Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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According to the literature, hügelkultur can remain fertile for up to 30 years without adding new materials. However, it can be difficult to plant into the logs and branches. We call our latest experiment a hügel mulch. It is a base of logs and branches covered with a wood chip sheet mulch that should give us many years of growing without any labor except planting and harvesting.

At the Living Systems Institute we work with the theory that nature maintains a habitat for a whole soil ecosystem that retains nutrients. By “whole soil ecosystem” we mean a complete set of organisms that cycle nutrients through complete growth, decay and regrowth cycles. I have been working with the concept over ten years now and I know I can grow more vegetable with substantially less work using a deep mulch system than with any of the other gardening technique that involves turning the soil. In my experience maintaining a habitat for that whole soil ecosystem is why it works.

Experimenting with Deep Mulch Systems

August 2011I started the experiment in 2004 using the permaculture technique called sheet mulching.[1] By 2011 our gardening teams were incorporating ideas from a technique called hügelkultur.[2] One third of our 2011 experimental sheet mulch garden was built with varying sizes of branches, sticks and wood chips twelve inches deep, then covered with an inch of horse manure. The section using hay has been renewed annually, the section using only wood chips will need to be renewed this fall. We planted the section built with branches for the 4th year in 2014 and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Typically, organic gardening involves a cycle of composting, tilling in compost, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and removing plant debris for composting. We spent a morning. We followed the sheet mulching formula contained in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden except that we used the sticks instead of the recommended materials. I then went in and “drew” pathways on top with more wood chips and put in drip irrigation. Since that morning we have done nothing but plant and harvest with an occasional mulching of volunteer plants. You can see how productive it is in the pictures.

August 2014I have given this explanation to people in my garden where they can see the results and yet they go home and crank up their rototillers. Many gardeners who have achieved success using labor intensive methods seem loath to try the deep mulch approach. How is it that we can do so much less work and still get this kind of production? Let's look at how the theory of whole soil ecosystems applies to our observed results.

Building a Habitat for a Whole Soil Ecosystem

Have you ever wondered how nature grows things without depleting nutrients from the soil? How can nature increase the nutrients in the soil while the land is fallow? Why is it that human gardening and farming depletes the soil?

The way a forest builds soil is by a regular addition of carbon on top. The wind blows, branches break off, old trees fall over, and the leaves fall each autumn. The animals make their contribution of nitrogen. That process creates layers of decomposition. That is the habitat for the soil ecosystem that developed in the forest. The ecosystem itself is a complete set of organisms that evolved to decompose the carbon and nitrogen raw materials and convert them into the food required by the forest plants which in turn produce the food for the forest animals. As soon as something excretes a substance, or dies and releases the nutrients contained in its body there is another species there ready to take up those nutrients and process them further. Nutrients of all types are produced continuously. The nutrients cycle through the system over and over. The nutrients build up in the system rather than being depleted from the system.

When we till the soil we destroy the habitat for that whole soil ecosystem and start losing the participation of specific species. Without the participation of the primary decomposers we have to gather the carbon and nitrogen and do the composting ourselves. When we till in the compost all of those nutrients are available for our plants immediately. Our plants do not need all of the nutrients all at once and the unused nutrients are taken up by weeds or leach out in the rain. Then we have to supply more nutrients next year.

Tilling creates the perfect habitat for nature's pioneer plants. Because we have no bare soil in a deep mulch system many of the species considered weeds are not a problem. Seeds will blow in or are carried in by animals and those plants may volunteer in the mulch. These volunteers are rooted in the mulch, not the soil, and are easy to pull. A weed, by definition, is a plant growing where it is not wanted. If we want that plant for mulch it is not a weed. It is a gift and when you pull it and lay it down the decomposers with take up and cycle those nutrients right away.

We also have no pests in our gardens. We want to foster a healthy system that includes as many different species as possible. That means that the insect eating our plants is not a pest. It is food for the species that want to protect our plants. Each species participating makes its contribution by processing nutrients as a part of its life cycle and excreting them and releasing them in death as a part of the nutrient cycle. The more species participating the more “whole” our ecosystem becomes.

