March 19th, 2009

Garden Update: Making the Beds

For a new vegetable gardener, listening to experienced gardeners talk is a bit like listening in on orders at Starbucks when you thought they just sold coffee.

The dizzying array of systems and techniques for creating a vegetable bed include traditional farm rows, wide raised beds (without boxes), raised beds (with boxes) and container gardening.

Then there’s the rototilling, single digging, double digging, or no dig (lasagna) methods of loosening your soil.

After that, there are at least a dozen charts on plant spacing ranging from the intensive Square Foot gardening approach recommending four square-feet per tomato to a more extensive approach recommending sixteen square feet per tomato.

Choosing Sides

Me? I’m an extensive, wide, raised bed (no boxes), organic gardener with two garden boxes on the side who likes a skinny double cappuccino dry at the “coffee” shop.

My gardening strategy for beating the Texas heat is to space my plants fairly well apart – they will have better air flow between them and room for a much larger root structure than they would with a more intensive approach (in theory, anyway).

Tomato Beds

Tomatoes spaced four feet apart in four-foot wide beds.

I’m going with four-foot wide beds, a two-foot wide path running the length of the garden, and one-foot wide paths between each bed (you can see the garden map here.) I’ve decided not to build boxes around my beds to save on money and make it easier to use hand-tools. I find it a bit harder to use a full sized shovel and hoe in our smaller raised beds without banging into the wooden sides.

Four feet wide is a comfortable space for me to lean across to weed and the slightly raised beds help remind little feet to stay on the paths (stepping on the beds compacts the soil which inhibits root growth).

Quality Time with my Dirt: Hand Digging the Beds

At the expense of folks questioning my sanity, I will admit that I poo-pooed the traditional rototilling method and hand dug my eight beds. My goal was to try to get at least a foot deep and to remove most of the larger stones from my rocky soil. I will say that hand-digging beds is a great workout and is best done with a sharp shovel and some good tunes on your iPod. My city-girl sister pays good money for workouts like this called “Boot Camp”.

Garden Bed

The first garden bed dug one foot deep and raked smooth.

There’s a great explanation in Gardening When it Counts on how to hand-dig beds over time without killing yourself. Rather than digging an entire foot down on each pass, you attack it in two or three passes.

To hand dig a bed, you slice it into rows of about 4-5 inches each. Place a wheelbarrow at one end of the bed, dig out a row of soil about 4 inches deep and put the first row in the wheelbarrow. On the next row you turn the soil into the hole you just left in the last row – making sure any grasses are upside down so that they don’t easily grow back. Repeat this until the last row and dump the soil from the wheelbarrow into the final hole.

The next time you dig the bed, the top four inches will be nice and loose and you’ll be able to turn over eight inches or so. Keep repeating until you get to your desired depth.

Feeding the Dirt

To enrich the soil I used a combination of finished compost that I purchased from Natural Gardener just outside of Austin and handmade organic fertilizer. The compost can be purchased by the bag or by the yard (one yard is roughly one large pickup load). I spread 1-2 inches on each bed. For easy measuring, two five gallon buckets of compost will add half an inch to a 50 square-foot bed.

The fertilizer recipe is from Steve Solomon and is available both in his book and in this article at Mother Earth News. Basically it’s a combination of seed meal, lime, gypsum, rock phosphate and kelp meal.

Mixing COF

Mixing the fertilizer. Central Texas soil has a lot of limestone and a high P.H. so I went very light on the limes. The original recipe also calls for bone meal – slaughterhouse leftovers dried in a powder. We’re vegetarians, so I skipped that ingredient and increased the amount of seed meal to compensate (as per the recipe instructions).

I shopped around at a number of feed stores in the area to find the ingredients. One owner told me that seed meal was a “Yankee thing” and that you couldn’t get it in Texas (I didn’t tell him I was a transplanted Yankee). I eventually found all but the kelp meal at Callahans General Store. I found the Kelp at Natural Gardener.

COF Ingredients

The fertilizer ingredients all come in 20 to 50 pound bags and you’ll want somewhere dry to store them – I use a large plastic garbage can in the garage.

I spent about $60 on the 1.5 yards of compost and another $200 or so on the fertilizer ingredients which should last a year.

Pepper with fertilizer side-dressed

Caged pepper plant with fertilizer spread around the root zone (side-dressing). Grow pepper, grow!