It is a delight to be the spouse of a hard working, joy-filled, dedicated man.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Well Raised Bed, A Changed Gardener

The Pacific North West is a great place to grow a nice vegetable garden, it it is the only place I have ever gardened and I have been gardening for forty years.

There are some tricks I have learned along the way to make the PNW garden more successful.

The big hurdle is our seemingly short growing season. It isn't so much that there are fewer calendar days between the last frost date and the first frost date but that there isn't that many days of sun between the two. We have plenty of rain fall. Our rainfall can be as much an impediment to gardening as the lack of rainfall can be in other areas.

If you try to garden the old fashioned way or what I call the Kansas Farm Corn Row style of gardening you won't have any where near the production that is possible in the PNW. A gardener needs to learn some season extending tricks and it isn't all just about green houses or row covers.

Before you can plant you have to have prepared soil and before you can prepare your soil it has to be dry enough. One way to know if your ground has the proper soil to moisture ratio to be tilled either by machine or by hand is the squeeze method.

Take a handful of your soil and squeeze it into a ball. If it holds its shape great. Just like the picture above. But now comes the part of the test that PNW soils fail until late spring.

Pinch the ball of dirt once across the middle and see if it falls apart. (Trying to do this and take a picture of it is very hard.) The ball should fall apart like this second picture shows.

If the ball just changes shape like you pinched a ball of clay then don't touch the soil with a rototiller or a spade or spade fork. You will ruin the soil texture. You will be fighting dirt clods with roughly the same physical properties as rocks all summer long.

With our amount of rainfall and the relative cool temperatures you could be locked out of gardening for months into what can be your new growing season. Lots of vegetables can grow in cool soils and even take frosts but not cold wet gloppy soil. And even if they could handle cold wet soil you can't plant them if you can't touch your soil.

My world of gardening changed in seventy-eight when I came across a magazine article describing wide raised bed gardening. That was huge and was followed by Territorial Seed Company coming on the scene another huge change in my gardening. All of which was only slightly over shadowed by meeting Dirt in November seventy-nine. By nineteen eighty I was proficient and sold on the idea of wide raised beds for gardening and the potential for growing vegetables nearly year round in the PNW.

I've tried it a lot of different ways, boxed in, putting all the rocks in the paths, shorter bed lengths and I always come back to the simple method. Deep dig and form the beds four feet wide with two foot paths, add amendments, let it sit a bit then plant.

Building materials should not be used in the food producing garden. Railroad ties leach creosote, pressure treated lumber leaches chromated copper arsenate, regular old wood rots. If plastic bottles leach stuff into the bottled water just because it sits in a warm truck, what does the plastic board leach into the vegetable garden?

Aside from the toxicity of building materials, boxing in beds causes other pains in the neck, they harbor bugs and slugs, they make digging a big fat hassle. Trust me the soil isn't going any where anytime soon. If you put a mulch down in the harshest season, you accomplish two things, keeping weeds at bay when you don't want to be in the garden and you stop any erosion that heavy rains might cause.

We get pretty heavy rains, the water in these pictures accumulated in an afternoon of hard driving rain and a hard spurt of hail. And yet, I don't lose the shape of my beds. Even the ones that have been essentially naked for a couple of months.
Don't fall for marketing ploys designed to get you to buy stuff you do not need. Sometimes the things we are talked into in order to be "green" or "simple" are actually the opposite in effect.

I've grown so fond of what the raised beds do for a garden there is rarely a bed in all of my gardening that isn't essentially raised. Many of my more ornamental focused garden areas have sculpted raised beds, my dad would call them sad little berms if he saw them.

Raised wide beds hold far more product in less space than KFCR gardening and on a hundred acre farm space saving at first really doesn't seem to be an issue. But having the garden close in is a definite plus especially when dragging hose and equipment. In the ornamental beds, being able to cram the biggest feast for the eyes in one sweep of the eyes is another advantage.