This fall, when the first hard frost is predicted, I will dismantle the drip systems and bring in the head strings for the winter.[3] Every thing in the garden, tomato cages and all, will stay just where they are. That way, when the wind blows, the garden will collect organic matter and improve the habitat for our soil ecosystem. In the spring we will plant directly through the accumulated mulch. The habitat that we maintain for our soil ecosystem forms the basis for the integrated closed loop production systems we explore at the Living Systems Institute.

Building a Hügel Mulch

Hugel Mulch

1. Start by soaking the area to be mulched with water.

2. Spread manure over the area about 1/2 to 1 inch thick.

3. Assemble a weed barrier by laying down a layer of cardboard with as little over lap as possible. Take newspaper and lay it out over the seams in the cardboard. Don't do a lot of unfolding. Just lay it out whole sections at a time. You will want to wet the paper as it is laid out if there is any wind at all. Lay out a second layer of cardboard and cover all those seams with newspaper.

4. Spread another layer of manure 1/2- to 1-inch thick.

5. Keep the water running and wet each layer as you go.

6. Cover the area with logs and then fill in the gaps between the logs with smaller branches and sticks.

7. Fill in any remaining gaps with wood chips.

8. Spread a third layer of manure about 1-inch thick.

9. Add 12 inches of wood chips on top.

10. Spread a final layer of manure about 1-inch thick.

11.You can now mark your pathways by laying out a line of wood chips about 2 feet wide and maybe 1 or 2 inches thick. 




[3]The head string is the timer, filter, pressure regulator and back flow preventer that attach to the outdoor faucet.

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Basil will turn black when it gets close to 35 degrees.  I pull all the leaves when the forecast says it will get close to freezing or any chance of frost. You can chop basil, put it in an ice cube tray and cover it with water to preserve it for any time your recipe calls for fresh basil. It stores best when it's frozen in water. You can also make it into pesto and place in freezer bags with just enough for a meal. Gives a whole new meaning to “fast food.”  Pesto is great over pasta, fish or as a condiment on sandwiches.

Other herbs like parsley, rosemary, thyme, chives, savory and sage will do just fine through frosts. It takes good snow cover to stop these herbs. Many winters you can harvest these herbs the entire season for cooking.

I will wait until it gets down to 32 degrees before I strip off the eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.  You can freeze or dry these veggies. Tomatoes are a high acid fruit so you can also easily can sauce from them without using a pressure canner, a stockpot is all that is needed. Be sure to follow any canning recipes exactly so your canned goods don’t spoil.

Make sure you pull the tomatoes from the vine before the vine dies. Wondering what to do with the green tomatoes? You have a couple of options. You can make fried green tomatoes—yum! Just use some fish fry seasoning; we like Andy’s Cajun Seasoning. You can also wrap green tomatoes in newspaper and store in a cool, dark location and many will ripen. Check about weekly to cull any that spoil. They won’t taste as good as fresh off the vine, but are better than store bought.

October is garlic planting month for the Zone 6 garden! Plant in the waning cycle of the moon. Garlic loves loose, well-fertilized soil. Loosen the soil down to about 6 inches, mix in a couple of inches of compost, and plant your garlic cloves about 2-3 inches deep. Garlic leaves are one of the first greens you will see in spring.

Now is also a great time to divide any perennials you have, whether they be herbs, edibles or ornamentals.  This will give them all fall and winter to put down strong roots. Perennial greens (like chard, sorrel, cultivated dandelions, salad burnet) are always the first up in the spring.

It is still not too late in early October to transplant fall crops like cold hardy types of lettuce, cabbage, chard, pak choi, broccoli, kale, parsley or perennial herbs. Meijer, Lowes, and Home Depot have 6 and 9 packs ready to plant if you didn’t start your own from seed.

To extend the season, you can order a mini greenhouse to cover your pots or a part of the garden you have planted your cold hardy greens you want to harvest all winter. You can also purchase row covers that cover plants and provides protection from frosts, but not hard freezes.

