I think, overall, us gardeners are pretty rotten at living in the now. It’s a coping mechanism, really. I mean, some crop doesn’t do well or some bug kills your entire harvest, and instead of getting all depressed, you can instead figure out how to fix it next year. There’s always next year.
I want to tell you that I live in the present and haven’t even started thinking about our 2014 garden, but that’s a load of bull. I started thinking about our 2014 garden before our 2013 garden was in the ground. I swear, when planting stuff this spring I probably said, “Next year, we should….” at least 20 times.
Anywho, we’ve learned a TON this year. And we’re both really excited to get started next year on fixing the mistakes we made. One of the big changes we’ve decided to make for next year is to building wide, raised unsupported rows—basically big long raised beds. We struggled a lot with soil compaction and drainage issues this year, and after doing a lot of research from quite a few sources, we decided to try out the wide rows.
The great thing about raised rows is that you get all the benefits of raised beds (no soil compaction, easy to tend, fitting in more crops) without any of the expense of building actual beds out of lumber or other materials.
We’re not naive enough to say, “This is the way it’ll stay forever!” but we’d really like to land on a permanent solution soon so we can focus on building the soil each year in the same spot. And we’d love to eventually get to the point where we aren’t tilling. The more we read about no-till operations, the more we would love to be one. It’d be amazing to avoid the loud, gas-guzzling rototiller and from our research (and experience this year), tilling might cause more problems than it’s worth.
Anywho, we actually started raising the rows yesterday! We’re slowly, but surely, pulling out our summer crops as they peter out, leaving some open ground to get started. Last week, I tilled where our potatoes were and raked everything even to get it prepped for raising bed (note how dry it is compared to the last time you saw this spot).
We decided to go ahead and work on this section, because it’s where we wanted to plant our Fall crops, and we figured we might as well get this area to be how we want it now instead of waiting.
The process was insanely simple. We talked over how wide we wanted the rows to be and landed on 3-1/2 feet wide. Admittedly, Craig wanted them a little wider, and I wanted them a little narrower, so it’s a compromise, but I’m really happy with the final width. It’s wide enough to fit lots of plants, but narrow enough to not feel like you are straining to get to the center from the aisle. Anywho, we staked out 42″ rows, with 24″ aisles between each in this section. We ended up fitting four.
And then we ran strings to make sure our row edges were somewhat straight.
And then, we started digging!
It was really as simple as scooping up the loose topsoil from the aisles and dropping it into the raised bed between the two strings. I had tweaked my back the day before, so Craig took over 99% of the digging, and he made really quick work of it. Because we’d tilled so deeply before, it was a breeze for him. Okay, not a breeze, but it wasn’t as time-consuming as either of us expected it to be.
We both remarked a few times about how much sense this method makes. Why would you want to waste your perfectly good, healthy topsoil in the aisles when you could add it to your growing area? Duh.
It took him about 30 minutes to dig around each bed, and then I went at it with a rake and leveled it all out. Overall, between digging out the aisles and raising up the beds, we ended up with beds that are about 8″ high. And all of that is soft, airy topsoil.
As Craig was digging, I started amending the soil on the first row. This was the one we were planning on planting our fall crops in, so we wanted to do a little bit more work on it. On top went about an inch worth of compost.
And then that was raked over and lightly mixed in. Our plan is to do a lasagna gardening/no-till method with these beds. Each growing season, we’ll just add more and more compost and organic material. In the winter, we’ll cover each bed with either a cover crop or a big thick layer of mulch to protect them from soil compaction and erosion. Each spring, all we have to do is pull back the mulch or cut down the cover crop and we’ll have soil that is ready to be planted as soon as it warms, no tilling needing.
Weed-control was one of the biggest issues we had with our row crops this year. Oh my gosh, the weeds. We tried mulching. We tried hand-pulling. We tried vinegar. It was just a totally losing battle. We’ve gone back and forth about how we want to control weeds in the garden (landscaping cloth, plastic mulch, etc.) but eventually landed on the method I remember from my time as a kid in the garden—wet newspaper. We really like the newspaper because it’s compostable, it lets water through, and it’s free. I like free.
We’ve been collecting newspapers for a while now. And by “collecting” I mean “pillaging from the recycling bin at the dump”. Our plan is to lay a few layers of newspaper down in both the aisles and around the plants, and then cover that up with some sort of organic, compostable mulch that will break down with the newspaper.
In the aisles, we landed on using grass clippings—something that is never in short supply in the summer around here. Next spring, we’ll probably use hardwood mulch in the aisles. The grass clippings can get a little goopy and slippery when wet/decomposing, but we were looking for something that breaks down relatively quickly for the shortened fall season and grass clippings fit the bill and the budget. But the hardwood mulch will hopefully hold up to a whole season of walking next year.
Our hopes are that one or two seasons of the newspaper/mulch combo will help really lower a lot of the weed infestations we have, and we might be able to get away with just thick mulch and not the double-ply job we’re doing here. We’re not expecting a totally weed-free environment (especially with organic gardening) but we’re just looking for an amount of weeds that is actually manageable.
Once I had the aisle done, I started planting. Planting was SO easy in this bed. Since the soil was so soft, I could just stick my hand it, pull out a handful and put in one of our starts (we planted cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in this bed). No trowel needed.
And then, around the plants, we put more layers of newspaper.
And topped that off with a layer of straw. Which we rushed to put on because a pop-up storm…well…popped up and the wind was swirling. Even soaked newspaper wants to blow away when you have thunderstorm winds.
We got all the straw down in a rush and stepped back for a second to admire our handiwork—we were really, incredibly happy with what we saw. Obviously, we can’t tell from just looking how it’s going to help with production, but we’re hopeful. Craig said something about it looking “cozy”. And he’s totally right. Our plants look so cozy and comfortable in their new home. Hopefully they’ll take off like rockstars!
The remaining three beds are going to be planted with a cover crop that has yet to be determined—we’re still debating our options. And then come spring, we’ll kill the cover crop, cover that with compost/soil and doing the same plant/newspaper/mulch treatment we did with the cabbage and friends.
It’s a good thing this side went so smoothly, because we have 14 more of these suckers to dig out on the other half of the garden. But if these raised rows work out the way we think they will (and the way other folks have told us they will from their experience), it will be well worth the time and effort now to save some time and effort later and increase yields.
Have a great weekend!