so they stay on the ground. The 18 inch size is easy to lift, even when filled with plants and wet soil, and I like being able to move my containers without giving my aging back any bright ideas.
I 'drilled' extra drainage holes in the bottoms (I find that most window boxes don't have enough drainage holes, so I heat up the tip of an ice pick or screwdriver for a few seconds and use it to make extra ones). Then I filled them with a mixture of soil-free mix and compost (as any good container should be filled; no rocks or pebbles in the bottom and no lousy garden soil).
They're currently growing a lot of salad greens and pansies (which are pretty and edible), plus some spring bulbs I (successfully!) forced in a downstairs fridge. When the weather gets warmer, those cool-season plants will be replaced with herbs, peppers, little gourmet eggplants, bush string beans and summer flowers—like (also edible) nasturtiums, which should look great trailing over the side of the table. Arrange things well and you'll have enough room in the middle for a "Patio size" tomato plant in a round pot. Or position a cherry tomato in one of the rectangular planters so the vines trail over the side of the table. At the end of summer, the containers will go back to lettuce, spinach and pansies for the fall; productive for a good nine months of the year (longer for those in climes warmer than mine).
You can sit in one of the chairs to play with your plants or stand next to the table to tend and pick—whatever you feel like that day.
I grow more and more in containers that are up on easy-to-reach platforms like this every season, as I have long ago lost any love of bending over. A few years from now, I may only have big plants like full-size tomatoes and raspberries in the actual ground.
Q. I plant vegetable gardens professionally, and am installing a new raised bed that will be about 32" tall for a client who needs to be able to reach the plants standing up instead of bending over. I usually fill new beds with half compost and soil free mix, but in one of your previous Questions of the Week, you recommend filling the bottom of a tall bed like this with rocks and then soil on top. Is putting rocks in the bottom better than filling it all up with compost? I usually try to have two feet of compost/soil free mix in my beds. I would love to get your recommendation. I enjoy listening to your show while I work in the garden! Thank you,
---Autumn, near Walnut Creek; about 30 minutes east of San Francisco.
A. Years ago, I did suggest that someone building a super-tall 'sky high' bed put some kind of fill in the bottom, because the alternative seemed like a potentially expensive waste of good compost, and I was concerned about drainage issues. But I have since come to realize that there's no need to build a tower, with or without rocks. Such a structure would, by its very nature, be ungainly and prone to failure, and you can accomplish the same height goal with less weight, work and inputs by gardening in containers on table tops.
As the years creep up on us, more and more gardeners are going to need a way to tend their plants while either sitting down or standing up; and while helping design a garden that would be wheelchair accessible a few years back, the idea came to me. Find sturdy tables of the correct height that fit the space, cover the tops of the tables with rectangular containers filled with compost and soil-free mix and you'll be able to grow a huge diversity of plants without pain.
Think of picnic tables, or the wide variety of patio tables that are available in every shape and size. They're designed for outdoor use and are just at the right height. You could even position a big 17-inch pot on the ground at each end of a table and grow a couple of full-sized tomato plants. No more bending, no more weeding, everything at arm's height, easy to pick, easy to touch and smell.
Getting on in years? Got a concrete back yard? Renting or might have to move? Get some tables and containers and have the garden you want. Perhaps the garden of the future…