Making the Bed

 

A tiny raised bed near my friends' front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

A tiny raised bed near my friends’ front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

When you’ve been gardening for more than a week you realize that the vigor and beauty of your plants, and the success of your planting schemes, relies entirely on the quality of your soil.

The Rodale Press gardening books I poured over as a novice in the ’80s always had chapters devoted to soil preparation.  Double digging was recommended “back in the day.”

Tilling was the common practice then, especially for vegetable gardeners.  It was years on that biologists and botanists came to realize that mechanical tilling, and even double digging, totally wrecks the ecosystem of the soil.

Countless small worms and insects are ravaged.  Long dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to sprout.  Delicate colonies of fungi and bacteria are disrupted.

Tilling is no longer recommended for the long term well-being of the soil; even in traditional vegetable garden culture.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur bed near the bottom of the ravine in my friends’ back garden.  This two year old bed grows potatoes, herbs, and an Oakleaf Hydrangea on the far right.

Double digging, done once when land is first dedicated to a garden, might be useful in some cases.

If the double digging includes the addition of lots of organic matter, and possibly some minerals such as greensand, gypsum, or super-phosphate; it can be a useful way to break up clay soils before initial planting.  Once the bed is established, annual double digging is terrifically disruptive to the soil’s ecology.

More recent practices eschew the digging entirely and focus on constructing raised beds of various materials.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now.  It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now. It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

There is no one right way to make your garden bed.  So much depends on variables; like your soil, your climate, and what you plan to grow in a given area.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

I learned very quickly that our new garden had terribly compacted hard clay soil over much of the property.  Nearly all of my early attempts to plant anything in this new garden left me somewhere between underwhelmed and downright depressed.

It wasn’t until I began building raised beds, and bringing home bagfuls of compost, that we began to make progress on this property.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds.  Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.

Notice the variety of matierials my friends used to form the border for this one bed.

Notice the variety of materials my friends used to form the border for this shallow bed around her Crepe Myrtle tree.

I’ve made raised beds from many different materials over the years.  I started out when railway ties, landscape timbers, and even 2×10 boards were at the cutting edge.

Soon enough someone figured out that the chemicals in all of that treated wood leached into the soil and then got into the food grown in the bed.    Building a bed of untreated wood meant a very short-lived border on the bed.

A very innovative friend introduced me to Hugelkultur.  This practice originated in Europe and incorporates downed trees, limbs, compostable materials of all sorts, and topsoil  to build very thick raised beds.

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Sometimes built into a trench, sometimes mounded high above the ground, these raised beds retain water, produce heat, and slowly release nutrients into the soil as the materials break down.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

My friend is going into her third growing season with Hugelkultur beds.  Her garden is on a steep slope at the edge of the forest.  There is an abundance of  downfall wood and stumps on her property.  She is using them all very creatively.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis.  This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

A mix of vegetables, flowers, and herbs grows in this Hugelkultur bed.  My friends use netting to keep deer out.  The plants in the foreground are Astilbe.

I have also experimented with Hugelkultur, building around a stump over its root system, with a base of wood left from our downed trees last summer.  My bed is not quite a year old yet, but already I’m pleased with its progress.

The basic requirements for a good planting bed are adequate drainage, abundant organic materials, rich microbial life, and an adequate balance of minerals.   The most effective way to feed plants is to feed the soil.  Chemical fertilizers, such as “Miracle Grow” and other non-organic commercial products not only burn plants in high concentrations, but may also kill the microbial and invertebrate life required for  healthy soil.

Good soil has the loose, soft texture which only comes from plenty of organic material incorporated into the mineral content.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Finding earthworms living in soil is always an excellent sign.  Their digestive process helps release nutrients plants need, even as the movement of worms through the soil opens it up and creates the loose texture roots need for growth.

One way to achieve good beds, without all of the heavy lifting of building Hugelkultur beds, is simple sheet composting.

To begin a new planting bed, cover the entire area with brown paper grocery bags, plain white or brown wrapping paper,  torn cardboard from boxes, or several thicknesses of newspaper.  This initial layer smothers grass and weeds to form a barrier for those first crucial weeks, and then it decomposes into the soil.

