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Rebuilding After the Hurricanes: These Solar Homes Use Almost No Energy

Builders of prefabricated, zero-energy homes built for storm resilience have seen a spike in calls, particularly from the Florida Keys and Virgin Islands.

A quarter of homes in the Florida Keys are estimated to have been destroyed by Hurricane Irma. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Modular-home builders have been drawing interest in their net-zero-energy, solar-equipped houses in the aftermath of this summer’s hurricanes. Credit: Vermod

The scope of the damage to mobile home parks and older neighborhoods along America’s hurricane-ravaged coasts is enormous. More than 15,500 homes were destroyed in Texas alone, and the count hasn’t even begun in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.

The homeowners who plan to stay face a choice: They can rebuild what they had before, knowing the warming climate will bring more devastating storms, or they can build for energy efficiency and resilience. The decision often comes down to cost, but an innovative type of post-disaster construction is creating new options.

In the Asheville, North Carolina, offices of Deltec Homes—one of several builders of prefabricated, energy efficient houses—the phones have been ringing insistently with questions about the hurricane-resistant, net-zero-energy homes the company manufactures and ships around the world. The homes are designed to reduce energy loss and are built ready for solar panels to allow customers to go off-grid and still power up when the grid goes down in a storm.

The company has seen a rise in interest in the past month, from the Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys in particular, company President Steve Linton said. “It’s an insane jump,” he said.

Nearly a decade ago, net-zero-energy homes were rare, usually custom-built for wealthy homeowners who wanted to incorporate energy efficient appliances and rooftop solar panels. Now, that’s starting to shift: within the last year, the zero-energy home market has grown 33 percent, said Shilpa Sankaran, executive director of the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.

“That’s a tiny fraction of new home construction, but in terms of growth, we’re seeing the kind of numbers solar saw in its early days in 2011 and 2012,” she said.

For that market to really take off, net-zero homes have to become cheaper—particularly in low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. That’s a challenge companies like Deltec are trying to meet by designing modular, prefabricated, net-zero homes that reduce energy usage, cut costs and can withstand extreme weather and power outages.

“Nobody wants to see a repeat of damage that’s been done [by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria], and scientists said certainly it was worse because of climate change,” Sankaran said. “If that’s the case, not only do we need buildings that won’t exacerbate the problem, but also ones that last longer.”

Vermont’s Zero-Energy Storm Recovery

Prefabricated, zero-energy homes became a go-to storm response in Vermont after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The storm’s remnants dumped as much as 11 inches of rain in some areas and flooded hundreds of buildings. Mobile home parks were the hardest hit: more than 500 were damaged or destroyed. While they only make up 7 percent of Vermont’s housing stock, mobile homes comprised 15 percent of those damaged during the storm.

After the floodwaters receded, a group of local developers and affordable housing experts launched Vermod, a company that designs and builds affordable zero-energy modular homes, to help low-income communities recover from the storm.

“That storm was a really valuable catalyst to action for these issues simmering in the back of people’s minds, but weren’t taking precedence,” said Phoebe Howe, program coordinator for Efficiency Vermont, an organization that worked with Vermod to finance and design the homes.

Vermod designed zero-net-energy homes after Hurricane Irene for to replace mobile homes destroyed by flooding. Credit: Vermod Homes

Vermod designed zero-net-energy homes after Hurricane Irene for to replace mobile homes destroyed by flooding. Credit: Vermod Homes

Using eco-friendly materials and energy efficient appliances, the company built modest, modular net-zero energy homes to replace 75 mobile homes around the state. An average two-bedroom, two-bathroom home costs around $115,000 if the buyers qualify for certain incentives and tax credits, Howe said.

Last year, Vermod revamped an abandoned mobile home park, building net-zero homes that it rented out to 14 low-income families. It’s also helping a developer in Delaware work on a similar modular home project.

The case for going net-zero is convincing for many lower-income people, who can spend up to 35 percent of their budget on home energy expenses, Howe said. The bigger issue is convincing developers to shift their business models.