Winter hardy kale, spinach, Austrian peas, carrots and winter onions don’t need to be covered and can be harvested all winter (as long as the ground isn’t too frozen) and into spring.

I’ll put our portable, plastic mini greenhouse over the greens in my Earthboxes sometime this month. One thing to look out for with green houses: they get very, very hot in sunny weather, so be sure to open them to allow circulation in fall and early winter. They will need to be closed up when winter really sets in December sometime. 

For more organic small space and container gardening, see Melodie's blog.

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Permaculture has become the new buzzword in certain circles. From shirt and tie urban planners who have never planted a garden, to the LEED certified architect, a lot of money is changing hands as a common sense approach to co-existing with nature and is being promoted in the name of sustainability. The money part is good for the dirt farmers, but I wonder about the quiche aspect of a subject with so many definitions. Here’s a definition I found attributed to Gus & LaNada James:

“Permaculture combines current technology with aboriginal cultural knowledge collected over generations: to create self-contained, self-perpetuating ecological systems. This includes growing edible (& nutritious) plants, fish & animals; as well as the application of appropriate technology to create energy from solar, wind, water, & compost.”

This is a really good definition, one of the best I found, but I don’t like the word aboriginal; we’re not all anthropologists. I’d substitute “our tribal ancestors” (what we were before we succumbed to and were corrupted by empire and religions).

Steve Mann, facilitator of the Food Not Lawns Class taught at the University of Missouri of Kansas City Communiversity explains that it is an ethics based method of living described by David Holmgren based on:

Care of the Earth: The Earth is a living, breathing entity. Without ongoing care and nurturing there will be consequences too big to ignore.

Care of People We are provided with times of abundance which enables us to share with others

Fair Share: We are provided with times of abundance which enables us to share with others.

The evolution of Permaculture—like Yoga—is a study of how ancient knowledge and wisdom get turned into a marketing tool, requiring certification and a lineage to impress the uninitiated. Well, gee, we did it for 10,000 years but this is the 21st century so if we market it we need to be able to trace credentials.

Well, enough tongue in cheek. Now that I got that off my chest, I’d like to congratulate all the hard working people that do permaculture. They do understand what the future will bring based on the current path the world is on and they are training people how to find their way back to nature.  

To all you teachers and practitioners of permaculture, when I think of you I think:

Some of us are dreamers; some of us were fools,
but we’re are making plans and thinking of the future,
we are gathering the tools,
we will need to make our journey back to nature,
with our hearts turned to each other’s hearts for refuge
in the troubled times years that come before the deluge.

From:Before the Deluge.
By Jackson Brown

Practicing Permaculture

A Farmer and his Rice Crop. Rice Paddies near the Kali River in Karnataka State, India.

Farmer and His Rice Crop

When Does Planting Your Own Food Become a Revolutionary Act of Defiance?

The first time I know that it happened was after the Spanish outlawed the growth of amaranth in what is now Mexico. The Spanish attempted to eradicate amaranth. Growing it was punishable by death. But you know, it’s hard to stop some people. If the rulers say you can’t have it or grow it, they’re gonna go get some and plant it. Sound familiar? (They might even smoke it).

It happened again during WWII during the planting of the Victory Gardens.

The Victory Gardens were started during WWI in Europe so that more food could be exported to the Allied Forces in Europe. Reset, Repeat. The same thing happened during WWII, and when food rationing began and in 1942, Victory Gardens took off again. The Department of Agriculture objected to the promotion of Victory Gardens and lobbied to stop their promotion by the US Government. They were smacked down by a woman named Eleanor who planted a Victory Garden at her residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, no doubt to the delight of President Roosevelt.

People grow their own food for a variety of reasons: to save money, to avoid herbicides and pesticides, to produce the fresher taste, to get better nutrition.

Growing food also enables us to lessen our total dependence on the corporate state and the agricultural mutations that have become the franken-foods used to feed us and animals in feed lots and hog, chicken and turkey barns.