Pile a variety of organic material onto the paper or cardboard base.  These layers can include grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, chopped leaves, shredded paper,  straw, rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, and sea weed.

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If the straw is mixed with rabbit or chicken droppings, all the better.  Bags of topsoil or pre-made compost can be piled on top of the organic materials the first year to speed the process.  Although the organic materials need to be dampened,  they do not need to be turned and mixed in sheet composting.

The frame of this bed can be made from many different materials, depending on what you have at hand.  This can even be made as a rounded, raised row without a border.

One popular technique uses bales of hay as the borders or walls of the bed.  I’ve done this.  It isn’t pretty, and there are the sprouting hayseeds in the bales to contend with all season.  Eventually the hay will mold and begin to fall apart.

You eventually get good soil, and vegetables will grow well in such a bed if you keep the whole bed and hay bale wall moist.  Some organic gardening resources even offer instructions for planting into the hollowed out and soil filled bales….

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in.  This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in. This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

Over time, these “sheet composted” beds decompose into the original soil beneath them.  The organic materials attract earthworms, which begin to mix the soil during their travels.

The moisture in the raised bed softens the soil below, and after a season or two you have a fine bed for planting, without the digging.  Continuing to add organic mulch to the bed once or twice a year keeps these beds “cooking” and rich in nutrients over many years.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.  This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant.  This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals. This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant. This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed, than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.  Notice the use of cinder blocks for these miniature Hostas.  Cinder blocks used as the border for a raised vegetable bed may be similarly planted with herbs, Nasturtiums, garlic, etc.

I’ve learned on my property that digging into the soil is extremely difficult.  And plants put directly into the ground may be at risk of vole attack.   I still do it, though, and did it this past week.

When I dig to plant a shrub directly into the ground, I make a far bigger hole than the root ball requires, and add copious quantities of compost. And gravel.  And I try to surround it with poisonous daffodil bulbs for good measure.

This littleAlysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil.  It will grow to 8' tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms.  I dig out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma plant tone.  I'm hoping it will grow well here.  I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

This little Aloysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil. It will grow to 8′ tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms. I dug out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma Plant Tone. I’m hoping it will grow well here. I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

I was able to feel the improvement in a bed begun four years ago, when I dug into it to add some little rose bushes this week.

The texture of the soil has completely changed, thanks to regular additions of compost and pea gravel.   I found earthworms.  I dug out space for the root balls easily, added yet more compost, and planted the little potted roses, blessedly growing on their own roots.

Then I added a border of slate roofing tiles to the sides of the bed, and piled more compost into the bed as fresh mulch.

However you make your planting beds, you’ll find that plants grown in raised beds grow bigger, healthier, and more productive than beds planted directly into  the ground.

Even a bed just 4″-6″ high, made with loose organic matter, give plants a huge advantage, because the roots are able to develop more fully and find nutrients more easily.

April 26, 2014 azaleas 073

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

12 responses to “Making the Bed

  1. I meant to say, the Ecke Ranch may sell plants, but their real business is in selling the cuttings to different nurseries nationwide, where they already have the rootstock. Those nurseries are the ones supplying the plants.

    • If you find anything else that’s new about these cuttings, let me know. The way I see it is that they sell these cuttings as the already hybridised plant. Yet they still need the rootstock plants to grow and to make them bloom the way they do. And if I’m not mistaken, the nurseries are the ones in charge of this. If you know anything else about it, please let me know.

  2. Yes, you’re right, it’s the cuttings which are sold to nurseries; but not the rootstock. The rootstocks are already grown at the nurseries, all they do is buy the cuttings in large quantities, then they do the grafting. That is why after blooming, I prune them well, and I notice where the graft was done. They’re actually weeds native to Mexico and like the coolness of the mountains. To keep them alive as shrubs here you have to water them well and keep them moist. I don’t know about roses at all, and why their grafts endure. It could be the rootstock itself rejecting the cutting, I really don’t know.

