Boulders for raised beds?

katrinakApril 14, 2007

I'm not diagnosed yet, but my rheumatologist feels I may have a form of spinal arthritis that could eventually lead to fusion of the spine. Currently I have fairly decent range of motion (though I haven't been able to touch my toes since before high school) but I deal with varying levels of pain and fatigue. Also my knees cannot handle much kneeling. I'm thinking sitting may be the best position for gardening. I'm here looking for some input though. Vegetable gardening is my main concern as I can get my husband to help with the landscaping. He's just not enthusiastic enough to keep it up as much as a vegetable garden would need.

We recently moved onto our dream property, it's mostly lush Pacific Northwest forest except the especially rocky area where we placed the house. We do have great Southern exposure in our natural clearing. Even nature didn't want to grow big trees in these rocks! Rather than fighting the soil (or lack of), we are building raised beds. We plan to grow old here (I'm 31 years old), so all plans are long-term plans. Adding in the "aging-in-place" plan and the possible spinal arthritis, I'm hoping come up with a long-lasting gardening solution that will remain usable by me for many, many years.

I really don't want to rebuild wood planter boxes every 5-10 years! And I don't want to use anything that may leach into the soil like plastics, composite-lumber or concrete. So we are considering building raised beds with 12" boulders, just one stone high with no mortar between.

The plan is to sit (with a cushion) on the boulder edge for weeding, etc. I've determined I should be able to reach (without bending) halfway across a three foot bed (interior dimensions). But I wonder if I'm on the right track. I really don't have a good grasp of how spinal fusion may limit me. I'm hoping someone with some experience can critique my plan. Is this likely to still be accessible assuming the worst and I fused fairly severely? Should I plan for the eventual possibility of a raised-off-the-ground type of a bed that I can sit under, like a table at a chair? If so I may not go with something quite as permanant as the boulders for now. Should I create narrower beds than I can handle now, or is that a measurement that is likely to stay stable?

I cannot find any information about anyone doing vegetable gardening with boulder walls. Is there a reason nobody seems to be doing it? Is there something I have forgotton to think about? Am I going to have to make adjustments for the thermal mass of the boulders? Will the boulders help warm the soil in the spring or will they block the heat and keep the beds cooler? Am I in danger of "cooking" my plants in the heat of the summer? Here in the Pacific Northwest we are used to worrying about not enough drainage; but will I get too much drainage with boulder walls that are essentially open every 12" (with no mortar between stones)? If so I can adjust my soil mix inside for better water retention, correct?

I guess I branched into two distinct veins of questions. There's the possible spinal fusion and the ergonomics of a 12" high raised beds with wide sides for sitting. The other relates to the boulders themselves affecting the soil temperature etc. (would the latter be better on another forum?). Thank you for all your input!

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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

The trouble with sitting to garden is that you're 'side-on' to the work and cannot use your body fully.

The problem with 12" high is that it doesn't come at a useful bendy bit of your body.

Other than that - boulders do sink over time as you raise the soil level. They make lovely habitats for nibbling insects. Perennial weeds wiggle underneath and snigger as you try to root them out.

If you were to think about a 'double wall' of rocks - even like a dry stone wall with a gap between for a soil infill, set so the inside space is about 3' across and set to catch the sun. About as high as where your legs join your body. That way you can lean against it while working.

Table top gardening using something like glasshouse staging for growing the smaller versions of vegies. I've noticed that many of my senior gardener friends are growing more of the gourmet foods than the bulk 'feed the family' crops. Many of them don't need the sheer space required for crops such as potatoes. Cut and come again crops don't need vast space - just good soil, warmth and reliable water.

Aside: if you think about installing a covered area and hard paths now you'll be willing to go out to garden for much longer, even when less agile than now. A glasshouse, or protected area, is wonderful for pottering and thinking and tinkering. Just be sure it's big enough to allow for a walking frame or seat. It probably won't need heating if you have it set to catch much of the winter sun.

As soon as you're comfortable with the notion - look for ways to do your vegie gardening in 'unconventional' ways to get the crops you use the most.

And, if you're planning to have fruit trees - think dwarf and espallier - and making them part of your landscaping layout as attractive, airy space dividers. Much easier to care for and harvest from.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2007 at 9:57PM
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oakleif(z6 AR)

I live in the Ozarks and all my beds have boulders and larger rocks for sides of my beds. I do wish i had made beds narower(Maybe 2') and maybe abt 2' high. All my paths are wide enough for a wheelchair too. Rocks do retain heat and help in cold weather but don't seem to hurt in hot weather. I have arthritis in hips not spine.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2007 at 5:06AM
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Most of the information I have read about raised beds for greater accessibility say 24" (for sitting) to 30" high (for standing) and 2' across if you can only access them from one side or 4' if you can access from both. Vetivert8 made a good point, if you aren't careful and make it so you are sitting sideways, it might hurt your back more after a while. If your hips, knees, ankles and feet are fine, you might want to consider building the raised bed high enough for you to stand and access it comfortably. Or consider whether sitting on a seat in front of it might work well too.

I suppose it would make more sense to start shorter and if that doesn't work out, you can always add to the wall.

oaklief is right, you shouldn't worry about the boulders burning up your plants in the summer.

    Bookmark   September 5, 2007 at 2:20AM
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ninjabut(USDA z 8,CA)

You might want to lok into the "square foot gardening" forum. This is good for not having to reach alot.
I built my raised beds before my back went whacky and had to put a path down the middle of the bed so I wouldn't have to reach as much.
Also think about taller plants. My tomatoes were way above my head in the raised bed, resulting in reaching, which is a no no! Sigh.
So, my suggestion is to figure out what veges you want, figure out how much you can reach in, figure out how much you can reach UP, and then HIRE someone to make it happen! LOL

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 10:54PM
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