 We can Plant Victory Gardens and Grow our Own Food

Say No to GMO

In India they have practiced Permaculture for 5,000 Years.

In March, I was able to visit a village of “tribal” people living in the hills and jungle of a Bengal Tiger preserve near the Kali River in Southwest India. The local Hindus who arrived at a much later date in history call them tribals.  They have practiced permaculture, for the last 5,000 years.

The Permaculturists: Grandmothers and Daughters and Grandson

The Permaculturists

One of the village out buildings with 100% local building materials. In a back to the Future world, all our building will be LEED certified by default.

LEED Certified Out Building

Stock Pens

Stock Pens

After the Harvest, cows graze in the rice paddies and provide fertilizer.

After the Harvest

Gopala is the Cow Protector. In order to get a feel for what it is like to walk in these hills amongst this this culture, listen closely to this song about the protector.


Living In A Time of Great Change

Climate, over population, resource depletion, fiat currencies, and weapons manufacturers are familiar to those who read MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Volume 1, No. 1, 44 years ago. The magazine began with these words “….a new beginning." Where are we now?

Mother Earth News No 1

We were looking forward to a new beginning, are we in the middle or close to the end?

It’s what you’re gonna do if you want to survive.

Tell your kids and grand kids –

 Teach Your Children Well

Graham Nash: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young



Upcycled Furniture For The Garden

When summer rolls around and gardens start to bloom, suburbanites flock to their local big-box stores to update their storage buildings and garden furniture. There’s a staggering amount of choice, from outdoor storage sheds styled like barns to patio heaters that kick out more CO2 than the average small car.

When they splash the cash, however, homeowners rarely pause to consider the long-term environmental impact of their new alfresco investment. In North America, sheds and storage buildings made from synthetic resin dominate the market. Thanks to their fossil fuel-makeup, they retain their old-world cottage charm for decades. Unfortunately, these sheds are non-biodegradable and can only be destroyed through controlled incineration to minimise release of toxic gases.

The wooden alternatives are barely any safer. Fences, benches and sheds are maintained with paints, preservatives and sealants containing creosote, arsenic, pentachlorophenol and lead – to name but a few. Most adults will be familiar with the short-term health effects of such preservatives, including skin burns and seared airways. However, many are unaware of the long-term risks posed by their carcinogenic compounds. When rain causes them to leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater, they present a risk to all who relax in or eat from the garden.

There’s good news for the environmentally conscious, however: There are much safer (and cheaper!) ways to keep up with the Joneses. Read on to discover the upcycles and simple swaps that’ll leave both your garden and conscience clean.

Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips

Use natural sealants. There are a host of environmentally safe alternatives to conventional paints and wood sealants. To add a splash of color, opt for milk paint – an organic and non-toxic alternative to regular paint that comes in a wide variety of colors. Choose a version designed for exterior use, apply a couple of coats and allow a few weeks’ drying time (it’s best to paint during a summer dry spell).

For a clean, shiny and natural finish, seal wood with raw linseed oil. Made from flaxseed, it has excellent preservative and water resistant properties and rarely needs reapplication once dry. Buyers beware: linseed oil is sticky, flammable and will take weeks to dry. However, you should resist the temptation to go for ‘fast-drying’ linseed oil – often labelled as ‘boiled linseed oil’ – as this is known to contain mineral spirits and heavy metals.

Build your own fire pit. There are few things as calming as a campfire on a cool evening. By building your own fire pit, you’ll sidestep the need for costly and environmentally damaging patio heaters, barbecue grills and chimineas. For a cheap and easy fix, create a circle of boulders and fill the centre with gravel. With a little more effort, you could dig a hole to create a recessed firepit or build a raised version with bricks. The internet offers plenty of inspiration.

Encourage biodiversity with insect hotels. Bee and hedgehog populations are dwindling and barren, walled-in, concrete-filled yards do nothing to aid the problem. ‘Bug hotels’ cultivate biodiversity in the garden and create excellent conversation points, providing homes and breeding grounds to beetles, ladybugs, bees, woodlice, spiders, hedgehogs and toads – to name just a few. You can build one cheaply (see here) by stacking disused pallets and cramming them with straw, bricks, bamboo canes, dry leaves, bark and corrugated cardboard.

