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Help a newbie out with raised garden bed advice  RSS feed

 
david mcgrath
Posts: 7
Location: NJ
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Tomorrow I want to build a  4 by 8 raised garden and put it in an 8 by 14 area. I'll need to fence it in because of the animals in our area. What should I put around the surrounding soil that is around the bed? Woodchips? Will this be annoying to work on? I'm a total newbie, and not all that handy, but I don't think putting together a 4 by 8 bed should be too difficult. Any advice regarding this will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!!!


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future raised garden I hope!!!
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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What's the allure of a raised bed? In other words, what's your goal/intent?
 
david mcgrath
Posts: 7
Location: NJ
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My neighbor, who I trust, says that my soil is horrible and nothing great will grow there. I would rather not trust me, but there is horrible drainage there and stays soaked for a while after it rains. Any advice on how to imrpove the soil if a raised bed is a bad idea? I know it's not an overnight process but this is something I really want to figure out. Thanks!!!
 
david mcgrath
Posts: 7
Location: NJ
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My goal is to start out small, a cherry tomato and zucchini plant along with some herbs, nothing crazy.
 
James Freyr
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Location: Middle Tennessee
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I have wood chips around my raised beds and I find it acceptable to kneel on without totally irritating my knees. Years ago when I did this I rolled out a weed barrier fabric before I shoveled the wood chips in place. My thinking at the time and the sole reason I did all this was because I didn't want to keep up with mowing grass in-between my raised beds. It's worked out well for me so far. I do get some weeds here and there but they are all from wind blown seeds. I currently have a ton of maple tree seeds sprouting everywhere, but they're easy to pull.
 
Matthew Rupert
Posts: 20
Location: Warsaw, MO
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I would think smaller vs. larger wood chips would be better on one's knees.  If you have the budget and want a productive garden this year, I'd suggest doing the raised bed.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong but an 80% soil - 20% manure/compost mix of imported material would be ideal, give-or-take depending on the plants being grown.  I've heard some say put the nutrients at the bottom of the bed, others say a few inches from the top. 

There are plenty of ways to start improving soil quality without buying bagged soil and building a raised bed, but that would be a longer process.  
 
Matthew Rupert
Posts: 20
Location: Warsaw, MO
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Using straw or a similar natural mulch around your plants in the garden bed would be helpful as well.  Sun-baked soil is not ideal.

Now that I think of it, you could just get some straw to mulch both on the bed and the border around it.
 
Hester Winterbourne
Posts: 192
Location: West Midlands UK (zone 8b)
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I would just add that I hate weed membranes.  I've got them under the slate chips in my back garden sitting areas, but not under the woodchips up the allotment.  I have the chips in a deep layer, deeper in the middle of the path, and I add more every year (chipped Christmas trees for preference).  What I see quite often is people don't put a deep enough layer on top of membrane, and the membrane starts to ruckle up at the edges and then the weeds get in, or they start to grow in the chip and the owner doesn't deal quickly enough, and in either case once weed roots get entangled in the membrane and you pull, it all comes up and never looks right again.  Or the allotment holder abandons their plot and it all gets in a nasty mess.  I like to think if I walked away from my plot it would all go back to nature without any nasty plastic buried horrors, and my wood chips are slowly adding back into the soil.  Yes I get the odd weed growing in the chips, but they are easy enough to pull out. 

Having said that I inherited my plot from a digger, so there weren't any persistent perennial weeds in there like couch grass or dock.
 
William Bronson
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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You should build a smaller bed.
4 X 8 is huge, too wide by half,in my opinion.
Too difficult to reach into the center, too much space for too few plants,etc.
Two 2x8 beds with a 2 foot path in between would be better.
A bed shaped like a "U" would be better still.

I like leaves and branches topped with compost for my beds.
I'm still working out my preferred path choices, but I'm currently favoring a living mulch of alfafa in the paths.
Clover struggles to establish itself ,and woodchips cost more in money or effort than I want to put into weed suppression.

In your case, digging out paths and mixing your that soil with your imported amendments seems like a good idea.
Fill the resulting trenches with  rocks and gravel, or wood chips,this should help with that wetness you mentioned.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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It's good that you are not super ambitious with your planting, as it will take some work to get your plot started but should be fine to expand production in the future.  It's going to be a bit of work, but it's work done once, and you feel very rewarded for it.

Basic general design tips: When looking at the photo, with your tap and your basement window well, I'd say to build your bed so that there is a two foot path starting where that potted plant is by the deck that goes to the window well. This give you reaching access to your tap. I'm not sure if that is a dryer vent to the right of the tap, but that could cause problems if it is.  The dryer exhaust can be quite harsh on plants, so you might need a flexible pipe to move that hot caustic air to the right.    At any rate, that reduces the size of your plot, and thus the amount of work you are doing!

The rest, which would be 4' X 6' is still a difficult reach for weeding, particularly against the back wall.  So in the center of your pavers side (opposite the wall) put a keyhole of 2' X 2' which gives you are comfy access reach to all parts of the bed from the accessible sides to the wall.  That is your basic design, in my opinion.

Hugulkultur, and other tips on planting out this beast.

