Out here in the country, almost everyone has a garden. With the rising cost of food and gas, it’s a necessity for some. When I went to the post the other day to ship some orders, all anyone could talk about was their garden.

Here’s my veggie garden in progress. It took almost four years to set this up the way I wanted it. It’s about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide.

Almost everything in this garden has been set in raised beds.

I tried in-ground gardening the first year or so, but the losses to vermin were terrible, and the maintenance even worse. Adding raised beds, barrels, and pots greatly increased productivity and ease of care.

The big barrels are from local wineries. They cost a fortune in the city, but ours came cheap. However, they are very difficult to cut, so if you don’t have the tools, forget it. Of course, you must rotate the crop every three years, so while a few of mine have harbored potatoes, this year they will have flowers instead.

At first, my dad made my raised beds for me, because the commercial raised bed kits were so expensive. But last year, Sam’s Club began carrying sturdy plastic beds which clip together in minutes. They cost almost half what making them from scratch costs, and they last longer.

Even expensive, treated wood can’t compete with plastic. With wood, there is also the danger the seller will try to pass off safe wood for treated wood containing arsenic. So, the plastic beds are safer and better in every way.

Here’s a direct link to the Sam’s Club order page. I bought mine in the spring for $38 each, but a quantity went on sale in the fall for only $26 each. I’ve seen similar units for sale in catalogues for $70 or more, not including shipping.

This is also a great deal for the urban gardener, since you can create an instant garden space without tilling. You can also buy two units, clip one on top of the other, and grow root veggies like potatoes and carrots with ease.

For added protection, I usually add a wire cage beneath the beds to prevent moles and voles from burrowing into them. As you see, the entire area is covered with kill mulch. This helps cut down on weeds, especially the pesky ones which like to grow in the cracks and crevices around the raised beds.

A wire cage bent over the unit also allows me to place row covers neatly over the beds. This green plastic cover is especially created for cool weather vegetables like lettuces and cabbage. This small unit is a secondary garden near the kitchen. The main vegetable garden is down the lane near the stream where I can hand carry water when the well is low.

Warm weather causes some veggies to grow bitter and to bolt: that is, to go to flower. Clip off the little flower bud heads and eat them, which will extend the growing season of many cool weather veggies. The flower buds of kale and collards taste of sweet cabbage.

One raised bed with the garden soil you will need to buy to fill it, will cost less than $100. Depending on what you choose to grow, you may harvest $500 worth of fresh produce per bed. I routinely harvest 30lbs or more of fresh heirloom tomatoes per plant. At over $3 per pound, that’s almost $720 worth of fresh tomatoes out of one 4’x8′ box. Even if you can’t can your own veggies, those tomatoes will make pound after pound of delicious sauce, which you can freeze.

BTW: unless you know what you are doing, do not buy top soil for your beds. Buy potting soil. It’s more expensive, but I’ve had terrible luck with poor quality top soil.

Grow basil right there in the same box as your tomatoes. It naturally repels white fly and others pests, and you’ll have all the basil you need for your pasta recipes instead of dropping $3 per bunch for fresh basil at the grocery. The basil also blooms beautifully. Harvest the seeds for next year, and you’ll never need to buy another packet of the stuff.

After the first year, the maintenance on each bed will only run about $20 per annum, even less if you do your own composting. One bag of humus, and one bag of well rotted manure will give a 4’x4′ box all the nutrients you need for planting another year, and they cost about $4 each.

Don’t be afraid to use manure in your garden beds. I know you’ve all heard horror stories about e coli from commercial nurseries. The short of it is many of these nurseries utilize poorly trained labor, some of whom do not exercise proper personal hygiene. The e coli is not necessarily coming from the fertilizer manure. If you know what I mean.

A commercial nursery without proper oversight may also use fresh manure, which is dangerous, and a major source of e coli.

Quality commercial manure is well rotted, sometimes for a couple of years. This process breaks down the bacteria, and creates a nutrient-rich, natural source of food for your plants. I’ve used manure in my garden for years, all aged for two years or more, and it’s more valuable than gold to the gardener!

This year, I’ve also decided to try Weedguard, a compostable paper mulch. It fits almost perfectly in the raised beds. I plant my seeds in the little holes, as you see here.

Even the most carefully monitored garden will get weeds. I’ll try anything to avoid spending my summer months plucking ground ivy from around my beans. I’ve never used this product before, and I’ll post a success report later. You can achieve similar results with newspaper, but this was much easier to handle, so I like it already.

BTW, never use color newspaper pages in your garden. Color ink can be toxic.

Sometimes it’s fine to let your food plants go to seed. On the whole I don’t recommend it, because your beds may be more productive if you rotate your crops. If you can get $100 worth of produce with a second crop, it’s foolish to wait for plants to go to seed which you can buy for $1.

That said, I let my celery go to seed last year, because it was so pretty, and the butterflies loved it. As you can see, the result is, a lot of celery volunteers! The little plants are delicious and peppery. Clip them and throw them into salads to allow the healthiest plants to grow into stalks.

You should always have some flowers in your vegetable garden. As you can see in these photos, I have tulips, daffodils and roses, as well as many herbs. You need to feed the bees and birds, or your veggies won’t produce. We encourage the native bee population with mason bee nests, which are inexpensive and easy to set up. You can buy them here.