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Fall Garden Prep: About Raised Beds in Two Parts

This last week was a quiet one on the homestead. A week of reflection, contemplation and remembrance.  Samhain has passed and we inch closer and closer to the Winter Solstice. Dark winter descends upon us. I find myself weary. Bone tired. My bed clings to me tighter every morning. The chill in the house doesn’t help either, nor does the ice outside.

The push to get everything ready for winter and early preparation for spring in an attempt to make next year easier than this. I pointed out my grand prep plans to my husband and told him if all goes well I won’t be so tired next year. He knows me well, he laughed a bit and reminded me that I’d find more way to cram another serving of work onto my plate (and probably his plate too). Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. He’s probably right – but don’t tell him I said so. Can’t go setting a precedent!

This past weekend was one of the last few working weekends in the gardens and barn. The main push was to pull up the electric fencing, mow down any out of control grass, build out new garden beds from reclaimed lumber found under the old house deck (FREE LUMBER!!!), and then clean the coop/lay down hot fertilizer in the newly made beds.

For years I have fought against the idea of raised beds in the main garden. Why? Because I have this ideal picture of pretty weed-free rows. Maybe get fancy and create swirls and patterns. Perhaps even rip it all out and plan it according to directional and celestial correlations. A girl can dream!

Every year, like clockwork, I start losing the battle against weeds around mid-August. By September they’ve officially won.  In October I get a new idea and am convinced it’ll work.

Fall of 2015 I did the same thing as every other year. But I gave up a bit on those pretty rows and decided to build out 8, 4×16 raised beds. I had the soil already and plenty of mulch for weed suppression (you’re never going to get away from all weeds – ever!).  I spent the next few months reading up on how to maximize growth in these boxes. I ended up combining a few approaches: Square Foot Gardening  and Back to Eden  as my primary approaches. Both are FANTASTIC approaches to building a successful garden.

STEP 1: Dirt Prep – Both schools of thought depends on creating and maintaining quality soil. I find the additives in Square Foot are difficult to manage on a larger scale which is where Back to Eden comes into play. Back to Eden depends on creating a holistic, garden-wide, healthy ecology. Building on what is already there and using some weed suppexels-photo-139746pression as necessary. For my garden boxes, laying down initial weed suppression isn’t highly optimal as I’ve already spent quite a bit of time and money building my soil up. My approach is to intensively graze my pigs and chickens on the soil I intend to turn into beds. For me, this is more efficient – fewer weeds and breakfast all in one pass!  The pigs root up the weeds from the bottom up and the chicken swoop in and do a final cleanup sweep of pests that I’d rather not have in my garden.

STEP 2: Boxing it in – Once your soil is relatively ready, it’s time to set in your first box or two. I find setting 4 in at once makes the most sense. It’s the start of an organized grid. When constructing the boxes, try to remember that the contents will grow over the years – literally. As you build more soil in the garden boxes the soil level is going to rise, you want to have enough space to build up as your improve your soil.

My boxes are made out of 16-foot deck board that are 1 inch thick and 5 inches tall. The corners are held together by a 8 inch long 1×1 vertical post. For the first year, I only have one layer of boards on the outside. It’s a matter of economics. If you have the resources to build them to their full height in year one – do it! Have the ABILITY to expand is crucial! I can double the height of mine as needed with little effort.

When building your boxes, use whatever resources you have available. While rebuilding our deck this summer we found a treasure trove of old 16 ft deck boards. FREE! We also have cinder blocks and pavers. Use what you have and make it work for you. Raised beds can become quite pricey but don’t need to be! I’ve seen them made from prefab kits, cinder blocks, rocks, corrugated roofing. Look around and get creative!

Another important point is to make sure you can actually reach what’s in the center of the beds. At 4 feet wide I can easily access whatever is in the center as well as I can whatever is on the end. In the distant past, I had 8 foot wide beds wedged in a corner – these weren’t practical at all as I constantly had to step into the beds to get my produce. Compacting all of that lovely soil. Compacting = bad!

Another logistic to consider, how far apart will your beds be from each other? Do you use a wagon in your aisle to collect produce? Do you kneel on the ground when planting? Do you have large tools you want to move? For me, I measured my beds at “butt distance” from each other. I found the person in the house with the widest derriere (ME!!!!) and sat down between rows. Could I comfortably fit? Do what works for you. Add a few more inches if you go the derriere route – they rarely shrink over the years!

Next Monday we’ll discuss filling up those boxes to not waste!

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Fall Garden Prep – Part 1

lake-fall

What is fall garden prep? It’s all about doing whatever you can do now so when the snow melts in the spring you have as little to do as possible before seeds and seedlings can go into the ground.

On our homestead, this has traditionally meant pulling out leftover plants, gleaning seeds, and preparing beds with compost and manure. This year those plans stand but we are also including building out more raised beds, filling them, and covering both the beds and the walkways in fresh mulch.

So Step 1a: Start pulling out plants! It’s as easy as it sounds. Walk up to a plant and carefully pull it out of the ground.

I try not to disturb the topsoil and mulch too much – it’s an ecosystem after all. Mother nature in her infinite wisdom has designed this system.

Let’s pause here for a moment. When’s the last time you paused and looked at how Mother Nature builds our planet. Take a walk in the woods – what do you see? Trees, scrubby plants, fallen and rotting timber and leaf litter – everywhere. How do you suppose this all works? The tall trees need food and have deep and penetrating roots. The scrubby plants roots reach out but not so far down. Then there’s the bugs and creepy crawlies. So the leaves fall from the big trees onto the ground. They sit and rot. Bugs walk and munch on them. Worms squirm and then they POOP. Yes, I said it. I have small children. I say POOP a lot. It’s that poop that breaks down the leaves, creates manure that heats the leaf litter and cooks it to compost and then to fresh dirt. There are also the fungi that root in the fallen timber and at the base of standing trees. They all depend on that layering of fresh soil, decomposing organic matter, and fresh leaf litter (plus a bit of straight nitrogen courtesy of herbivores and carnivores).

That’s how nature works. Why not replicate that in your garden? Remember when I spoke about Back to Eden Gardening? Go check it out. The how-to video is legally FREE TO WATCH! Go watch it. You don’t even need to believe in Eden – it’s about how the world  works. How the Mother works.radishes

While you are pulling out those plants – take a look around. Are there any plants you can eat? What about ones for your animals? Set those aside. My goats and pigs LOVE corn stalks. The lettuce and spinach that has bolted – once you take the seeds your goats and pigs won’t turn their noses up at those bitter greens.

The ones that aren’t edible (e.g. nightshade plants) can go into their own pile to be checked for disease and if clean to compost. Everything in your garden can be consumed directly or indirectly. This year’s green bean plant is Grandma’s Green Beans and Ham meal this year and next year’s ham once the piggies finishing processing it for me!

Step 1b: While you are busy pulling out plants, did you miss any possible seed sources? Sure it’s probably frosted a time or ten. But those seeds are built to deal with frost. They are little DNA vaults, waiting for the perfect time to unleash their own brand of chaos in the world. In this instance, the chaos they unleash provides food for us!

Next Fall Garden Prep Post: All about Raised Beds