I thought it would be great to get a big thread with examples and instructions on how to make garden beds. Making garden beds is something that can be done nearly year round in most of the world. I tried to find relevant permies threads on as many different garden bed styles as possible. But, I probably missed some! If you have some you'd like added, just point me to some threads and write a little summary about that method of gardening.
Bury wood under soil, and the logs will (1) act as a sponge relasing water to your garden, (2) slowly release nutrients to your garden as the wood rots, (3) house micro nutrients and fungi inside the wood to benifit your soil. The raised bed will also help create benificial microclimates, and a whole lot more!
Keyhole gardens can be made with or without composting sections. The main benefits to a keyhole garden are that you can make a larger garden bed that's still accessible, because there's a way to walk into the middle of it. When they have a composting section in the middle, you have a convienent place to put compost that will automatically nourish your garden bed. These make nice zone 1 and 2 garden beds.
With this garden bed, you place the potatoes on the ground (with existing plants cropped short or weeded out, and dig down a few inches so the potato is covered with a bit of soil), and then cover the potatoes with at least 4 inches of mulch. Keep adding more mulch as the potatoes grow, and you'll More information here! and here
Double-Dug Garden Bed/Biointensive:
With the double-dig method, you can create a large amount of garden beds without as much disturbing as tilling would. It only needs to be done once, and is usually maintained with biointensive methods such as using compose and chop-and-drop.
Herb spirals are a nice option for your zone 1 garden. They give you the ability to grow a lot of different commonly-used herbs in one small place, with appropriate micro climates for each herb. And, since they are tall, rather than wide, they are easy to pick from.
Tilling is mechanically (or with chickens) breaking up the soil and turning it over. This can clear a large area for annual planting very quickly. It's also useful for a one-till application of compost to very sad soils.
Lasagna garden beds are great options if you have a lot of organic matter (leaves, newspaper, compost, aniimal bedding, wood ash). These garden beds allow you to smother underlying vegetation, and they don't require any digging. The end result is a raised garden bed that is actively composting and building nutrients.
I don't make beds in my fields. Seems to me, like too much work for too little return. Seems like it makes work super-slow and inefficient.
I love long straight rows, like 200 feet long. Makes weeding super easy, and I can do the weeding with efficient tools like a wheel-hoe. I would feel heartsick if I thought that I had to kneel down and pull weeds by hand, because I had planted something into a bed.
There is a place for beds on my farm. That area that's two feet wide, between the sidewalk and the house? Perfect place to make a bed. Around the base of a tree where annuals won't grow? Wonderful place to make a perennial bed. Need a subtle way of redirecting water so that it doesn't flood the front door? Delightful place for a raised bed.
Mine is just the opposite. I suspect the scale of the operations makes the difference. My two gardens are approximately 70' x 50' and 40' 50'. I have extreme animal problems, deer alone make gardening impossible without fencing.
In last few years I have moved almost entirely to no-till although that may not really be accurate. I do till I guess, with my shovel and hoe I just just stopped using a machine.
My garden is actually bigger now that I don't need all of that space to maneuver the tiller inside the fences. I now have a series of permanent beds and paths. Right now going into winter the paths are completely clear, this makes it impossible for a mole to run freely without me knowing it. The beds are covered in radish, turnip or in some cases acting as compost beds, the whole thing covered with leaves, spent plants and the like.
I don't mind the necessary hand work as I generally only work on one, maybe two beds at a time and there are tasks that can be done in off season. I can easily prep and plant a couple beds by hand in the time it takes to get the tiller out and going.
Used to in spring, first I had to wait for the soil to dry appropriately, then I would fire up that stupid tiller and till the whole thing. Then just have to fire it up again later to re-till the spots not included in the first early planting.
Now, next spring for example I will go out and leisurely prep a couple beds by hand for early crops while the ground is still too wet for the tiller. As the season moves along I'll do a couple more then a couple more until it's time to plant later crops in the first ones.
I love how I'm doing it now, I listen to the birds and bugs instead of the roar of a gasoline engine, I breath the fresh air instead of its exhaust. I'm only interested in producing food for my own household though. What I do might not be possible in a larger scale.
Nothing ruins a neighborhood like paved roads and water lines.
One of my favorites is to get free hay that has started to spoil and make.the bed out of those bales. Its super cheap and quick and the first year they make for nice little benches and thick walls that hold moisture well.