Howe said Vermod’s projects are easily transferrable to other states; they’re primarily funded through U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grants and various housing trust funds. For areas like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where entire communities are destroyed and parts of the grid are down indefinitely, that model could be a way to rebuild in a cheaper, more climate-friendly and resilient way.

Tricks to Energy Efficiency in Pre-Fab Homes

With so much need for new housing, net-zero-energy homebuilders are increasing their outreach to hurricane-damaged regions.

Deltec is trying to establish a bigger presence in hurricane-prone areas like coastal Texas. In Lawrence, Kansas, a company called BuildSmart is seeing a higher demand for its prefabricated wall panels, in part because many local builders are leaving to work on projects along the Gulf Coast. Other developers of zero-energy, prefabricated homes have cropped up in the last few years, from California to Minnesota to Florida.

One of Deltec's designs has rounded walls for hurricane resilience. Credit: Deltec Homes

One of Deltec’s designs has rounded walls for hurricane resilience. Credit: Deltec Homes

Prefabricated homes are manufactured in a factory then assembled on-site. In this controlled indoor setting, builders avoid weather that could harm building materials or slow construction time. Windows and corners can be made to fit together more precisely, boosting energy efficiency. And there’s potential to manufacture homes by the hundreds, rather than one at a time.

Cost Comparison for Zero-Energy Modular Homes

Deltec’s prefabricated zero-energy homes have thick walls that reduce the amount of energy lost through windows and cracks — where 25 to 40 percent of a typical home’s energy is wasted, Linton said. Usually, they’re built with passive solar and energy storage systems attached, or wired and oriented to be solar-ready for when a customer can afford to make the jump off-grid. The net-zero collection uses two-thirds less energy than a typical home, with the remaining third provided by solar or other renewable energy production.

“It’s built at a standard that’s going to essentially last for hundreds of years compared to decades for a stick-built home,” Linton said, adding that he hopes the recent hurricanes “wake people up to the realities of what we have to design against.”

Encouraging a Shift to Zero-Energy Homes

To catalyze the growth in energy efficient housing, there’s been a recent push for zero-energy building codes at both the state and city levels: California’s goal is to have all new residential buildings be net-zero by 2020; Massachusetts is requiring all new buildings to be 100 percent net-zero-energy and existing buildings to cut emissions by half by 2030.

Meeting these ambitious climate goals will take an economic and cultural shift, industry experts say. For instance, banks have to be willing to offer home loans to cover the upfront costs of net-zero-energy development, said Joe Emerson, founder of nonprofit Zero Energy Project. Better incentives for rooftop solar and cheaper energy storage will also help make net-zero-energy homes an affordable option.

“It’s absolutely possible to do this in coastal regions and hurricane and earthquake regions,” Sankaran said. “It’s not rocket science, it just needs to be part of the process.”


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UPCOMING EVENT

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Those 3% of scientific papers that deny climate change? A review found them all flawed

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Hard to deny (Reuters/Stringer)

It’s often said that of all the published scientific research on climate change, 97% of the papers conclude that global warming is real, problematic for the planet, and has been exacerbated by human activity.

But what about those 3% of papers that reach contrary conclusions? Some skeptics have suggested that the authors of studies indicating that climate change is not real, not harmful, or not man-made are bravely standing up for the truth, like maverick thinkers of the past. (Galileo is often invoked, though his fellow scientists mostly agreed with his conclusions—it was church leaders who tried to suppress them.)

Not so, according to a review published in the journal of Theoretical and Applied Climatology. The researchers tried to replicate the results of those 3% of papers—a common way to test scientific studies—and found biased, faulty results.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, worked with a team of researchers to look at the 38 papers published in peer-reviewed journals in the last decade that denied anthropogenic global warming.

“Every single one of those analyses had an error—in their assumptions, methodology, or analysis—that, when corrected, brought their results into line with the scientific consensus,” Hayhoe wrote in a Facebook post.

One of Hayhoe’s co-authors, Rasmus Benestad, an atmospheric scientist at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, built the program using the computer language R—which conveniently works on all computer platforms—to replicate each of the papers’ results and to try to understand how they reached their conclusions. Benestad’s program found that none of the papers had results that were replicable, at least not with generally accepted science.

