Building Your Garden (No Matter How Small)

Jessica Smith

March 21, 2017

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Building Your Garden (No Matter How Small)

Now that you have the foundational knowledge of starting your garden from my previous post, I want to share with you some different techniques for building garden beds! From digging, to no digging, to containers, there is something here to fit your needs. This is by no means a complete document on garden beds! These are just some I have personally tried and found successful.

Let’s start with one of the more labor intensive beds that requires digging and some land. Wait! Before you skip over this section! Yes, these beds do take some energy, but it is only an initial input to invest in the future and boy you will feel amazing after building these! After building about 6 of these beds, I was in beast shape, like “hello muscle definition”! If you prefer the gym though, I recommend something called a workshop or work party in order to get these beds done in your own backyard. You know what they say, “many hands make light work!” I briefly mentioned berm and swale beds in this post and will share with you how to build your own.

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Here is the process:

  • Choose the area where your beds will go and stake and string out the parameter/boarder.
  • If there are grasses or weeds, cover them with cardboard ahead of time to make them die back. I usually do this for 2 weeks if possible. Make sure to weigh down the cardboard (remove the tape) with bricks or large rocks until you get started
  • Use a digging fork or shovel to remove the top layer of root matted soil to border out your bed and toss it into the pathway.
  • Then, go through and continue digging out the bed until you hit a compacted layer or about 18 inches. You should now have a pit where your bed will be and a mound of soil where your path will be.
  • At this stage, I like to take a pick ax or groundhog tool and break/fluff up the compacted layer.
  • I like to sprinkle compost over this to encourage it to become structured. Then I lay down cardboard and wet it.
  • Once the cardboard is down I begin with another layer of compost, then a sprinkle of amendments and rock dust, then a layer of the soil previously removed. This layer  process continues until I have used all the removed soil. Throughout the process, I like to moisten the berm I am building slightly. Similar to a wrung out sponge.
  • The next step is to dig out your path and pile that soil evenly on the berm, this is your swale. The path should be dug out about 8 – 10 inches deep.
  • I like to level the top of the berm to my desired bed width, so it is like a flat-topped berm.
  • Now lay down cardboard in your swale path and cover your berm in a nice layer of compost.
  • Water the new bed moderately and then apply newspaper and moisten to secure it in place. Newspaper end rolls are great, or non-colored newspaper will work can.
  • On top of the newspaper I like to add an extra mulch layer of straw or chipped leaves depending on if I will be seeding it or transplanting into it.
  • Fill the swales with straw, dead leaves (chipped don’t scatter as bad), or wood chips (no black walnut, cedar, or pine).
  • Tidy up and boarder out your beds with any extra cardboard and mulch.
  • In order to transplant into the bed, just pull back the mulch and poke through the newspaper to add a transplant or larger seeds, such as peas. You can pull back the mulch and add a layer of compost mixed with native soil on top of the newspaper to scatter/plant tiny seeds like lettuce, then sprinkle another very thin layer of the compost/soil blend on top of the seeds.

That is it! In a week or so, there should be an enormous boost in the earthworm population as your bermed bed comes alive!

The next bed I will describe uses a technique called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching and is a great option if you have a lawn you wish to build up without digging. This type of bed may and require digging, but it does require time to really get it where you want it to be. Use caution in rural areas. I highly recommend speeding up the decomposition of these beds before planting in them, as I didn’t the first time and ended up building a perfect habitat for snakes. More so, the snakes may have just been attracted to rodents coming to harvest or also nest in my materials.

Here is how to build one:

  • Choose a spot in your yard for your garden and mark it out.
  • Cover the grass with thick cardboard, if using newspaper, at least 20 plus layers of wet sheets.
  • Start building layers by alternating layers of “browns” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper, or presoaked straw with layers of “greens” such as vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, manure, and grass clippings. Your goal is to have your “brown” layers about twice as deep as your “green” layers. This is not an exact science though, just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. Sprinkle rock dust or other special ingredients on top of each green layer. A layer of fresh seaweed is also a great mineral rich addition.
  • Continue layering until you have a two and a half foot tall layered bed. This will shrink down drastically over time.
  • Water the layers of materials as you lay them down. The straw layer in particular takes some time as straw does not readily absorb water. Pre-soaking the bales in standing water can also help if that’s an option for you. The moisture and organic matter will encourage earthworms to come and mix everything up.
  • An example of layers might look like this:
    • 2-3 layers of cardboard wetted down.
    • 1-2” manure or dead green things
    • 1-2 bales of straw or leaves – need 2-3” deep layer
    • 1 bale of hay (N-rich clover or alfalfa), 2-3” deep layer
    • 2-3” deep layer of vegetable scraps
    • 2-3” deep layer of chopped leaves or straw
    • 2-3” deep layer of vegetable scraps
    • Native or top soil, 2-3” layer
    • Good quality compost – 2-3” layer
    • Water the garden until it’s wet but not soaking – like a wet sponge.
  • Cover the bed with a layer of chopped leaves or straw and cover with a tarp. It is best to let this set over the fall and winter before planting. You can even plant a winter kill cover crop mix such as peas and oats to add more organic matter and soil structure.
  • Remember to stay off the soil, which compacts it and damages pores that improve drainage.
  • Most types of crops can be planted, but the bed should be good and mature before planting root crops.
  • At the end of your first growing season, be sure to add more green and brown materials and mulch or cover crop to protect the soil you are building. Speaking of soil, I would add a layer of soil every now and then with some good clay content.

My final beds I would like to discuss are container gardens and boxed in raised beds. The concept of the raised bed box is a very familiar one. You can build or buy the frame and then fill it with soil, compost, minerals and mulch, or you can incorporate the lasagna gardening technique with the beds. As for container gardening, basically any kind of vessel with drainage and soil holding capacity will do. You can find my potting soil recipe in this blog post. I do prefer a container that is at least 12 inches deep depending on what I am growing so the roots have plenty of space. Container gardens are great options for apartment patios and limited space. It is such a peaceful atmosphere to go out on an apartment balcony surrounding by vibrant green plants and flowers buzzing with bees and birds.

Don’t have ANY space AT ALL?! Community gardens are your solution! There are numerous ways a community garden can be set up, but usually, you will get your own plot and have access to tools and some materials. If there is not a community garden near you, this is a HUGE problem for food security in your area and I highly recommend teaming up with some other awesome people in your neighborhood to make one happen! You can also grow food indoors, such as microgreens which are super nutritious and easy to grow, find out how HERE!

There you go! Get out there and build that garden bed to set the stage for that beautiful and abundant garden you have been dreaming of! The foundation of any incredible garden working WITH nature and provide the essentials that life needs to thrive and avoiding anything that does and align with nature. This will reduce our work through and make gardening more enjoyable. Check out THIS POST for a step by step guide to a healthy garden.