Posted By Jonathan on December 4, 2012
If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past 2 growing seasons, it is that, no matter what you do in your garden, you cannot get ahead with chores if you garden using traditional methods and work a full time job at the same time. When I talk about ‘traditional’, I am referring to growing a garden in the ground, in rows, leaving much to chance in terms of pest and water management. When we constructed our garden a year and a half ago, we dug up the grass (mostly) and put in a fence. From there we just planted and planted and planted. I think that our garden is a bit over 500 square feet, which leaves us with a lot of room. This past year we planted over 40 varieties of vegetables! Overall, it turned out to be a disaster and I’ll explain why.
This was an area of major challenge for us, especially this past year. It got to the point where we just gave up in certain portions of our garden, and the grass nearly came back in. Our main problem was that there was almost no structural organization to our garden, and so we could not view the problem as a series of small problems, but rather as a large problem. We planted in block beds, with rows in between. Each bed was no more than 4 feet wide. Our paths were 2 feet wide. So we would weed one part and then jump across the garden to another part. After a rain, it looked like we had not done any work. It was very un-motivating.
In terms of weeding, you need to become a smart weeder. What is the one area where you should not have to weed? Your paths of course! This was our second weeding issue. Weeds sprang up in our paths and since the soil was so compacted, they were nearly impossible to remove.
Next year we are taking a different approach to weeding. Weeding on paths will be forbidden. Instead, we will make it impossible for the weeds to grow in the paths in the first place. Our method? Heavy mulch, and possible cardboard underneath.
Second, we will cordon off areas that weeding will be allowed by building raised beds. This is the heart of our entire strategy for next year. Building raised beds will allow us to logically and physically group areas of the garden together. Instead of saying, “I’m going out to weed in the garden.”, which is a very vague statement, we can say “I’m going out to weed raised bed number one.”, and focus on that. The next day will be dedicated to a different bed. Break your problem down into smaller problems and you can manage it very well.
One other thing we are doing is to put down mulch all around our raised beds that we are building. This mulch will be very thick and will consist of leaves primarily, but will be supplemented by grass clippings later on. I don’t believe in buying mulch when it is completely free all around us if we look for it. By building raised beds, we are better able to control where the mulch is located. If we don’t want mulch around our plants, it won’t blow under them since the raised bed blocks the leaves. It’s a great way to organize a garden.
The largest problem we had was with insect pests. In particular, 3 different insects ravaged parts of our garden. We had issues with flea beetles on our eggplant and potatoes, squash bugs on our squash and cucumber, and cucumber beetles on essentially everything but tomatoes and peppers. It was horrifying to watch our hard work being enjoyed and ruined by these pests. Next year we are taking a different strategy, and it ties into what we are doing for weeding.
We are going to construct tents around all of our major problem areas, particularly eggplant and squash plants. Probably potatoes as well. We might even do the entire garden in one giant tent, in fact. Something along the lines of this ->Credit – St. Brigid Farm
Having these in our garden will allow us to control what has access to our plants. Sure, we’ll have to pollinate by hand, but this will allow us to protect our seed supply as well. More on this later.
One other thing we are doing is spraying down beneficial nematodes. They are supposed to be one of the best ways to keep pest insects under control and will work for dozens of different insects. We sprayed them down around our gardens this fall and I am going to do it again in the spring. After all, they do no harm to the soil so having an abundance of nematodes in the soil will only benefit you.
Our last problem area was the very dry conditions that we experienced here at Sheltering Woods (and across much of the country). It wouldn’t have been much of a problem, with the advent of watering, except that we over estimated how much water we needed to give our plants. Our soil is extremely full of clay and until we get it fixed over the years, we don’t need to water quite as much. We drowned several of our plants, thinking we were doing them a favor. Even in 100 degree heat, clay soil holds moisture very well. I encourage everyone to buy one of these moisture meters. They are extremely handy!
Another way we are remedying our water issue is to install drip irrigation.
I do not recommend installing soaker hoses. They are completely worthless because they clog up with dirt and end up tearing when they lie out in the sun for weeks and then you try moving them. Very bad product. Also, there is a good chance you will cut them with a shovel (I did a couple of times) when working near them and you don’t see them. Instead, install drip irrigation systems in your raised beds, just like in that YouTube video from Growing Your Greens (I highly recommend subscribing to his YouTube channel, he is amazing).
