I received an email from a new reader recently. Lisa had been pricing lumber, looking for design ideas, and searching the web for information on raised bed gardening when she stumbled upon my post “Contained Raised Beds? NO WAY!”
She and her husband were thrilled to find out that you really don’t need to buy wood and build frames for raised beds.
(As far as I’m concerned — that’s just more work you don’t need to do.)
How They Garden Now
This couple started out gardening with single rows and recently have gone to wide beds, but they still till the ground each year. She writes, ” —we spend a ton of time and energy cultivating the beds and walkways to keep the weeds from taking over.”
They use only a minimal amount of mulch.
She writes, “We try to mulch as much as we can, but we have had a hard time finding organic straw and the hay we used a few times was just way too weedy. I know this is not the best practice in terms of disease, pest management or soil health, but it is what we knew so we stuck with it. ”
Searching for a Better Way
From what she tells me in her emails — Lisa and her husband know they are doing much more work than they need to do and could get better results with less work if she knew how.
In the process of searching for a better way — she was attracted to raised beds thinking maybe they could produce more, and have fewer, healthier plants in a smaller space.
Cover Crops – Diversity is the Key to even Greater Benefits
I was glad to learn from Lisa’s email they had started working with cover crops. It’s my understanding that the area in the picture you see below is currently planted with crimson clover. That will be excellent for the soil and will attract beneficials as well.
In the past, I’ve underplanted tomatoes with crimson clover to act as a living mulch. I kept it trimmed to about 6 or 8 inches rather than letting it get up taller.
Shorter white dutch clover is another option which is said to do especially well in clay and/or silt soils. It’s used a lot for a living mulch since it tolerates foot traffic. I’ve outlined wildflower beds with it in the past and plan to grow it in some of my garden paths this year.
They’ve also grown rye — which is excellent for soil improvement.
The biomass of winter rye can be cut and put back onto the bed as mulch or used in the compost pile.
The decaying roots (left in the ground after the biomass is cut) can act as a mulch for beds with warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, cukes, and squash.
The variety of crops that you can use to enhance your garden is amazing: legumes (peas and beans), clovers (red, white, yellow), alfalfas, small grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley), buckwheat, kale, oil seed radish, and Sudangrass. I haven’t gotten to all of them yet, but I’m definitely working in that direction.
To get the broadest range of benefits for your garden — diversity in cover crops is a main key.
Lisa and her husband have been gardening organically for 11 years. I am assuming that by organically — she means they do not use harmful chemicals to “fertilize” or to kill pests. Thus – she would indeed be keeping the letter of the law. Greater rewards come when you keep the spirit of the law.
There are alternatives to each component necessary for gardening.
You’ll be greatly rewarded if you chose methods that replicate and respect nature. By making her your partner she’ll do most of the hard work for you. If you work in opposition to what her natural ways are — it’s a given that you’ll loose the battle.
3 Essential Changes for a More Productive, Healthful, Easy-to-Care-for-Organic Garden
- Permanent raised beds (no frames unless you want the extra work)
- Some form of cover (also called mulch) on the entire garden including the paths
- 8 months of flowering blossoms on shrubs, trees, and flowers within at least 50 feet of the garden. They will attract and provide habitat for pollinators and predatory wasps/flies/beetles.
What Happens When We Till and Dig the Soil
When the soil is tilled — or even if there is a lot of digging going on with a shovel — much of the soil life is killed. Over time the soil life will build again if organic material is replenished, the soil is kept covered, and it’s not severely disturbed again.
When ground for a garden is first “opened” it should be loosened deeply. Done properly deep soil preparation should be necessary only one time.
To continually till the soil each year keeps nature from doing all she can to help your garden be the best it can be. Every time you till you destroy much of the soil web (soil life) that was just starting to rebuild itself.
The Super Advantages of Covered Permanent – no till Beds
Permanent beds that have organic materials added to them each year and are always mulched (replicating nature) allow the activity of soil life to increase continually and thus — improve your garden.
As soil life (also called microbes or microorganisms) increases its activity —- it helps:
- suppress disease organisms,
- improves soil structure, and
- digests the organic matter.
In turn the organic matter improves the soil’s ability to
- hold water,
- to drain properly, and
- allows the nutrients in the soil to be better used by the plants.
In other words – nature will be making your garden stronger and better.
And one of the most rewarding advantages is when you go out in the spring: All you need do is to pull back the mulch where you want to plant — and plant. That’s it! No other work needed!
5 Great Results from making 3 Essential Changes
From what I’ve been told and shown via pictures, this young family has enough land already under cultivation — that with the suggested changes mentioned above — their garden could
- feed their family all year in half the space they are using now to grow vegetables
- grow all the mulch they needed to cover their soil in the beds not used to grow food
- accommodate a wildflower and/or annual bed, numerous perennials, and even berries if they desire
(Some wildflowers could be sown right now.)
(Yellow clover could do double duty by bringing in beneficials and pulling up nutrients from deep in the soil.)
- have one bed for a compost pile big enough to provide compost for the entire garden (A different bed would be used each year.)
- And within a year or two the garden should be weed free with about 5 or 10 minutes of attention to weeds every day.
The outer perimeter will be the area that most weeding will have to be done. Keeping that area heavily mulched and then weed eating (with a weed trimmer) the outside edge will make it much easier AND will enhance the beauty of the overall garden.
By preparing permanently raised beds, replicating nature with mulch over the entire garden, and using a broad variety of cover crops available to improve their soil as well as obtain their mulch, and having bloom to attract beneficials —– they’ll have a garden that is beautiful, productive, high reward and low maintenance.
To see a few of the 1500 pictures on this site of my garden and borders:
Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and its a lot healthier.
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