As they break down they add biology and nutrition to the edges of the bed and they can eventually (after 2, maybe 3 years) be spread out as mulch and replaced with either more bales or logs or boards or whatever.
My small homestead is a demo site as well, so I have all kinds of garden beds mentioned above, except biointensive. I would add one more to the list above - strawbale bed. It is so easy to set up and it can be set up anywhere.
I also use rows of grow bags, but it is not exactly a garden bed, but very effective. Basically it is all about zones - the closer to the house, the smaller and more labor intensive garden beds.
This is rather specific to climate, but in the desert, there are some other garden bed techniques that work well. Sunken beds of various forms including waffle beds and flood irrigation beds, and greater spacing so each plant doesn't compete with each other for water..
Some examples here in the desert SW US:
You can see in the pictures above that the plants are grown in the lower parts, and the beds are often sloped to collect or direct rainfall or floodwaters. The sunken areas also reduce the plants and soil drying out from the wind. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so seeing this method was like being Alice in Wonderland, where everything was not as expected! In western Oregon, my gardens were all about dispersing water away from the plants so they wouldn't drown, and wind wasn't an issue. It has been so fun learning to garden effectively in a radically different climate.
But the principles are really simple - you dig sunken areas for the beds and put the soil on the sides or around your garden in a way to direct water, think about where the water will move and how to harvest any additional you can off your land, and watch carefully when it rains and redirect water if needed.
Some people put compost on top. My husband and I found it easier to compost in place. We used each sunken bed as a place to bury compost - and then just covered it with regular soil and planted it. This took deeper digging, but it was the best way for us to make compost. In our experience, compost piles in the desert need so much care to not dry out, they attract cockroaches, rats and javelina (peccaries, pig-like animals that will devour your garden), and don't break down nearly as fast as they do in wet regions. We'd learned that if you put your compost in the ground, the natural composting organisms here (mainly termites) take over and do a great job.
When we wanted to make a sunken bed and didn't have enough kitchen compost for it, we put in any plant matter we could find. Here in our section of the desert, tumbleweeds and london rocket grow thickly after the rains and make awesome compost. We also put some dry matter in, like sticks and grasses.
These are some sunken bed examples of my own from this year's garden. My husband decided to rock with path with extra rocks. He was feeling creative at the moment. That garden bed will eventually just be an herb and flower bed after we move. We also have a couple wicking beds, which were very useful for plants that need constant moisture to thrive.
Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts. ~Wendell Berry
Location: 4200 ft elevation, zone 8a desert, high of 118F, lows in teens
Desert hugels or Zai pits. These are the beds we use in our semi-arid region of the desert SW, on our specific soil type. We also used this method in the desert near Joshua Tree in California. Soils there were different, decomposing granite sand, but the method still worked well because the organisms are similar and the soil was deep. This method would not work as well on land with minimal topsoil and a ton of rocks - in those desert areas we'd use different approaches. It is awful digging up loads and loads of rock, so when we come to patches of the garden with heavy rock content (50% or more), we use those areas for growing cactus.
Soils in our current location are very hard when dry - essentially like an adobe brick. Deep, dry, hard, compact sandy clay. You can't poke a piece of rebar in the ground without a hammer, that is how hard the soil is here. A primary goal in a desert garden is to have no water leave the garden from runoff - all will hopefully soak in and be stored in the ground. To make this happen on hard, compacted, dry desert soils, you have to dramatically increase water infiltration into the soil in some way. These beds serve that purpose and others.
This soil is alkaline, very low in phosphorus and nitrogen, low in iron, but has decent amounts of other minerals. There are no worms in the soil here. The main plant composting organisms are termites, ants, crickets, cockroaches, and fungi. We are giving them the food they need to create humus and soil that can retain and infiltrate moisture.
To achieve this, we use free, (typically low-nitrogen) compostable material buried in the ground. These could be referred to as a desert hugel or as a zai pit. If I had manure I would use it - but it's not necessary for the bed to work and produce ample food. Since the primary deficit we have is phosphorus, we decided in the beginning to approach this issue by using plant matter. Also, we don't like using off-farm inputs for both cost and contamination problems (like accidentally bringing pesticide containing straw, compost, or manure into your organic garden).
We use as many long-tap-rooted plants and iron concentrating plants as we can collect here, like pigweed amaranth and also local common wild plants with deep taproots, like Ericameria nauseosa (chamissa, rabbitbrush) and Isocama spp. Plants with long taproots are typically dynamic accumulators that draw minerals from deep in the soil. Pigweed amaranth is great example of an iron and phosphorus accumulator. We also use any wood we can scrounge.
