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New garden bed: The Hard Way

Welcome Back!
Now, we’ve discussed starting a garden with two easy methods before – these are ‘no till/no dig’ methods. The first involves using straw (NOT hay! Make sure you get straw, which is bright yellow, shiny and slick, not hay which is green or greenish brown and filled with plants and seed heads and goodness knows what else)bales, compost and growing inside the enclosure. Straw Bale Gardening
The second involves putting down layers of corrugated cardboard, compost and creating raised beds with that. Lasagne Gardening

We’ve done a bit with the cardboard method, especially for paths between garden beds and it does work; but for this particular project, we decided to go back to our original method, the ‘back-breaking, get out all the rocks, use a pick ax, shovel method. I’m not sure exactly why (the discussion was accompanied by a couple of glasses of very nice wine so it’s a bit fuzzy), but if nothing else, I get to show you how to ‘get ‘er done’.

One of the features of our garden area is that the contractors dumped all the fill from digging the basement of the house. This means that what we had to work with 25 years ago when we started gardening on that spot was grey clay, grey clay, more grey clay and rocks. What this this method does, is that it basically removes any rocks larger than about baseball size (which is a good thing since we know that rocks breed and if you don’t remove them, you will only get more). It also gives you the opportunity to create a bed from BELOW the ground up, so that you can grow deeply rooted things.

First step (and I have to refer you to the photo at the top): With a pointed end spade, a ‘turf’ spade, or what is referred to in the UK as a ‘poacher’s spade’, cut the grass (the sod, as it were )into pieces. Run a shovel with a sharp edge underneath them to loosen the roots and rip the sod up. You can do any of the following with it:
1) Throw it away (which I do not advocate).
2) Pave areas with dips and holes – some of the sod will rot but some will root and you will have filled the hole AND gotten your grass growing in one step. Get the edges of the pieces of sod to come together; water well.
3) Create the base of a compost pile by putting it grass side down for the first layer, then grass side up for the next layer; grass side down and so on.

Second step: Break up the dirt that is now exposed with a pick (see the top of the photo at the top of the page). This is back-breaking labor. If you have a cooperative teenager in the area who lifts weights, this is a good job for that person. If it’s you, do it slowly to get the rhythm of the thing and take plenty of rests. Do not do too much at one time – it’s an open invitation to throwing out your back or injuring the tendons in your forearms. Just do small chunks at a time – you don’t want to expose too much of the subsoil at one time – if you have lots of clay and it rains between when you break it up and when you can get back to it, then you basically have cement to work with and you have to break it up all over again.
(you know, right about now, the cardboard and straw bale methods are looking better and better, aren’t they?)

Third step: Rock removal. Now, this is really a combination of just seeing them, picking them out and throwing them into a wheel barrow or, as in our case, chucking them over the side of the rock pile at the side of the property. We use this little invention of the DH’s, which is a frame with some hog fencing stapled on it and a leg at the back which is bolted on, so that he can put the whole thing at an angle. Once he’s broken up a patch of dirt, clay and rocks, he starts to throw shovels of dirt, etc. at the fencing. The holes let the dirt and teeny rocks through; the bigger rocks bounce back and he throws those over the side. Now, when we created the other beds in this garden 25 years ago, we dug up rocks that frankly were the about the size of the seat of a living room chair. We probably could have paved an entire patio with what we took out. Extremely hard work. Those sorts of rocks are not things you can shovel anyplace – and having a crow bar is many times a help in getting that sort of thing out so that you and a helper can carry them someplace else to get rid of them. Again, that sort of thing is something you can blow out your back with – don’t try it without a helper. Save the first level of dirt you do – this is the ‘top soil’. Go over all the bed like this to save all the top soil you can. Then, using the pick ax again, go down another layer – in our garden, this is going to be big rocks and clay. Nasty stuff. The final depth that the DH will be working in will be about 18″ down. Did I say ‘building the bed from below the ground up’? No kidding.

Fourth step: You aren’t seeing this because we haven’t done this yet. Once we’ve gotten all the bed broken up and rocks removed, the DH will start layering in compost and other materials which will, over the long term, nourish the bed. The DH is a big believer in investing in the bed for the long term, especially for growing such items as rhubarb or asparagus, which basically are perennial, permanent crops. We have already gone up to our county landfill (I think everyone should check with their municipal facilities to see if they have composting operations and offer residents the opportunity to go and take quantities of compost, usually for free) and secured enough compost to get a good start on this. How much compost is that? That is the amount that would fill 5-6 of the largest garbage cans made. We will also be putting, at the bottom, the winter bedding from the chickens, which consists of wood chips and chicken manure, plus any other green materials we can gather together – grass cuttings, leaves and so on. This will all be layered and dug in, with a final layer of compost on top this fall.

That’s right – THIS FALL. This is not a bed we will be using at all this year. It can’t be, with chicken manure at the bottom. We decided that we needed to expand the garden (and frankly get rid of this odd piece of grass between two beds) for NEXT YEAR. This is a project that the DH and I will be working on little by little all…summer…long and into the fall so that it can be put to bed for the winter and will be ready for us next spring. A lot of work for something we won’t be able to use until 2013, right?

Well, yes – you can look at it that way. The garden beds that we created 25 years ago are something that we keep improving every year. In the fall, we empty them out, layer in more compost and whatever else we can find for organic improvement and put them to bed for the winter (except for whatever bed we use for garlic and over-wintered onions, in which case, we do that work and THEN plant the garlic and onions after the first big killing frost). Then, they are ready for us in the early spring. The get them started was back-breaking toil (and frankly the DH tried to do too much early on and paid for it with one of his arms in a sling for several months), but what we have to do for them now is very little work for all the productivity.

Now, having said all of this – is it worth it? Well, if I were renting a house or thought that I’d be moving within a couple of years, I would not go through this. I’d use straw bales or cardboard. Then, if I had to move, depending on what my landlord wanted me to do, I’d knock down the straw bales, dig up all the composted materials (hey – this is valuable stuff – rent a truck and take it with you) and put down grass seed (or not if you wanted to leave a nicer place for the next renter who might be a gardener). But if you are going to stay someplace for the long term, I’d put in the work for this. I do think it produces a superior appearance and in terms of deeply rooted crops, I think it does a better job.

But, that’s just me…

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