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.
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.
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.
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.
There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds. Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014