The keys to these beds are:
1. Loosen the soil to a good depth that will increase moisture infiltration and allow garden plants to root deeply. I aim for my knee height, about 20 inches.
2. Get compostable high-carbon material into the ground where termites, ants and fungi can break it down. We use whatever plant material we can collect on our property - branches, garden trimmings, grass and vigorous wild plants (pigweed amaranth is a great one), live and dead material. I particularly look for any plant with a deep taproot. We also throw our kitchen waste in the pits, including bones, but in the end that makes up barely 5% of what we toss in there. Leave room for approximately 1 foot of soil on top when the plant matter is compressed.
3. When refilling the beds, leave the end result sunken. This way the bed collects rainwater, could eventually be flood irrigated if that's your method, and no water is lost from the bed when watering using other methods. You can leave excess soil on the pathways, raising them slightly. These beds will sink more as the plant matter breaks down but that can take awhile. Our first beds we filled in a little too much and they are taking a long time to sink.
Tips to consider:
We've used materials in these pit beds that some people would be wary to use - such as plants perceived as allelopathic - and they worked fine. For example, we put eucalyptus logs that were a couple years old and well-aged eucalyptus leaf mulch in our first sunken beds and grew excellent tomatoes, basil, peas, and peppers.
To dig the beds requires a pick-axe and adequate moisture to first loosen the soil, then shovel it up. This morning I was digging a new bed after a couple days of monsoons rains softened the ground - but otherwise we have to wet the ground with a hose.
I don't have pictures of myself using a pick or shovel or hoe. Those seem self explanatory - except maybe the pick. My husband happily uses a 5 lb pick and I can barely move that thing. I bought myself a 2.5 lb pick and I don't swing it over my head, instead I use it much like an eye hoe/farmers hoe. The easiest way on my body is lifting and dropping it and mostly allowing the weight of the tool to do the work.
Thanks for your detailed post Kim. We have very dry summers here with infrequent, sudden downpours and I a have been experimenting with various methods- ruth stout, lasagne, mulching with wood chip, drip irrigation. None have been hugely successful. I am planning on putting in a series of zai pits on the slope off the road to store the runoff but that technique wouldn't work on other areas of the land so your timely post is truly helpful.
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I have several different kinds of raised beds. Gophers make it impossible to plant into the ground unfortunately.
The oldest is the most basic. An old kit I got on clearance. It's 4'X4'X2". I found this is not deep enough, so added fence boards to the top making it 7 1/2" deep still not very deep, but does the job. It has weed cloth under it, and is full of good organic soil and compost.
Cement blocks, over weed cloth filled with organic soil and compost.
Then a raised bed made with 2 high cement blocks so 16" deep, and weed cloth bottom. The bottom was filled with old rotten fire wood, soil, branches, soil, wood chips, soil, and compost.
Next hugel beet I dug 2' into the ground, and the hole is lined with 2 high cement blocks. Bottom is covered with the biggest wood I can find, native soil, branches, compostable stuff, native soil, wood chips, native soil, organic soil and compost. Hardwire cloth was added at ground level to protect all but the very deep roots from gophers, but worms and soil life can come and go into the bed. (These are my favorite beds, and eventually I will make the others like this.)
I built raised beds with old redwood fence boards and corrugated steel. Some have weed cloth bottom, and some hardwire cloth bottom. I filled them with the same layers as the hugel beet.
For my melons I wanted them in the ground so I got large black nursery pots and drilled a bunch of Holes in them dug holes and placed the pots in the holes. Put wood on the bottom, and filled some with native soil mixed with organic compost, and some organic soil and organic compost. The verdict is still out on this method. The theory is the roots can grow beyond the pot, worms and soil life can come and go, but the main roots are protected.
Most recent is a bed I built out of pallet wood. Again filled the same as the hugel beet.
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” — Abraham Lincoln
The traditional way of making beds here and in Ireland is the 'lazy bed'. Actually a misnomer - the soil is lazy because not all the soil is turned, rather than being a lazy way of gardening as I can confirm by personal experience now! Basically the turf on either side is flipped to the middle and seaweed added to fertilise the soil. They are normally made up/down hill, and potatoes plated on them. Across the slope would make more sense to avoid erosion.