Building A Raised Bed
Having identified all of the problems that we had, I will lay out the direction that we are taking with our garden that will allow us to begin taming these problems -> building raised bed gardens. Not only will they help us to garden more effectly, they look amazing ->
Lets start off by gathering our materials for exactly one 8 foot X 4 foot raised bed:
3 – 8 foot boards of untreated cedar. You can use whatever thickness and width you want, just make sure it is cedar. Cedar is a very rot resistant wood. Redwood is also very good. Ours are 6 inches wide and 1 inch thick. 2 inch thick board would be even better.
1 – 4 inch x 4 inch x 8 foot board of cedar. This board is for our corner posts.
1 – box of 3 inch, rust resistant screws.
1 – roll of 4 foot wide wire mesh for keeping out gophers and moles. (optional)
That is essentially it in terms of materials. Make sure you buy untreated wood. Treated wood will leach chemicals into the ground over time and you will ingest them.
1 – Cordless drill
1 – 3/8 inch drill bit
1 – Leveling Tool for position the bed
Also, go get a helper. It is much easier to make these with a second set of hands. Plus it’s more fun.
First cut your corner posts which come from the 4 inch X 4 inch board. You can cut these to whatever length you want, depending on how tall you’d like to make your raised bed. Just make sure that you make your posts 4 inches longer than the height of your bed. This is for the part of the post that goes into the ground, solidifying the bed. So if your board is 6 inches wide, and you want to have a 12 inch tall raised bed, cut your posts at 16 inches.
Next, begin assembly. You could start any way you want, but I started by laying two corner posts on the ground and attaching a long 8 foot side to them. Make sure to line everything up correctly. We attached the first board as if it were the bottom board in the raised bed, leaving 4 inches to the right of the board for the anchor. Just like this ->
Do this for both sides. This will use up two of your three 8 foot long planks of wood and just over half of your 4 inch X 4 inch board.
Make sure that you pre-drill your holes with your drill bit! Your wood will split if you do not do this and you will end up having problems down the road including the boards rotting quicker and ultimately falling apart.
Next, cut your third 8 foot plank in half. These two 4 foot boards will make up the end caps for your raised bed. We found it easiest to lay the 8 foot plank with the attached posts down on the ground like in the picture below. From there, stand the 4 foot plank on end in position so that you can screw it to the post. This makes lining up the planks very easy so that you can get a nice even corner on your bed. Do this on both ends of this first plank, to attach both 4 foot boards. Just take a look ->
From here, we did the same thing for the other 8 foot board. We laid the second 8 foot board with attached posts on the ground. We then flipped over the first 8 foot board with attached 4 foot boards and lined them up with the second 8 foot board on the ground (this can be awkward, thus having a helper makes it easier). Doing it this way ensures that you line everything up correctly, again giving you nice corners.
You have just built a raised bed. Congratulations!
Now comes the exciting part -> positioning your bed.
With your helper, carry your raised bed to your desired location. The first thing you should do is to dig holes for your anchors. These holes, combined with the anchors, will solidify the bed in place. This is how is should look when its dug out ->
Once you have all four holes dug you can go ahead and place your raised bed into the holes, positioning your anchors just right.
The next step is all about precision. You want to make sure that your raised bed is level. You can either remove dirt from under the raised bed, or you can push dirt under the raised bed. Just make sure that you have it level across all planks. Check both of the sides and both of the ends. Once you have this complete, and everything is level, go ahead and start pushing dirt up around your raised bed. This will further lock it into place.
Once you have your bed in place and all the soil pushed up around the bed, you can place your wire mesh down if you would like. This will keep out any pests that may dig up under your bed to get to your vegetables. We have a large problem with moles and so I am doing this.
Here is what you should end up having when you are done ->
Isn’t it beautiful? On top of looking nice, this will allow us to focus our weeding efforts on just the raised beds instead of the paths around them. We can also install tenting apparatus and drip irrigation systems as well. One solution to solve all of our problems. I am super excited to see how this goes.
From here the next step would be to fill up your raised bed with soil. We are planning to do this in the spring after our compost has been fermenting all winter. We also completely covered our bed with mulched leaves which are already decomposing, adding many good things to our soil.
Gardening is one of those things that you cannot learn from a book. It takes many seasons to learn what works best for you and so I encourage you to keep trying if you are experiencing difficulty. Try different things and don’t rely on one method. If something isn’t working, identify the problem and a solution. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Gardening is all about learning from experience. I look forward to what I will learn this coming year. I’d love to hear from you so, please feel free to leave a comment down below.