Upcycle wood pallets into garden furniture. Stack wooden pallets horizontally in layers of two and cover with large cushions to make attractive sectional outdoor corner sofas. To make them more attractive, use sandpaper to remove excess splinters and then paint the wood. In case you hadn’t already figured out by now, there are a plethora of outdoor uses for old pallets – most of which require no DIY skills whatsoever.

Choose hardwood garden furniture over softwood. Hardwood comes from angiosperm trees such as maple, oak and walnut. Generally speaking, they’re the trees that produce leaves that die and renew. Softwood comes from gymnosperm trees – mostly evergreens such as pine and spruce. As a general rule, softwood is more susceptible to damp weather and can disintegrate quickly once rot begins to set in. If you are looking for garden furniture that will go the distance, choose hardwoods. Though more expensive to buy, they can last over 20 years with minimal care and won’t incur the same financial and environmental costs as shorter-lasting softwood furniture.

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When we think about the art and science of gardening, our thoughts usually head toward springtime and summer. However, it’s absolutely possible to keep a garden going throughout the winter. You simply need to understand what to plant, when to plant it and how to maintain the best possible growing conditions in your home.

Why to Grow Plants Inside?

Plenty of people would never think to garden inside when it’s cold outdoors. After all, you can always get some food at the local grocery or health store.

Yet many individuals are getting worried that the produce they’re buying during the winter is less-than- nutritional. Besides, there’s nothing like the taste of food you grow yourself.

Which Plants Can Grow the Best Indoors?

Let’s say you don’t have a greenhouse in your backyard, and that you’re going to garden inside your apartment or house. In this case, the climate will probably be around 62 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a common temperature range for human comfort.

In this type of climate, there are several types of plants that do well, including many herbs, avocados, garlic greens, mushrooms, some kinds of salad lettuce and tomatoes.

You can also bring some of your outdoor garden plants, such as a cherry tomato vine or pepper plant, indoors to extend the life of the plant. This can also make next year’s spring and summer planting faster. Some people even claim that this helps enhance the flavor of the veggies or fruits, as the plants are being allowed to mature in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you just replanted every year. While this is debatable, it’s worth gauging for yourself!

How to Prepare for Indoor Gardening

An indoor garden doesn’t have to take up lots of space, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare your home in advance. Make sure you have wide enough window sills, shelves and, if applicable, a corner of a room to take care of your items.

If you have pets, you will want to ensure that your plants are kept away from their curious paws and teeth. Little children should be kept away from growing plants too. Sometimes they will try to eat unripe shoots or even the soil. A little prevention will go a long way toward making sure your indoor gardening is safe for all.

You also need to make sure you have the right kind of hydration for your plants. You might want to get a professional to monitor your water for acidity levels. If your tap water is toxic to your plants, they will die or be unable to grow to full capacity. From a small sample of your water, you can learn a lot. In fact, you may just discover that your water isn’t good for you or your family either.

How to Prepare Outdoor Plants for Indoor Gardening

If you’re taking the step of bringing any outdoor plants inside for the winter, there are a few key routes to follow. First, check the plant for any signs of insects. The last thing you need is to bring spiders, mites and other critters into your home! They’ll be happy to jump aboard a plant that’s being repotted in your house, but you won’t be happy when you find them exploring!

Next, acclimate the plant to living inside. Just as it would be strange for you to suddenly spend all your time outside, it takes time for plants to adjust to indoor lighting, temperature and humidity. As the temperature outside starts dipping to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, start bringing the plants inside during the evening hours. Then, pop them back outside in the morning when the temperature rises. Eventually, the cycle of bringing them in and out will help the plant learn to grow more when it is fully indoors.

With that being said, if you’re planting from shoots or seeds, you’ll have no problem with acclimation. Thus, if you want to start growing an indoor herb, fruit or vegetable, you can skip this step.

