The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Building a garlic raised bed

I started to write a lengthy manifesto about how even back-to-the-landers and other crunchy types get sucked into the consumerist trap.  I wrote about how Mark and I valiantly strive to steer clear of the consumerist world by dumping the TV, living in a trailer, and so on and so forth...and I could see every reader quickly clicking on an ad just to get away from the endless drivel. :-)
Bare ground So let's stick to specifics, why don't we?  You've probably seen raised bed kits promising you the ease of uncompacted soil which requires no tilling, prevents the spread of crabgrass and other rooting weeds, and protects the fertility of your garden for only $50, $200, or even $800.  This is one of my pet peeves since I can personally attest that you too can have the delight of raised beds for the all time low price of...drumroll please...$0!!! 
Chicken tractor
The first step in building a new raised bed is to break up the soil.  I'm getting ready to plant garlic in an area where I'd had potatoes this year, so after I dug the potatoes I ran the chicken tractor across the new ground for a week or two.  The chicken poop will fertilize the soil, providing phosphate which my soil is a little low on and which garlic loves. 

Begin to dig the aisles

Once the chickens have been moved on to their new location, I start to dig the aisles, mounding the dirt up onto the area where I want the bed to be.  I dig the very top layer of soil only since this is the good stuff full of organic matter.  Don't put clay in your raised bed!  The whole point is to get a double helping of top soil.

Lucy in the aisleIn my garden, I try to to keep beds running in perfect rows, but this bed will be at an angle to the other beds since it would otherwise bisect one of Lucy's paths.  I've learned the hard way that it's a lot easier to plan your beds around where the dog runs than to try to train the dog to run somewhere else!

The first year, my raised beds ended up too close together.  The more space you have in the aisles, the happier you'll be when it comes time to mow weeds.  The picture below shows my measuring system --- both the bed and the aisle should be as wide as the handle of the shovel is long.  (It's always handy to use your tools as measuring implements rather than running inside for a tape measurer.)

Measure the bed

Bed fully dugThe picture to the left shows the completely dug bed.  Notice that I've dug a bit of an aisle on all sides, even the sides which will butt up against lawn or other new beds.  Aisles prevent rooting weeds from wandering up onto the edge of your bed.  Whenever I got lazy at the edge of previous beds and let them run straight into the surrounding "yard", I was sorry!

Add wood ash

I added a light sprinkling of wood ashes to my dirt next since garlic likes neutral soil and my soil is slightly acidic.  Wood ashes will also add a bit more phosphate, which is a plus.

Rake the bed

Now it's time to rake your bed.  Pull the rake through the soil repeatedly, breaking up any clods of dirt and pulling out roots.  The more you rake, the fewer weeds you'll have coming up in your new bed --- rake as long as you can stand it!

Raked bed

The fully raked bed has all of the roots and debris removed and has the soil broken up into relatively fine particles. 

Dig trenchesNext, I use the hoe to dig trenches into the bed.  These can be very shallow if you're planting something like carrots, and can even be ignored altogether when broadcasting lettuce or greens seeds over the whole bed. 

Place bulbs

I use a trowel to dig a little deeper to plant each garlic bulb.  This is the same technique you might use to plant bulbs in your yard without digging up the grass. 

Always stay in the aisles

Notice that I never stand on the bed and always keep my weight on the aisles.  One of the major benefits of raised beds is that the soil doesn't become compacted because you never walk on it.

Hoe the trenches closed.

Once all the garlic bulbs are planted, I use my hoe to drag soil back in to close up each trench.  Then I tamp down the soil gently with the back of the hoe as seen below.

Pat the bed down with the hoe

The finished bed

Here is the finished garlic bed, made and planted in an hour or two at no expense.  I will add compost and mulch as needed, but won't till up this bed again so the soil microorganisms will build up to high levels. 

Two year old bed

The bed to the right is a two year old bed which I just pulled old corn stalks out of.  I'll rake it and mulch it well for the winter, then in the spring it'll be ready to rake and plant.

So there you have it --- a free raised bed made with simple hand tools!  I hope you'll give it a try.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Nice post.I think We've been brain washed in to thinking its necessary to put out money on boards,concrete, or other enclosures when the bed can frestand on its own
Comment by Jalen Sat Sep 24 19:18:39 2011
I think that walled raised beds probably help some urban homesteaders in ritzy neighborhoods get away with growing food, but the rest of us will be much happier without walls, I think. :-)
Comment by anna Sat Sep 24 20:36:28 2011
Do you have to work the soil underneath for larger plants like tomatoes and add organic matter?
Comment by Anonymous Sun Mar 31 14:58:21 2013
Anonymous --- Since writing this post, I've changed over to starting new beds with an even simpler method --- simply laying down a kill mulch with quite a bit of composted manure on top. That seems to work great for tomatoes, so working the soil is definitely optional as long as you don't compact the ground by stepping on it. You'll definitely want to add organic matter, but that can be topdressed --- worms will work it in.
Comment by anna Mon Apr 1 13:11:04 2013

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