If I was you and I had access to old wood lying around (no paint, creosote, treatments), and preferably rotten (there's bound to be some laying around in the neighborhood), I'd do some work with a spade, making the soil the sort of texture that you might think plants would grow well in, which is loose, but not powdery.  It should crumble in little self contained moist balls when it is full of fertility (but that will come later) for the meantime try to get it to roughly a texture of a bunch of pea sized dirt balls, which will allow drainage, and good root penetration.  If you have access to sand (which you probably do if you ask around your neighborhood), that might be a good additive to mix with your soil to boost your soil's drainage, and volume. At any rate, If you have the old wood, I would put a tarp on your pavers and dig a pit in the soil of the whole area out onto the tarp.  Then I would deeply work the subsoil so that it is loose and better draining.  Unless your soil is already full of rocks and sand, adding sand here for drainage, might be a good idea if you have access to lots.  Now lay in the wood in the bed shape I described, then wet the wood.  Mix enough of your soil and sand together rich in sand (50%) that you can fill the cracks/gaps in the wood, then moisten this mound without soaking it (you want an aerobic-oxygen rich-system, too much water will make it anaerobic). That's the basic core of the hugulkultur.  

If you have some fresh grass clippings or fresh food scrap, or any green organic matter, or even wood chips, lay them in with your wood and/or on top of it (if you don't have much, just put it on top as this will work it's way downward).  This will add nitrogen to the wood, so the wood breaks down faster.  Any wet organic green or wet material can go here.   If you have access to some finished compost, wait.  Don't add it yet, unless you have a lot.  If you have a lot then add a quarter or less of it now; this adds nitrogen and micro organisms to the woody layer.  Conserve your urine for a week, or just pee on the woody mix for a few days for more nitrogen and moisture.  At any rate, everything should be moistened as you add layers.  Next add your soil and sand mixture (50% sand is probably too much here, but it can be pretty rich in sand to improve drainage).  Moisten.  Finally finish the soil with compost; if you have to buy this the first year, it will be worth it in the end for the years to come.  If you don't have much and are wanting to skimp, then dress only where you are planting your choice crops.  I would go the extra yard and buy some if you don't have it.  Compost is pretty amazing stuff. You don't need to work it into the soil, but if you want and you have a lot, work some of it a bit into the top couple inches. 

A single bale of straw goes a long way for mulch and is a relatively cheap investment considering the time saved on weeding.  Put the squash at the back by the wall, you only need to harvest later in the season.  If you have access to manure or lots of compost, make a hole under your squash planting spot, and put manure or compost in it.  Water the manure or compost.  Put the soil back with a shallow well on top of the resulting mound, put your squash transplant or seeds there.  Put the tomato where it will get lots of sun, and where you can easily pick it.  Put larger herbs further back and shorter herbs in the front of them.    I would also go to a seed shop and buy a package of peas and a package of lettuce and a package of kale or chard plant peas between your plants and plant the seeds of the others around them too.  As the peas grow, you can train them to wander where you like, or chop them out.  They are mostly there to boost nitrogen (which is formed by nitrogen fixing bacteria on roots of pea family plants) in your soil.  If you want peas, then let some of them go to flower and beyond; if you want to get the most nitrogen out of the peas into the soil, then chop them when they just begin to flower and let the whole plants rot in place. The greens are cut and come again plants, that you can thin out so that your desired plants are not too crowded.  These extra plantings take up the space of weeds, and will add life to your soil as microbes will interact with the roots, and form the little moist balls and pore structure I mentioned before. 

If you are really ambitious and like the sound of having peas you could put a trellis or netting against the backing wall and plant a line of peas there. You'll have to train them to send their tendrils to cling to the structure.  Peas are super easy to grow, and as mentioned, are great for the soil.

After planting, put straw on the bed, to cover the soil 50%.  This gives your soil surface structure and some protection, but allows the seeds to germinate.  After your seeds are up, cover the soil around the plants with a bit more mulch.  After you can recognize your plantings from weeds, weed it and mulch heavily. 

Throughout the garden season, keep your soil moist, but not wet.

Lay cardboard on the paths, and put wood chips on that this will kill off any germinating weeds, and add a base layer for your chips that is also biodegradable.  Sawdust is more friendly on the knees but it sometimes gets tracked into the house.  Wood chips aren't bad though.  The deeper they are, the less weeds you have, and the easier the weeds are to pull when they sprout up.  Deeply mulched paths also will boost your soils fertility later on, give habitat to beneficial insects, and will stop the sides of your bed from drying out too much on hot days.  As your mulched paths breaks down, add them to the edges of your beds and between plants, and add more rough mulch to your paths.  Continue to add compost with future plantings and leave as much of a plant's roots in the soil as you can to keep the soil fertility (microbial population) intact. You will not need to till or shovel in the beds again.  The plant roots and the soil microbes will do all that for your, creating that crumb and pore structure that I mentioned.          
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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david mcgrath wrote:My neighbor, who I trust, says that my soil is horrible and nothing great will grow there. I would rather not trust me, but there is horrible drainage there and stays soaked for a while after it rains. Any advice on how to imrpove the soil if a raised bed is a bad idea? I know it's not an overnight process but this is something I really want to figure out. Thanks!!!


Do you have soil test results? better yet does your trusted neighbor have soil test results to prove his assessment? 

Drainage can be addressed simply by digging deep and working in things like compost and sand (except when the clay content is high, sand makes clay into concrete).
That soil doesn't look like there is a huge amount of clay near the surface so a test hole is in order to assess what lies below that might be causing water pooling.

Raised beds are always an option (I have good drainage but have installed raised beds simply because they are easier to work with old knees).
Another option is containers, since you are not looking to grow a lot of items this year, those are a viable option as well.

Roberto has made some good observations of the space, the window should not be covered up, the dryer vent? should be fitted with a diverter (just something to redirect the air flow will do fine).

A bed 4 ft. wide means you need to be able to get to both sides of it so you don't compact your soil when working the garden. (we use two foot wide to 4 foot wide raised beds, depending on what we grow in that bed).
 
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