How to Keep Up with Winter Gardening

A winter garden provides amazing versatility for your eating and cooking, but only if you remember to treat it well. Be certain that you’re watering and harvesting as recommended depending upon the type of plants you’re gardening. You may even want to create a chart that lets you see at a glance when you have last watered, harvested or otherwise attended to each item you’re growing.

At the end of the winter, you’ll have a bevy of wonderful plants that you can slowly return to an outdoor garden, or just keep inside with you for more seasons to come. Don’t forget to share some of your tasty treasures with friends, family members, neighbors and colleagues! They’ll appreciate the fresh produce and be amazed at your gardening prowess.

Images by makunin and Hans

Kayla Matthews is a journalist and blogger with a passion for living healthily and happily. You can read all of her latest posts by following her on Google+ and Twitter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Turban garlicGrowing gourmet garlic can be difficult in some regions due to a relatively short growing season. Turban garlic cultivars are subsequently a great solution for growers in this predicament. One of the earliest garlics to be harvested, Turbans are also a great option for growers looking to extend their market season. Turbans have a very diverse source history, with strains originating in China, the Former Soviet Union, and even Mexico. Remarkably, although they come from different regions, the various cultivars remain strikingly similar. Several cultivars you may find locally include Xian, Red Janice, and Sonoran.


In contrast to other hardneck varieties, Turban garlics require only a short dormancy period before they begin to sprout. This trait is more commonly seen in softneck varieties, and interestingly, the Turban cultivars tend to be very weak bolters, sometimes not producing scapes at all. Scapes, when produced by this type of garlic do not curl like the more strongly-bolting types, but simply droop. They also do not need to be removed prior to harvest, as their presence does not seem to negatively impact overall blub size. The umbel topping the scape is short and characteristically ‘turban’-shaped, holding between 30 and 100 small to medium-sized bulbils.Turban garlic

Turban garlic plants tend to be short with moderately-sized, medium-green leaves. If you are growing Turbans, it is important to pay attention to the color of these leaves since, like Asiatic varieties, they mature early and must be harvested when only one of the leaves has gone brown. This quick maturity is accelerated in hotter climates, and delayed harvesting can result in bulb wrappers that have deteriorated and split. Unusually for garlic, the leaves and stalk will fall over as they mature, similar to onion plants. The garlic should be harvested before this happens, since it indicates that the bulbs are over-mature.


Turban cultivars tend to produce large, plump bulbs. The outer wrappers are colorful, a bright white covered in vibrant purple striping or marbling. The clove skins are less dramatic in color, ranging from tan to dusky pink, with the odd purple spot or markings. Cloves form a single layer around the central stalk and vary from slim to plump, but are all curved, giving the bulbs their rounded shape. Turbans average approximately five to seven cloves per bulb.


The flavor of Turban garlics is not as highly-regarded as some other types, especially Rocamboles. In comparison, the flavor of Turban cultivars tends to be lacking in complexity. Most tend to be quite hot when raw, but become milder and sweeter with cooking. They can become so mild, in fact, that they are used as a vegetable in their own right in some Chinese cuisine. Pungency tends to vary between cultivars, but all tend to have a somewhat rich, musky taste. Their heat can be a bit deceptive, with the burn of some cultivars hitting right away, and others slowly building up over a number of seconds.

Turban garlics tend to have a short storage life, roughly three to five months. This, combined with their modest flavor profile can dampen a grower’s enthusiasm. In my opinion, however, they are worth looking into, especially if you want to extend your garlic eating and growing season!

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My wife and I took some risks moving down to Klamath Falls, Oregon, from Olympia, Washington, but no change comes with absolute certainty and thus every decision means some degree of risk. We wanted to be near the 20 acres of land we bought for our homestead last year. The first tangible piece of our dream. We came here to be away from the traffic, the noise and pollution, to get back to nature and to be together with our brother and sister-in-law to create the “it takes a village to raise a child” scene we wanted around when we begin our own family. First things first though and we needed to start somewhere, what better way than in the garden.


