Beginner’s Guide to Fertile Soil and Raised Garden Beds

Follow these tips to create a permanent garden system that’s productive and easy to care for.
By Alison Rogers
May/June 2007
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Gardeners who want to extend their growing season to early spring and late fall will benefit from the warming effect produced by raised beds.

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Healthy soil is a critical component of any successful garden. By establishing a permanent garden layout in which beds and walking paths remain in place, from year to year, you can minimize soil compaction and create a great garden that’s healthy and easy to maintain. Soil needs air and water to function, and compaction from foot traffic robs it of both.

Permanent beds can be any size or shape, as long as you can reach into the center while standing in the paths. Edging is optional, although many gardeners like the look of borders such as logs, boards or stones.

Raised beds are a good idea for sites with clay soil or areas with poor drainage. Gardeners who want to extend their growing season to early spring and late fall also benefit from the warming effect produced by raised beds.

Your new permanent garden structure will naturally raise the beds a little higher than the compacted soil of the paths, but you can till the paths and shovel the loose soil onto the beds to raise them even more. Note that your plants will require more water during dry periods if you add more than a few extra inches of soil.

To get started, try one of these three simple bed-building techniques:

Plan A: Till, compost, till. First till the area to kill the grass, then add a few inches of compost or grass clippings and till again. There’s bound to be remaining weed seeds in the mix; you can eliminate them by watering the area, then hoeing sprouts as they appear after a week or two. If possible, repeat the water/hoe sequence several times prior to planting.

Plan B: No till. Prep the garden area simply by covering it with cardboard or a few layers of wet newspaper under several inches of grass clippings, leaves, or hay or straw. You can cut holes in the mulch and set out transplants with a little organic fertilizer immediately. You’ll want to wait several months to plant seeds, however, to allow the sod to die and the paper to decompose. (For more information on alternatives to tilling, read Build Better Garden Soil.

Plan C: Instant Beds. Veteran gardener David Cavagnaro uses this method on his Iowa homestead with great results: Arrange bags of topsoil with drainage holes punched in the bottom over the plot, completely covering it. Cut the plastic off the tops of the bags and voila, you’re ready to plant your seeds. The plastic bags can be hidden by mulching with grass clippings or leaves. When the season’s over, pull away the plastic and turn the topsoil into the ground in preparation for the next year.

Once you’ve organized your new garden layout, it’s a good idea to have your soil tested. Adding the wrong fertilizers or too much of one type can cause permanent damage. The test is often only $10 to $20 and will tell you what amendments, if any, need to be added before you plant.

Finally, don’t forget to add compost annually. Even just a thin quarter-inch layer will improve your fertility and your soil’s capacity to hold water and fertilizers. This and the reduced compaction made possible by the permanent paths are the keys to maintaining fertile, low-maintenance soil. (Anyone can make their own compost — see Compost Made Easy.)

Feel free to share your permanent bed-building ideas by posting a comment below. Not sure what to plant? Read 10 Best Garden Crops for Beginners by Senior Associate Editor Megan Phelps for a list of crops that are easy to grow and cook.

Start now if you want a garden full of veggies this summer!

Adapted from Build Permanent Beds and Paths by Editor in Chief Cheryl Long.

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Post a comment below.


SR Davis
5/28/2009 10:07:46 PM
I also use landscape timbers and they are great! Instead of tilling though I use the lasagna method and prepare the bed ahead of time before time to plant. It is the easiest way to garden and I have huge amounts of produce better than when I didn't use raised beds! Yeah for raised beds and lasagna gardening!!

10/31/2008 5:52:11 AM
My real purpose of utilizing raised beds is to prevent surface water from lying in the garden area, and the material used to contain the beds limits grass from encroaching onto the vegetable beds. The other choice is to dig edging channels, which reduce growing area and require constant repair and maintenance. My soil is heavy clay of good quality about 18 inches before the real hardpan is encountered. The beds are maintained by adding vegetative compost about three inches deep yearly, and working wood chips into the soil. Sometimes the wood chips are simply the mulch left over from the growing season, and sometimes a layer is added. A cover crop of red annual clover is grown in some areas, planted when the summer crop is harvested. This fixes nitrogen and feeds the worms. Since prose is a poor substitute for a subject (gardening) which begs for clarification by pictures, I seldom traverse the garden without my camera, and document most operations and post if suitable, and might be helpful or useful to some reader. Here is some photos annotated of garden bed preparation. 26 September 2008 Completing New Garden Bed Mini ties have been installed to have support walls for the raised bed. Total time one hour. Summary: Making a new garden bed. Recycled Plastic Fence Post for Garden beds. 2 October 2008 Recycled Plastic Fence Post A friend had a number of these recycled plastic composite fence posts, and donated them to me for containing a garden bed. They are held in place with two foot, iron, half inch diameter, rebar through holes drilled in the posts.The black posts are 5 inches in diameter, and 8 feet long. The posts are easy to hand saw, and are about the same weight as two mini ties of the same length. I know nothing about the cost, or even where to purchase them at this time. I have been using wooden mini ties, but these fence p

BILL Johnson_1
5/9/2007 12:00:00 AM
I've gown totally over to raised beds. I'm in the Army and move every 30-36 months to a new post. It is too much work to dig and amend the often poor soil for a new garden that frequently and when I leave it has to be reseeded with grass. I usually build a raised bed, look around the area for places where people dump their grass and leaves, and fill it up with a mixture of local dirt and the composted grass and leaves. When I move again, I take it apart and spread the rich garden soil around the yard and reseed the bare rectangle with grass. The soil is so rich that the grass grows very fast and I can clear the home with no problems.

5/8/2007 12:00:00 AM
I use these landscape timbers. They work beautifully. I made them 3 high. They lock together better. Made 4'x8' there is no waste. I used spikes to put them together. I off-set them just the 4" width of the timbers, drilled tight holes for spikes in two places midway to hold each wall together. Then drilled slightly larger holes in the ends that lock together. This way I can take them apart easily if I need to, to replace a wall or move them.You could also make them 2'x8',2'x4' and have no waste. Also they are nice to sit on while you are working, very sturdy.

Jered Bonbrake
5/3/2007 12:00:00 AM
The older I get, the more I like the convenience of raised beds. I noticed landscape timbers at the home store at $1.97 for an eight footer. Two levels high would enable you to "lock" the corners, and they are now safe for vegetable gardens with the new ACQ treatment process.

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