Broadly, there were three main errors in the papers denying climate change. Many had cherry-picked the results that conveniently supported their conclusion, while ignoring other context or records. Then there were some that applied inappropriate “curve-fitting”—in which they would step farther and farther away from data until the points matched the curve of their choosing.

And of course, sometimes the papers just ignored physics altogether. “In many cases, shortcomings are due to insufficient model evaluation, leading to results that are not universally valid but rather are an artifact of a particular experimental setup,” the authors write.

Those who assert that these papers are correct while the other 97% are wrong are holding up science where the researchers had already decided what results they sought, the authors of the review say. Good science is objective—it doesn’t care what anyone wants the answers to be.

The review serves as an answer to the charge that the minority view on climate change has been consistently suppressed, wrote Hayhoe. “It’s a lot easier for someone to claim they’ve been suppressed than to admit that maybe they can’t find the scientific evidence to support their political ideology… They weren’t suppressed. They’re out there, where anyone can find them.” Indeed, the review raises the question of how these papers came to be published in the first place, when they used flawed methodology, which the rigorous peer-review process is designed to weed out.

In an article for the Guardian, one of the researchers, Dana Nuccitelli points out another red flag with the climate-change-denying papers: “There is no cohesive, consistent alternative theory to human-caused global warming,” he writes. “Some blame global warming on the sun, others on orbital cycles of other planets, others on ocean cycles, and so on. There is a 97% expert consensus on a cohesive theory that’s overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence, but the 2–3% of papers that reject that consensus are all over the map, even contradicting each other.”

The Galileo example is also instructive, Nuccitelli points out. The “father of observational science,” championed the astronomical model that the earth and other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun—a view that was eventually accepted almost universally as the truth. “If any of the contrarians were a modern-day Galileo, he would present a theory that’s supported by the scientific evidence and that’s not based on methodological errors,” he writes. “Such a sound theory would convince scientific experts, and a consensus would begin to form.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story refers to the review as new, when in fact it was published in 2015. It also used the wrong pronoun for Dana Nuccitelli.


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Door County Sustainability Fair 9-23-17

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Want to be a Vender at the Event?

Click on the application below:

2017 Sustainability Fair Vendor Application

2017 SUSTAINABLE FAIR WORKSHOPS

TIME PRESENTER WORKSHOP LOCATION
10:15AM Jason Fuller & Lori Jorgensen Carbon Cycle Consulting.   Lecture Hall
11:00AM Elizabeth Moriarty Natural Fermentation & Wild Brew Soda.   Lab
NOON Coleen Bins Corn Husk Dolls.   Lower Level Learning Center
1:00PM Crossroads Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.   Front Garden
2:00PM Elizabeth Moriarty Natural Fermentation & Wild Brew Soda.  Lab
3:00PM Coleen Bins Corn Husk Dolls.   Lower Level Learning Center

 

TIME PRESENTER WORKSHOP LOCATION
ALL DAY John Hippensteel SOLAR Demonstration Parking Lot
ALL DAY Wild Ones What is a native plant?   Front Garden
ALL DAY Steven Umentum Enviroscape Demo. Lobby of Main Building
ALL DAY Climate Change Coalition 1.  The Onion Earth.

2.  Air Quality.  

3.  Palm Oil.  

4.  Be the Change.  

 

Lobby of Main Building
3:00  Climate Change Coalition Movie:

A Time To Choose

Lower Level Learning Center

 

Upcoming Event! Earth Care: A Moral Imperative

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Registration Form PDF
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DISCIPLINED DISREGARD FOR CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

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Jeff Thompson, MD

Peninsula Pulse, July 20th

By: Jeff Thompson, MD

You could argue that all we need to solve our impending climate catastrophe is a great deal of courage and the foresight to think long-term. Many global climate change skeptics who are in positions of power and influence lack the courage to admit that their stands are on thin ice.

Governments, businesses, and individuals have long relied on short-term plans and short-term thinking for the sake of getting elected, making a profit, or making a living, but in doing so, they do not prepare for their own futures, let alone their grandchildren’s.

