Why You Should Have a Holding Bed

Sometimes a new plant just isn’t quite ready for the potentially punishing conditions of an open garden with its typically less-than-ideal soil, exposure to weather extremes, and vulnerability to marauding animals. The solution is the gardening equivalent of a hospital newborn unit – a “holding bed.”

A holding bed is a protected area of the yard that’s improved with rich, loose soil and used as a temporary home to a vulnerable plant.

Given a few months to a season or two to develop roots and foliage under these coddled conditions, plants usually come out better suited to withstand a transplant into their permanent homes.

Why you should have a holding bed

  1. They allow young new plants time to grow to a better transplantable size. This can save money by allowing you to buy smaller sizes than you might otherwise buy if planting directly in permanent garden homes.
  2. They give you a quick option to get any new plant into the ground and growing until you decide where you want to plant it permanently.
  3. They give time to nurse plants back to health that you got on a bargain or out-of-bloom table at the garden center.
  4. They give a home to perennials you’ve dug and/or divided but aren’t quite sure yet where to use them.
  5. They give protected rooting time to cuttings you’ve taken of winter-hardy shrubs and trees.
  6. They provide a dedicated space for seeds that need cold scarification/stratification over winter in order to germinate in spring (butterfly weed, larkspur, and lupines, for example).
  7. They give you time to identify unlabeled finds from the garden center or unknown plants given as gifts from friends and neighbors.
  8. They give time and a place to grow out plants that you found popping up in the yard. Is it a weed or a volunteer wildflower?

Creating a holding bed

Be sure to site holding beds out of the wind and close to a water source since you’ll have to water your young plants a little more often than mature ones.

1. Build a raised planting area roughly 6-8 inches deep.

Holding beds don’t have to be big. You can pack plants way closer than usual in them since they’ll be there only for a year or so – and maybe less.

The beds can be any length you like, but four feet is a good maximum for the width so you can reach into either side without having to walk into the bed, thereby compressing the loose soil.

2. Create a frame around the planting area with 6-inch wide rot-resistant boards, paver stones, bricks, or cinder blocks

3. Combine existing soil with 2-3 inches of compost (rotten leaves, coconut coir, and similar organic materials).

The goal is to create loose, rich, and very well-drained soil that’s akin to the potting mixes used to grow container plants.

4. Add your new plants.

The loose, compost-rich soil in a holding bed is much more conducive to root growth than most garden soils. These beds also insulate the roots and reduce the water needed when compared to plants in their pots on a deck, patio, or other above-ground location.

You’ll get the best root growth by removing the plants from their nursery pots before planting them in a holding bed. But even if you sink the plants' pots and all, they’ll get better protection than letting them exposed to the air as fall turns into winter.

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