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For gardeners throughout Maine, the long wait begins. Garden tools lean against the basement wall as seed catalogs pile up on the writing table. Thoughts turn to the year ahead and, for some, to starting their first vegetable garden.

As a would-be vegetable gardener, the first decision is where to site the garden. Think sun. Most vegetable crops require a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sun each day. The only exceptions are the leafy greens, including lettuce and spinach, which can manage with a little less sunlight. If you are assessing likely garden sites now, remember that surrounding deciduous trees will cast far-reaching shade during the growing season.

Think excellent drainage. The soil in your future vegetable garden must be loose and well-drained. Examine each possible site on the day after a soaking spring rain. Are there any wet areas, puddles of standing water? Eliminate from consideration any site that does not drain well, once the ice is out of the ground. And to ensure that your new vegetable garden has excellent drainage, I recommend building raised beds as discussed below.

What about garden size? Some first-year vegetable gardeners may want to start very small, perhaps a garden only 10-by-10-feet (100 square feet), and expand the garden over time.

Others may be bolder. A garden 20-by-20-feet (400 square feet) will grow a wide range of crops including those that hog space, such as corn and winter squash. Even a garden 12-by-16-feet (nearly 200 square feet) will grow a lot of food, particularly if you train vining crops such as cucumbers to grow on trellises. Of course, the requirement for lots of sun and excellent drainage may limit the garden’s size or result in two or more smaller vegetable gardens in the larger landscape.

Once the location has been determined, make a plan, a scale drawing of your future garden on graph paper. Use paper with ¼-inch squares, each square representing one square foot of garden space. Orient the garden so that the future beds run east to west.

In spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, you will translate your plan into a real garden, driving wooden stakes into each of the four corners of the garden, then rototilling or digging the garden by hand, turning over the soil and removing existing vegetation before creating the raised beds.

The case for raised beds

There are several good reasons to garden in raised beds, but for many gardeners in Maine the compelling reason is that our gardens sit on barely buried granite ledge, leaving us with little topsoil in which to grow. This is the case in Marjorie’s garden; in most spots we can’t drive a stake more than a few inches into the ground before striking a shelf of stone.

As mentioned earlier, growing in raised beds helps compensate for less-than-optimum drainage after hard rains. Raised beds also dry out quickly in spring, allowing for an early start with cool-season crops such as peas, lettuce and spinach. And they hold the sun’s warmth longer at day’s end and in the fall — a real boon to northern gardeners trying to grow heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, melons and summer squash.

A few of the raised beds in Marjorie’s garden have wooden frames, the rest buttressed with large rocks, of which there are always plenty. The beds average about three feet in width and vary in length from several yards to just a few feet, their top surfaces slightly narrowed to minimize erosion. The adjacent pathways are about two-feet wide.

You can be creative when framing raised beds, using logs, stones, cinder blocks, corrugated tin or wood. Start construction by tilling the garden area to improve drainage under the raised beds, then mark out each bed with stakes and string or with the framing materials.

Shovel topsoil from adjacent pathways onto each bed, adding screened loam if needed, then dig in 2-4 inches of compost and rake the soil level. When finished, each bed should rise about 8 inches above the adjacent pathways. Finish by defining the walkways around your beds with wood chips or straw.

You should be able to plant, fertilize, weed and harvest each bed from the walkways, avoiding compaction of the soil and improving drainage while allowing air, water and the sun’s warmth to reach plant roots. We mulch with compost every year, increasing the height of each bed until some of the soil inevitably slides back into the walkways. Every few years we have to shovel this errant soil back where it belongs. One year we ended up with a surplus, enough to start a new raised bed and fill in some of the holes Reilly the Brittany had made in her endless pursuit of chipmunks.

Growing vegetables and small fruits in raised beds doubles the space available for crop plants. The difference is in plant spacing; raised bed gardeners use “in-row” spacing throughout the planting area, eliminating the “between row” space. In raised beds, the plants form a “living mulch” over the soil, holding in moisture and shading out weeds.

Next week, looking ahead: Developing a planting plan for the vegetable garden.

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