I would suggest that in addition to courage and long-term thinking, we need a third component to really move forward. What we need is a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom. I don’t mean to suggest that we throw out all the great truths of the past. Surely over the ages, science and our grandmothers have accumulated great wisdom. However, there is much in the public dialogue and social media that cannot be considered wisdom. Commonly repeated “truths” are not wisdom. With a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom, Gundersen Health System set out to lower the cost of health care, improve our local economy, and reduce our negative impact on our environment.

Conventional wisdom said you had to choose between the environment and your bottom line, or between the environment and your local economy. We did not believe that either current science or the creativity of the workers at Gundersen would be held to such a limiting worldview, so we pressed on.

Conventional wisdom said that no governing board would allow us to move down such a path.

Why would a health care organization consider focusing on energy conservation in the face of other such pressing “real” health issues?

We eventually convinced the majority of the board members to support the concept that sustainability and the environment are real health issues. We convinced them that pollution causes illnesses that we’re trying to treat, such as cancer, asthma, and chronic lung disease, and that our waste pollutes our water and our soil. To ignore the environmental burden of the waste we created would have been irresponsible and contrary to our mission.

Conventional wisdom said that health care’s only mission should be to take care of sick people. To disregard that piece of wisdom was a big leap, and our board took that leap long before it became popular for health care organizations to focus on population health.

They also ignored the financial advice that said you should put your savings only in some distant treasury bills, stocks, or bonds. They agreed that local investing could be disciplined and sound.

And they ignored the pressure to make finances look perfect every month or every quarter. They believed that investing in the region could have both long-term health and financial benefits.

This is not to imply that everyone completely believed, but enough believed that we could get started. Even our skeptical chief financial officer had to be convinced that this was a strong investment.

When it comes to energy, conservation should be our first fuel – especially in Wisconsin, where we import $15 billion in fossil fuels each year. With our first $2 million investment we saved $1.2 million every year thereafter. In the course of eight years, we have decreased the energy requirement per square foot in the organization by 57 percent.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it is impossible for any one of us to make a major difference in the enormous amount of energy consumed in this country. But what if Gundersen’s efforts were replicated? What if each hospital and clinic in this country exercised a disciplined disregard for the conventional wisdom and decreased its energy use by 57 percent? The nation’s overall energy use would decline by three to four percent.

If health care were then joined by businesses and schools, pretty soon you would have a market-changing event. Add in residential housing and apartment buildings, and we’re changing how many pipelines will be built, how many transmission lines will be erected, and how many power plants will be put online. The keys are the power of economics and the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom.

To drive our vision forward, in 2008 we set an outlandish goal: By 2014, we would be completely heated, powered and cooled by renewables that we own so that we can decrease the cost of health care as well as markedly decrease our environmental footprint. This goal required that we further challenge the conventional wisdom by finding partners willing to work on alternative sources of energy – wind, dairy biogas, landfill gas, geothermal fields, and biomass (details of this work can be found at gundersenenvision.org/envision).

Our approach was to get an environmental return as well as a competitive financial return. Conservation was easily the most lucrative of our energy initiatives, but the biomass boiler, geothermal field, and dairy biogas sites all generated positive cash flows. In aggregate, we showed that from 2008 to 2014 our routine investments in cash, treasury bills, bonds, and stocks had a five to six percent return, but our investment in energy infrastructure had a 10 to 12 percent return.

It is important to mention that we didn’t just say this is what we’re going to do and hope it would work out. Rather, we exercised a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom:  We adopted a strong, thoughtful, measured approach. When we had failures, as we did, we recalculated, re-organized, and drove toward continuously improved higher performance.

You cannot accomplish goals such as these by thinking only of the next month or the next quarter. You have to think long-term, as I outlined in a recent post on Forbes.com. I used the United States backing out of the climate accord as a prime example of short-term thinking.

You must have the courage to take a stand, long-term thinking to develop a plan, and a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom to achieve the outcomes I describe.

Our results are no accident. With considered intention, we aimed for and met targets that produced our strong financial performance and decreased our particulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent. Instead of coal from Wyoming to make electricity and natural gas from Texas for heat, we were heating and powering our organization with renewable sources that improved our local economy, saved money for the organization, and markedly improved our environmental footprint.

A disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom supported by courage and long-term thinking has helped us inspire others and has given rise to new wisdom: We can take care of our communities and the environment at the same time.


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How to Adapt Your Garden to a Changing Climate

Last summer, I stuck up a pleasant conversation with Will Hsu, a prominent ginseng farmer in the state of Wisconsin. It was March, and the temperature at lunchtime had risen to more than 70 degrees.

“Isn’t it a gorgeous day?” I asked.

“No, it’s really bad,” he said.

Why wasn’t he pleased to be outside on a warm day after a long winter? Wisconsin’s history of cold winters and cool summers make it an ideal climate for growing ginseng, Hsu told WKOW. He was concerned for his crops, and with good reason.

Changing Climate pbs rewireTemperatures throughout the U.S. have been on the rise, most notably in the past 30 years, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. In fact, the 10 hottest years on record have happened since 1998.

But perhaps the most perplexing elements to farmers—and gardeners—are not the slowly climbing temperatures across the board, but sudden shifts in temperature (from warmth to frost and back again) and unpredictable patterns of precipitation, including heavy rains and drought, which can damage certain species of plants.

Noticeable effects in the changing climate

So how much does the temperature have to shift before a plant is affected?

Well, that depends on the plant, according to Brian Sullivan, The New York Botanical Garden’s Vice President for Gardens, Landscape and Outdoor Collections.

“All gardeners know the frustration of dealing with the vagaries of weather,” Sullivan said. “We get excited to put out our vegetable starts on the first spring-like day, only to find them nipped back by a hard frost a few weeks later. Or newly planted perennials in May could suffer from an unseasonal heat wave before they have successfully settled into the garden.”

Shifting temperature ranges are especially challenging for plants that flower once in early spring, like blueberry, according to Sullivan. If blueberry plants are flowering when the temperature drops unexpectedly, the flowers don’t perish in the cold, but the pollinators nevertheless are inhibited from pollinating and fruit set is lost for that season, he explained.

Know your zone

If you’re looking to start a garden and aren’t sure how to select plants, Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, recommends that find out where you fall on the United States Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone map. Once you identify your zone, you can cross-reference that with a list of plants that thrive in your region.

Changing Climate pbs rewireAccording to the U.S.D.A., the plant hardiness zones are determined by average annual extreme minimum temperature over a period of 30 years,” Musacchio said. “It’s that cold that can really affect a plant over time. The different zones on the map cross state lines. The mapping is pretty general, but it’s a great place to start.”

In addition to these broad zones, it’s also important to know your “microclimate,” according to Musacchio. The microclimate surrounding your home can be influenced by the amount of trees and shade, propensity for wind and even the ratio of evergreen to deciduous trees.

Coping with changes to your garden

Once you understand your garden’s climate, you’ll have a good idea of the plants that will thrive there, but, in the words of the Ancient philosopher Heraclitus, “the only constant is change.”

You may have a good thing going in your lawn right now, but the bottom line is this: keep an eye on your current conditions and be prepared to adapt. “The best option in dealing with any growing conditions is to work with the conditions you have,” Sullivan said.

Here are some tips for planting when your garden is too…

1. Wet
If the garden is wet, you should select plants that like “wet feet” like iris and sedges, according to Sullivan.

Changing Climate pbs rewire“Gardens with severe topography will always have a low point and this is where water will naturally collect,” said Sullivan. “This is a great opportunity to plant water-loving plants.”

Adding or improving drainage can help with resolving wet conditions. A French drain can be easily added to move the water from a wet area.

2. Dry
If you’re looking for plants suitable to drier conditions, you’ve got lots of options. Sullivan recommends plants lavender for full sun and Epimedium for dry shade.

“Perennial bulbs like daffodils do well in dry gardens, since they need dry conditions when the plant is dormant to ensure the underground bulbs don’t rot,” Sullivan said. “Plants with deep root systems, like grasses, are especially suited for dry gardens, as their deep root systems are able to seek out water at deeper depths.”

