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Americas new favorite pastime
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The M Brace, from Outdoor Essentials, make constructing a raised garden bed simple. No too is needed — just add wood and soil and you’re ready to plant your favorite vegetables or flowers. - photo by Photo Contributed
More than 41 million Americans planted vegetable gardens in 2009 - a number expected to increase as food costs climb, according to a recent Gardening Trends Research Report. When you factor in flowers, herbs and fruits, it’s difficult to find a home where people are not working the soil on a warm sunny day.

Aside from the obvious benefits of fresh flowers and produce, gardening provides low-impact, calorie-burning exercise. One hour of gardening burns about 375 calories. While love of gardening has not changed, methods continue to evolve - and one of the top trends is raised-bed gardening.

Tending a raised bed requires less bending and stooping, and is ideal for yards with poor soil. Rather than working to improve heavy clay soil or adding body to sandy soil, you’re starting with a clean slate. Raised beds are particularly useful for community gardens and urban gardens in areas with compacted or root-bound soil.

“Ninety percent of success is the prep work done ahead of planting,’’ says Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, Wis.” This includes finding a location that gets six to eight hours of direct sun each day.

Once the site is chosen, determine the size of your garden. A first-timer should start small - don’t overwhelm yourself with a massive plot. Start with one or two raised garden beds measuring 4 feet by 8 feet. Select a location that offers room to grow, should you choose to expand your garden in subsequent years.

No matter what size raised bed you choose, the frame needs to be structurally sound and attractive. Helping to fill this niche is the durable, decorative M Brace raised garden bed bracket from Outdoor Essentials. The patented, corner bracket, sold in sets of four, lets you create an attractive, sturdy raised garden bed in just minutes using common 2-by-6 and 2-by-4 lumber and no tools. The M Brace’s sturdy, recycled metal frame keeps boards seated securely at the corners. It’s available in eight cut-out designs, and two finishes - steel that will rust gracefully over time, or powder-coated in an antique bronze finish.

Once the frame is in place, fill the raised box with quality soil. Garden centers offer bulk and bagged soil mixes. Or create your own blend, using equal parts peat moss, coarse-grade vermiculite and blended compost.

Create pathways to your garden or build an adjacent sitting area with Tiffany-style stepping-stones from Outdoor Essentials (  Serpentine jade or handcrafted Tiffany-style jade stepping stones lend visual appeal to your garden and protect soil and plants from being trampled.

To keep deer, rabbits and other critters at bay, consider a decorative enclosure using end caps and lattice. Fence posts 4-by-4 inches or 6-by-6 inches are ideal. Once fence posts are set, enclose the garden with decorative lattice, leaving a narrow opening or a hinged gate for access.

Make your enclosed garden an eye-catching centerpiece by topping off the end posts with elegant Planter Post Caps. The decorative caps, available in two styles and colors, add dimension and color to the garden. Caps are available in square or round designs, with a black or copper finish. Plant colorful flowers or trailing vines in the post cap planters to create horizontal interest.

The key to a bountiful harvest - be it fruits, vegetables or flowers - is successful pollination. Brightly colored flowers attract bees and hummingbirds, as will fresh water. Add a luminous green birdbath in serpentine jade to attract birds all summer and to provide an architectural focal point inside your garden.

“Think outside the box,” says Dwyer. Add a few herbs - or anything you want - to make the garden uniquely yours. And don’t discount edible landscape ornamentals: “Many fresh herbs and vegetables can contribute their own charm to an informal border or container,’’ he adds.

Whether for a relaxing hobby or for the desire to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables for you and your neighbors, now is the perfect time to start a garden of your own.