It’s cold. And it’s wet and it has been so for a very long time. Such conditions spell doom for seeds and seedlings. But we have one gardening method that can help to circumvent cold, wet conditions.

Raised beds allow the soil in them to warm faster than soil in the ground and they also provide good drainage. These two qualities go a long way toward combating the effects of a cold, damp climate.

And while any raised bed, no matter the style, can help gardeners achieve their goals, some innovative gardeners take this a step further and build raised beds that are so efficient that crops planted in them germinate earlier and last longer. One such gardener, Ed Walsh of Columbia Falls, has come up with the perfect raised-bed design.

Walsh has built a series of state-of-the-art raised beds that allow him and his family to have fresh vegetables well into late fall and again in early spring. While most of us are still waiting for warm weather to begin tilling and planting, he is already reaping the fruits of his labor.

Some varieties, such as spinach, continue through the winter in Walsh's raised beds. And while the spinach doesn’t experience much growth in winter, it persists throughout the cold months, giving the Walshes fresh, leafy green veggies all winter long.

The design

One aspect of Walsh's raised beds impressed me greatly. The beds are high enough that there is no need to bend while working in them. This does away with stiff backs and wet, muddy knees.

If that were the only benefit from these beds, it would be enough. But this is only the beginning. By fitting the beds with hoops made of flexible plastic piping, he can then cover the beds with clear plastic. This holds heat inside the bed, so each bed serves as a mini-greenhouse. And when temperatures finally do warm up, it’s easy enough to remove the plastic covers.

And when the plastic comes off, it’s time to apply deer netting. This effectively prevents predation by marauding deer and makes unnecessary the application of liquid pest repellents. Both the covers and netting are held in place by 2-by-4s fitted into slots running the length of both sides of a bed. When the time comes to remove any covering, Walsh just lifts the 2-by-4s and off come the covers. Perfectly simple, but on the other hand, hardly anyone builds raised beds with this feature.

Other styles

Not everyone has the wherewithal to construct raised beds like Walsh’s. But as mentioned earlier, any raised bed will serve the purpose of lifting crops off the ground so that the soil dries out and warms up sooner than in in-ground beds.

Some people simply fashion squares or rectangles of grade 3 pine boards. These work fine for a few seasons, but after that, quickly rot, necessitating  new boards. Better to use boards or timbers made of either cedar or hemlock, both of which are quite weather-resistant and will last for many years before they need to be replaced.

I’ve seen raised beds made with pressure-treated lumber and that sets off alarms in most people’s minds. The chemicals used in pressure-treated stock can leach into the soil. There are ways around such problems, though.

First, the chemicals used today in pressure-treated lumber are different from those used in earlier versions, in that modern pressure-treated stuff is far safer than the older material. And because of that, it doesn’t last as long as the older stuff, but all the same, it lasts longer than other materials.

Getting on with using pressure-treated lumber, it is possible to further reduce any chemical exposure by simply leaving the lumber out in the weather for a season, turning it occasionally in order to expose all surfaces to the elements. After that, pressure-treated material can be used in raised beds. It helps to treat the lumber with a non-toxic paint, too, since that will help to prevent chemical leaching.

A final safety measure is to not plant near the edges. Any leachate will remain near the lumber and won’t migrate throughout the soil. So just allow at least 10 inches from the edges and pressure-treated lumber shouldn’t present a problem.

In the end, Walsh has designed the ultimate raised bed. But keep in mind that any raised bed will make for a longer gardening season and in Midcoast Maine, where winter lingers into spring and spring often hesitates to yield to summer, that is of the utmost importance.