A garden may be dry for lack of rainfall or as a result of competition from tree roots, according to Sullivan. He also notes that gardeners can also add compost to the soil to increase water storage capacity and a layer of mulch to help retain moisture.

3. Sunny
If you like flowers, we’ve got good news for you: a sunny garden is an ideal spot for blooms. Many flowering plants demand full sun, and will flower less and be weaker if planted in anything less than full sun, according to Sullivan.

Changing Climate pbs rewire“Plants needing more sun will often stretch in the direction of the sun, indicating that they are planted in too much shade,” Sullivan said.

A sunny garden provides lots of options. “The list of sun-loving plants is long, indeed. Roses, dahlias, and salvias are some of the favorites,” said Sullivan. “Herbs and vegetables, too, appreciate as much sun as they can get.”

4. Shady
With a woodland garden, you have the opportunity to create a unique, lush experience.

“A dappled area can be a beautiful place to garden, especially if the shade is from deciduous trees,” Sullivan said. “This is a great opportunity to plant spring ephemerals like bloodroot and trillium, which thrive in the spring sunlight of a deciduous canopy.”

Once shaded as the canopy leafs out in summer, Sullivan points out that the garden is perfectly suited to growing ferns, sedges, and other dry woodland plants.

5. Frosts, thaws and frosts again
Gardeners in cold climates know the frustration of losing new plants to a late frost, and that frustration is bound to grow as the weather becomes more unpredictable.

“Ideally, once a hard frost has occurred, the soils stay frozen until spring when the thaw begins,” Sullivan said. “In the case of an extended winter thaw, early spring plants will respond and may start to grow or flower and all plant parts exposed will be vulnerable to a freeze.”

Changing Climate pbs rewireThe best way to protect against this, Sullivan says, is to avoid early spring-flowering plants.  Still you can minimize the damage to the roots of plants if you anticipate a few cycles of freezes and thaws.

“Plants should be planted 6 weeks from the typical freeze date,” Sullivan says. “This allows roots to develop to anchor the plant against heaving out of the soil. A thick layer of mulch can be added after the ground has frozen to minimize fluctuations in soil temperature.”

Also, the less water in the soil, the better it will weather changes in temperature. “Improving the drainage in the garden will reduce the water in the soil that causes the expansion and contractions of the soils,” Sullivan says.

Consider plants that help conserve water

In certain climates, you might be either required by water restrictions or motivated by water bills to reduce the amount of water that you use to maintain your garden. And if you’ve followed the recommendations above, you should be in good shape, according to Musacchio.

“Water conservation is trying to match the right plant to the site,” Musacchio observed.

“Cacti and succulents are the classic water conservation plants,” Sullivan says.  “Eastern prickly pear cactus and sedum thrive in rock outcroppings and shallow soil and use very little water.”

Sullivan also notes that many perennials that thrive in dry conditions and, once established, don’t require any supplemental water. “In many cases native plants are perfect candidates to conserve water,” Sullivan said. “Yarrow, agasatache and catmint are all capable of thriving in low water conditions.”

Raised beds and why they matter

You may have seen them in your local community garden or in a neighbor’s yard—raised beds are gaining popularity for several reasons. A raised bed is either a bed that has been mounded above ground level or one above ground constructed from a wooden frame, according to Sullivan.

Changing Climate pbs rewire“One immediate benefit to a raised bed is improved drainage,” Sullivan said. “If the soil is wet and heavy, planting in mounded raised beds allows the plant roots to be in dryer soil, while still having access to the wetter soil below. A constructed raised bed has a number of benefits in addition to improved drainage, one of the most important is that it allows more control of soil quality.”

In fact, Musacchio recommends that individuals get their soil tested— for several reasons.

“Get your soil tested,” Musacchio said. “It will help you figure out the quality of the soil that you have, and to match the type of plants that can grow successfully there. If the soil quality is not good, a raised bed is an ideal solution, but check with your local university extension service or garden center to get specific advice for your particular situation.”

Raised beds are also ideal as a temporary garden—if you’re not sure you’re ready to commit to gardening for the long haul—and for those gardening in small spaces, according to Sullivan.

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