How to Make Instant Garden Beds

You can make new, instant garden beds quickly with no-dig gardening methods and by using bags of topsoil. Read more ways to make instant garden beds.

  • Top Soil
    Forty-pound bags of top soil make nifty instant no-dig garden beds.
    Illustration by Elayne Sears
  • No-dig Garden
    To make an instant garden in a bag, punch holes in the bottom sides of the bags for drainage before you place them on the ground, cut away the tops. Then you can plant directly into the soil in the bags and mulch the area to cover the bags. In the fall, pull away the bags and reform the beds with a rake.
    Illustration by Elayne Sears

  • Top Soil
  • No-dig Garden

Is this the year you finally start a garden? Or maybe you long for one more bed of bush beans, or you need space for one last pair of tomatoes. Although it’s best to dig or till the soil before you plant, it isn’t essential. Here are several ways to create usable planting space with no-dig gardening. Later on, when the season winds down and you have more time, you can turn this year’s instant garden beds into primo permanent planting space.

Easiest No-Dig Gardening Options

The best way to start a new garden bed is by digging a new site to incorporate organic matter and remove weeds. But in a pinch you can just cover the area with cardboard or layers of wet newspaper, followed by several inches of grass clippings, shredded leaves or weed-free hay or straw. Use a hand trowel to pull back the mulch, cut away sod, and open up planting holes for stocky transplants, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, herbs, flowers — whatever transplants you can buy will work.

If your soil is hopelessly hard and infertile, line your car trunk with a tarp or old shower curtain, and head to a garden center for a load of 40-pound bags of topsoil. (If you can’t decide between products and brands, buy an assortment and put them to the test.) Slash drainage holes in the bottoms of the bags, then lay them over the area you want for your growing bed. Use a sharp utility knife or scissors to cut away the tops of the bags. Moisten well, then plant the bags with seeds or transplants, and mulch to cover the bags. (When growing tomatoes in bags, allow one bag of topsoil per plant.)

Straw Bale Solutions

In 2004, following the lead of horticulture professors N. L. Mansour from Oregon State and James Stephens in Florida, Rose Marie Nichols McGee and dozens of volunteers grew colorful salad greens in compost-enriched bales of hay and exhibited them at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show to promote the “Plant-A-Row for the Hungry” program. Since then, thousands of gardeners (including me) have tried straw bale beds, which have their pros and cons. On the plus side, you can put one anywhere, and if it’s kept moist all season, the area beneath the bale will show rapid improvement in drainage and tilth thanks to the work of big night crawlers, which thrive beneath straw bale beds. (For more on these beneficial critters, see Worms! Soil-building Workhorses. On the down side, bale beds need a lot of supplemental water and liquid fertilizer, but they are still fun and rewarding to grow. 

To get large-scale “instant” results, use bales of straw or hay to frame a big raised bed (arranged in a rectangle, a 15-bale instant garden bed will have an 8-by-20-footfootprint). Fill the enclosure with as much soil, compost and any other free or cheap growing mediums you can find. You’ll need a truckload or two, so ask around for a source of well-rotted manure, or maybe your local garden center sells its “spent” potting soil. Allow several days of intermittent watering to thoroughly moisten the growing medium and the bales, and then plant vegetables inside and on top of your straw bale barge. As long as you can keep this setup moist (soaker hose coverage and mulch are mandatory), it will support a huge array of summer vegetables, and decompose into a beautiful bed of organic matter in about a year.

The Frame Game

Other easy ways to create instant beds involve setting up a frame of some kind, and filling the frame with growing medium. The frame can be a temporary affair made from plastic fencing or untreated boards, or you can build frames from scrap lumber, slender logs or stacked block or stone. Or talk to a fencing company about recycling rails from discarded cedar rail fencing. You don’t need to build four-sided frames — just lay two long rails or logs parallel to each other and fill with soil.

4/29/2015 9:42:43 PM

I've been using the no dig garden method of bags of dirt for several years. I add more garden space doing this every year. It works perfectly and no need for a tiller or back breaking digging! Pam (Turkey Hollow Living grit blog)

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