The president's wife, who planted vegetables on the south lawn of the White House shortly after the family moved in, has revamped this year's garden by using raised beds.
White House officials said the boxes would prevent erosion and make it easier for volunteer weeders to identify the borders of the garden. But the high profile of the White House vegetable garden should give raised beds the attention they deserve, especially among rookie vegetable gardeners.
"Raised beds are not a new concept," said Frank Oliver of Gardener's Supply Company, which sells an extensive collection of raised beds and the prefabricated corners that allow gardeners to construct their own out of lumber.
"Gardeners have been making raised beds for centuries. They are perfect for the gardener who doesn't want to till or who has very poor soil."
Raised beds can be placed anywhere in the yard where there is at least six hours of sunlight, and they can be any size and in any number. Gardeners can start small, with one measuring perhaps a yard square, and add more beds in future seasons.
All the gardener has to do to create a fertile vegetable patch is to line the bottom of the bed with newspapers to smother grass and weeds and fill the bed with equal parts top soil and bagged compost.
"It is real easy," said Oliver. "I would say that if you went out and talked to 10 average gardeners 10 years ago, they would all have said, 'I have my tiller and I garden in the ground.' Now, I would guess 50 percent have raised beds."
Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville said she installed a raised bed when she couldn't get into her soil because of tree roots. "More and more people are getting into them," she said. "Now they are made with safer woods and plastics."
Because raised beds can be expensive, ranging in price from $40 to nearly $300, Stephanie Fleming, owner of Behnke's Nursery in Beltsville, contracted with Amish carpenters to make raised bed kits of oak that sell for $49.95 and measure 4 feet square.
Even larger raised beds are generally only 3 or 4 feet wide, which allows gardeners to weed and harvest from the margins, without stepping into the beds and compressing the soil, driving out valuable air pockets.
Raised beds have another advantage for the beginner gardener. They make it easy to employ a gardening method called "square-foot gardening," a practice of close planting popularized in the 1990s by author Mel Bartholomew to conserve garden space and increase productivity.
Using the techniques outlined in his books, "Square-Foot Gardening" and "All New Square-Foot Gardening," gardeners can easily divide their raised beds into 12-inch squares and plant each square with a different favorite crop. The number of plants in each square depends on the size of the plant.
"I like cantaloupe," said Engel from Valley View Farms. "But I only need two plants, not a whole seed pack."
On its website, Gardener's Supply has a garden planning tool that will show you exactly how many spinach plants (nine) and how many tomato plants (one) can be planted in each square. The company predicts that a 3-by-3-foot raised bed can produce 162 pounds of tomatoes, 54 eggplants, 100 peppers, 50 pounds of melons and 53 pounds of potatoes.
"Raised beds make executing [Bartholomew's] ideas so much easier," said Oliver.
Raised beds come with liners and legs, too. Liners allow gardeners to plant on decks, patios or driveways. And legs raise the bed to a comfortable height — an advantage for the older gardener.
And the fact that they are above the cold ground allows gardeners to plant earlier in the season. The sides are often made of a recycled plastic which absorbs sunlight and warms the bed, too.