Care and Cultivation of Permanent Garden Beds

Choose permanent garden beds and pathways to provide secure habitat for the dynamic soil food web that sustains your crops.

  • Row Of Vegetable Beds
    Simple, low-cost framing can be made for your permanent vegetable beds using logs or recycled cedar fence rails. Leaving the ends open makes it easier to use a tiller to prepare seed beds.
  • Permanent Vegetable Beds
    Use a broadfork in your permanent garden beds to relieve soil compaction while conserving the soil food web.

  • Row Of Vegetable Beds
  • Permanent Vegetable Beds

One of the basic tenets of organic gardening is to put as much effort into improving soil fertility as you put into growing your crops. When you use permanent garden beds and pathways, you can concentrate on building soil in deeply worked beds that will improve over a period of years, all the while growing robust, disease-resistant vegetables. Permanent vegetable beds also make more efficient use of water and fertilizer, and soil compaction is limited to pathways where repeated footsteps can naturally inhibit the growth of weeds.

In the 2008 article Gardening for Keeps, I addressed the practical aspects of designing a garden using permanent beds, pathways and green access corridors (which also produce nutrient-rich grass clippings). In this article, I will cover some benefits of permanent garden beds, plus discuss the invisible soil food web and how you can conserve and enrich the life-forms that create superior soil fertility.

Limiting Soil Compaction With Dedicated Beds

One of the big advantages of working in permanent garden beds is that you can limit some forms of soil compaction. Wet soil is especially prone to compaction because water acts as a lubricant. The first time you step on wet soil, it can become 75 percent compacted. After the fourth step in the same spot, 90 percent of the pore spaces are gone. Soil compaction restricts root growth physically because overly dense soil is often impenetrable, plus it handicaps any roots already present by depriving them of oxygen and access to soilborne nitrogen.

You should always try to avoid stepping on your garden beds, but some operations — such as building trellises or using a broadfork — require standing space. In these cases, you can prevent unnecessary soil compaction by standing on a wide board to distribute your weight. Standing on a board or using boards as walking bridges over garden beds will reduce your body’s ground pressure from about 8 pounds per square inch to less than 1. Just as snowshoes make it possible to walk on snow by distributing your weight, boards, wide steppingstones or flakes of baled hay can help protect permanent vegetable beds from the compaction caused by footsteps.

Surface compaction caused by driving rain also can be troublesome, especially for clay soils. When bare soil is subjected to heavy rain, the larger particles and organic matter often wash away in the mud, leaving behind a surface layer of fine particles that dries into a crust. Organic mulches will cushion the soil from the pressure of heavy rain and protect it from erosion. In situations where you can’t mulch — in a newly seeded bed, for example — use a sheet of burlap or other porous cloth to prevent surface compaction. Row cover tunnels cause raindrops to shatter and disperse before they reach the soil, so such covers prevent surface compaction, too.

Permanent Garden Bed Options

Garden experts talk mostly about raised beds, but they are not essential and can be expensive to build. Our point here is that rather than plowing or tilling your entire plot each year, it’s better to lay out and tend permanent areas for dedicated beds and paths. The beds can be raised if you are in a rainy climate, or sunken if your site is dry and windy. Flat beds are also fine, with markers to distinguish the beds from the paths.

4/7/2012 5:25:33 PM

I prep brand new beds at the end of summer when the soil is dry, adding in lots of organic matter and any required amendments. After the initial bed cultivation, I don't till again. In the fall, I hoe and rake out any crop residues that don't winterkill; and in the spring I use a broadfork to gently loosen the soil (like fluffing rice) and then rake any amendments into the top couple inches. I never turn the soil over or churn it up other than what's required to harvest my root crops. Since I rotate my root crops through the beds, each bed gets a good breaking up every 2-3 years and I can add more organic matter or sand down a littler deeper in the fall after digging up the potatoes, etc. Even though we have heavy clay soil and wet springs, I haven't had any compaction problems once I stopped walking on my beds and exiled the tiller to the shed unless I was prepping a new bed.

Lynda Hynes
4/7/2012 10:57:56 AM

For years I cultivated my beds in the Spring, just before planting, and for years I've had progressively worse results. I gave up 2 years ago. I'm trying again next Spring, though the soil has turned to concrete, as it does every year, no matter how much compost and manure I dig into it. It isn't that simple, but there has to be a logical reason why my garden is a disaster! Thanks for giving me some things to think about.

Brigitte Dempsey
2/4/2012 10:25:16 PM

For years I have dug my beds in the fall so that the winter freeze would lighten the soil. Now this article says to dig in the spring to avoid destruction of mycorrhizal fungi colonies. I am not convinced. Surely digging right before planting will wreak the same destruction and cause planting into "mycrobial disarray". On top of it, the soil would now be more compacted! As to recovery of the colonies, I don't see how they would get a head start if you plant right after digging and compacting as a result of digging in the spring. At the very least, the situation should be about equal if there has been no fungal growth all winter. Can anyone provide some better facts? Thank you



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