I have raised beds that are in the same spot they were twenty some years ago when we first moved here and began building the soil. But a lot of my gardens have changed greatly, this garden here by the barn used to be the horses' winter sacrifice and feeding area. But then I turned my backyard into the ultimate lawn for weddings and volley ball games so the garden moved over one.
Moving garden beds and reclaiming dirt spilled by weeding and amending is one of the reasons I stopped putting the rocks in my pathways. The pathway is a great place for dropping the weeds and spilling a little manure, then the rotted mixture can be raked or scooped up onto the bed later. It is also a great place for the clods that do form to get smashed underfoot and reclaimed with the spilled manure.

This is one of my beds in my North garden. This garden was quite the challenge to build, it was completely scraped by a bulldozer prior to our arrival and a huge bonfire was burned in the middle of the area, I try not to think of all the things that could have been thrown on that fire. I didn't unearth too many melted this-es and thats-es and so I figure it wasn't too full of toxins. It has a giant rock that looks like the top of a mountain range and the sunken mountain range became my compost area.
Just before I began to build the soil, Dirt had a hundred sixty cubic yards of chicken manure delivered and dumped on this very spot. After he spread what he wanted out on the pasture the rest went to building the soil in the surrounding area now called the North Garden.
We put down wide strips of hog fuel, chicken manure, hog fuel, horse manure layers. Boy did the fungi grow like gang busters that fall and winter hopefully doing their job on any toxins. Then we put down taters on that and all spring and early summer piled on more hog fuel with horse manure and compost to hill up the taters. We ate potatoes forever that year!
The soil the next fall was looking promising and we planted a few over winter items and the following spring began planting enriching crops, one more year of amendments and we had the deluxe garden soil that has only gotten better and better and deeper and deeper.
I have used that method to build a lot of great garden areas without ever getting out the tiller. Just layering various materials like hog fuel, dead weeds, manures, leaves, the stuff that you would normally put on a compost pile and within a year you have gorgeous soil.
The deeper or higher you make the layers the better but if you don't make them well higher than six inches on top of sod or growing weeds then you will just have healthy sod or weeds later on . But layers seven or more inches will choke out the sod and weeds underneath.
Some folks put down newspaper first or cardboard. These days the ink they use on newspapers is soy based and not toxic. You can plant started plants in the bed by making a dish of soil into the layered compostables and setting the plant in it. Sowing seeds is a little bit more difficult but it can be done.
This is often touted as the weedless garden method if you use sterile soil ('cause I've got that much sterile potting soil?) and that is a bunch of hooey. As long as there is wind, birds and little furry creatures there will be weeds where you don't want them. Unless of course you can afford a constant supply of corn gluten to suppress seed germination, just remember it suppresses all seed germination. A weedless garden is one that is constantly tended by an dedicated gardener proficient in bending their legs.
Dear Reader I hope you find your gardening groove in our crazy spring weather, you'll never guess what it is doing right now, in the temperate Puget Sound Basin at the end of March? It is snowing, sticking and accumulating. I'll post those pictures tomorrow. I was out for the day with Dirt and the girls and it has taken over twenty-four hours to get this posted. Having a hard time keeping my eyes open when I sit.


Mildred said...

Lanny, Nalley and I really enjoyed reading about your garden today. Hope you enjoy your Sunday!

LindaSueBuhl said...

Fascinating and another pile of evidence - I'm living where I belong. Admirable gardening practices and beautiful big wide beds to plant - I have to ask - what is hog fuel? Not a term I'm familiar with at all. Love all this gardening talk - spurs me into working outside again I'd about given up on adding to our landscape since I love the natural oak and pasture around us.

Don said...

Thank you Lanny for all of the educational details of your blog. I need to print this one out and keep it handy. I am getting ready to start a veg garden and have been torturing myself with deciding on the materials to use to create raised beds. I am doing the Lanny method. The cash I save by not buying the "walls" will go into something purdy for the Mrs.

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

that was very interesting! no wonder your stuff grows so good! enjoy...

smiles, bee

Jennifer said...

Great post! I learned a lot. I don't know why it never occurred to me to try raised beds without the side walls. So simple.

Daisy said...

Sounds like you have it down to a real science, Lanny. Best of luck to you with all your produce.