    • So interesting. Poinsettia’s are Euphorbias, which are generally drought tolerant. Maybe I haven’t been watering enough to keep them as moist as they like when I move them out in summer. I’ll have a new appreciation for Poinsettias now, and maybe have better luck keeping them 😉 Thank you!

  3. Good ideas. I have a bed but it’s in the shade and it’s by the ocean, so they must be watered and sprinkled daily. I have mostly Calatheas, Dracaenas, and a little palm. I also made a shrubbery out of last X-mas Poinsettias. Here they have thrived in the shade with lots of water mist and nitrogen fertiliser. Believe it not, most of those Poinsettias are really the rootstock; most have lost the graft. Still I have one or two that still has the graft and it’s still red! I’m also trying to build another bed but it’s right by the ocean. There I can only plant salt tolerant plants and it’s a little project I have.

    • Sounds lovely. If you’re not familiar with the literature on Findhorn, in Scotland, you might find it interesting. They built raised beds and grew vegetables on a sandy beach in Northern Scotland. Sort of the extreme from your location, but good information on building the soil. I didn’t realize the Poinsettias are grafted! I’ve learned from you today 😉 Best wishes, WG

      • Thanks I will look into into it. Yes the Poinsettias will thrive after X-mas, but not in temperate zones, unless kept in pots indoors. For making shrubs out of them they will like hot weather and humidity. The grafts are the business side of them. The rootstocks are grafted with hybrids, most of these developed by Paul Ecke, Jr, (from the Encinitas Ranch in CA) who recently retired. I think he supplies about 80% of the the plants in the U.S.. After X-mas, most of the grafts fall off (you can actually see the little hole in the stem), as they also need to be pruned anyway if you want a healthy shrub. This doesn’t mean they will not bloom again because of losing the graft, they still need the total darkness period. In this article it tells you about it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poinsettia

        • Thank you for the details 😉 I always try to keep our poinsettias from one year to the next, keeping them indoors until early May, then outside for the summer. They get large, but I’ve never gotten one to rebloom. I am aware of Paul Ecke, Jr., and his family’s work with poinsettias, but didn’t realize they are all grafts to rootstock. I had assumed there was tissue culture or stem cuttings involved in reproducing the hybrids. That is a huge amount of work for the annual output of plants each year! Why do you suppose the grafts fall off? I’m thinking of roses, where a grafted shrub lasts for many years…. How are poinsettias used in the tropics? Are they grown year round in the garden? Thank you for sparking me to learn something new here 😉 WG

  4. Yes, I remember feeling dismayed when the word came out to stop tilling. I felt like “Really?” I had been indoctrinated in the value of tilling and almost couldn’t believe it. A few years ago there used to be a kind of kooky guy on HGTV (back when HGTV had actual gardening shows!!!) called Gardening Guy I think. Something he said really stuck with me and that was to “feed the soil, not the plant.” He was a huge proponent of composting and layering, etc. So I am a total convert now and the tiller will have to go on eBay one of these days! Great Post, WG. So full of good info.

    • Thank you very much, Barbara. I hope it saves someone the hours and hours of labor we both invested in those new beds, back when we thought we needed to! I remember the great gardening shows on HGTV, and miss them…. Just like I miss their Rose Bowl specials on building the floats. I was utterly fascinated watching how plant materials were used to decorate those wondrous creations! The tiller we inherited on this property is currently a part of the deer fence…. Best wishes for a sunny Sunday! (And happy Garden Week in Virginia! I hope your garden has really blossomed for spring 😉 WG

      • Yes, Historic Garden Week! Too excited! And I remember those Rose Bowl specials too, now that you mention them. Funny how much that HGTV has changed. Hope your head is okay!!!

        • Thanks, Barbara- still bothering me. I’ve been doing ice packs on and off all day. Quite a whack! My husband has wrapped the offending pipe in bubble wrap. I just didn’t duck quite low enough, and have no ready excuse 😉 HGTV has changed so much we rarely turn to it. And if we do, its usually a show about someone wanting to buy more property than they can afford. I miss the shows they began with years ago. Our irises are open 😉

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