Planning the New Garden

In moving into my brother-in-law's house in Klamath Falls until our home is constructed, our big dreams of big gardens needed to get reined in a bit. Not only is there lots of landscaping to do first being that most of the lot is overgrown juniper bushes, but it is a totally different climate. We went from one of the rainiest parts of the country to one in a level 3 drought. We went from sea level to 4,000 feet in elevation.

Lots of different approaches will need to be tried (and most likely failed) before we get it right. And one way to do it is to start is small. They say you can yield more from a smaller and properly managed garden than a big one that is overwhelming and mostly neglected. You can always add more growing space as time goes on.

I decided on a bed that was five feet by about eighteen feet. Big enough to grow some crops but small enough to incorporate a hoop tunnel. In deciding whether to do raised beds or dig into the dirt, I thought about the pros and cons of both. The raised bed is good for drainage which worked great in a rainy climate, but now I’m in a drier one. On top of that the more exposed the soil is to the elements (i.e. the sides of the raised bed) the more susceptible it is to temperature changes. In high desert Klamath Falls you can go from mid-70s to below zero and back again daily. With these thoughts in mind I decided to dig into the dirt for my bed.

The Deep Bed Method

The depth of the bed is important in many ways. The closer the roots are near the surface, the more exposed to the elements they are. If you have intense heat and a dry climate, even for short periods, the top few inches of soil can be a devastatingly harsh place to live. Constantly getting dried out and over-heated followed by heavy watering can be stressful on roots. And what’s bad for the roots is bad for the plants health. Mediterranean plants are more drought tolerant after established not necessarily just because they need less water, but because their roots had had time to delve deep into the soil where water is found.

The other benefit of a ‘deep bed’, according to John Seymour in his book The Self-Sufficient Gardener, is that you can plant crops closer together given that the roots have more room to search for nutrients deeper in the soil rather than spreading out horizontally. The Chinese and French also learned that deep beds enabled you to grow more crops in little space which was what was needed when trying to sustain their growing population back in the nineteenth century. John Seymour had heard claims that this method consistently yielded four times the amount compared to conventional gardening and spent five weeks searching every example of it in California. He found the figure to be pretty accurate.

I didn’t follow his method exactly but I took it as inspiration. The soil I am working in is extremely hard compacted clay. I dug out 12 inches and loosened the subsoil even further. This would allow better drainage and pockets of air for soil respiration, and tunnels for soil life to crawl around in. The 12 inches I had dug out would be filled not with the big clay dirt clods, but by another practice called ‘sheet mulching’.

Building Soil on a Budget

I first heard about sheet mulching from Permaculture. This is a fast soil building method that is very forgiving and very effective though to be honest, it’s basically just composting in place. You layer soil amendments, manure or some other high nitrogen material, and bulk mulch material. Each layer you add on you soak thoroughly since decomposition needs water as well as air to get the job done. 

I wanted to incorporate a mini-hugelkultur method as well. This technique uses wood branches or brush mounded under compostable materials and finally topped off with dirt. As the wood decomposes it soaks up water like a sponge, raises soil temperature to boost plant growth and slowly releases nutrients. This practice doesn’t need much fertilizer or irrigation compared to conventional beds. I thought since I had some branches and twigs lying around the yard anyway, I’d toss them in. Never waste anything.

Given that the branches and straw I added in the bottom of the bed needed a good nitrogen layer, I added the manure down first, mixed in with some soil and bone meal for phosphorus.

I wetted this layer down sufficiently before adding about three-to-five inches of straw and wet this as well. I then added the rest of the manure and more soil followed by wetting. Next went on the last layer of straw and wetted this thoroughly. You would be surprised at how much water this method can soak up but it’s important to wet after every layer.

The soil I had dug out I used to add a top layer above the straw. Since it is mostly clay it is also rich in minerals I didn’t want to deprive my bed of. To get it down into the bed I wet it down and the minerals ‘melted’ down into the straw and manure.

By the time early spring comes around I should have plenty of compost made to add to the bed and plant my first crops.

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