Organic Gardening Tips: Mulching, Raised Beds and Cold Frames

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Compost is separated into dry and wet containers.
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This cold frame was constructed of cement blocks.

With a bit of know-how, some planning, a few simple skills and very little cash outlay, you can feast on organically grown produce from your own garden all year long. If you really want to live off the land, you’ll be glad to know that there are many tricks and shortcuts to save you time, backbreaking labor and hard-to-come by cash.

Our own gardening method, developed from personal experience, eliminates most of the hard work usually associated with a vegetable patch once the system is set in motion and the remaining chores are scattered fairly evenly throughout the year with few peaks of high activity. In addition, this program is so flexible that it can be started during the spring, summer, winter or fall any time you want to begin.

Gardening Mulch

Here’s the basis of our gardening method: Cover the entire surface of your plot with about four inches of whatever organic mulching material is cheap and readily available. Simple as this sounds, it’s really the most difficult part of the program because, initially at least, it calls for an amazing quantity of mulch. Even in our 6-year-old, 50-by-60-foot garden, we still add over 1,000 bushels of ground leaves and 5 bales of hay each year.

If you start your project in the summer, grass clippings from all available sources make an excellent beginning. Even weeds, if put through a grinder or run over, back and forth, with the power mower, are good material. Don’t worry about the seeds of these pests coming up in your garden: If the surface is covered deeply enough, they won’t. In fact, one benefit of the deep-mulch-no-plow system is that only a little weeding is needed about twice a year, to get rid of unwanted plants that grow from bird-carried seeds. We just pull the intruders and let them fall to become part of the soil’s mulch covering.

On the other hand, an autumn start for your program gives you the advantage of all those lovely leaves, free for the using. Many towns and villages now ban the burning of yard wastes, which they collect and grind instead. Such communities will usually give away large amounts of shredded leaves and wood chips on request.

We grind our own leaves in late October and spread them to a depth of about four inches over the entire garden area. then we top this layer with about two inches of salt marsh hay. Inland, farmers often have bales of spoiled hay which can be bought very cheaply (or even obtained free for the hauling).

During the winter, the mulch slowly decomposes and enters the soil as an organic fertilizer. In spring we grind the winter’s accumulation of leaves and branches and add it to the garden’s covering. When October rolls around, the layer has shrunk to a thickness of about two inches, and it’s time to spread the autumn leaves again.

At no point in this cycle do we hoe, rake, plow, turn under or otherwise till the soil. With no digging at all, the tilth of the earth becomes so loose that a hand trowel is all we need at planting time. And that’s not the mulch’s only function: It conserves moisture, equalizes temperature changes, forms a dry, mud-free surface and provides a clean floor on which squash and such vegetables can rest without rotting or becoming pest-ridden.

Better still, our ground-leaf-and-salt-march-hay routine provides the earth with all the plant nutrients our garden needs. After six years, during which we added no other fertilizers, a chemical analysis of our soil showed high-normal levels of all essential elements, and despite the many oak leaves in the mulch, the test  for acidity gave a neutral reaction.

Our method has just one minor drawback: The thick surface layer keeps our soil cold and wet very late in the season. Therefore, in late March we pull aside the mulch along the proposed row so the earth can dry out and warm up. We find this system very satisfactory, and so, apparently, do our many huge earthworms. Between the mulch layer and the underlying soil there’s now a layer of worm castings at least an inch deep, which serves as an effective micro-tilling with no work at all on our part.


Even though we don’t need or use compost in our deep-mulched garden, we nevertheless recycle all organic materials (even some of our newspapers).

Into a large compost bin (made of 6-foot-long 1-by-10s, four boards high) we throw all clippings, weeds, branches, left-over leaves and yard debris, and also spent garden plants at season’s end. The box is open to the weather, and we don’t find it necessary to even turn the pile. All wet garbage goes into a smaller, galvanized iron container with a tight cover to keep out birds and varmints. Once or twice a year we spread the resulting rich fertilizer under rose bushes, around fruit trees, in flower beds, under the grape arbor and wherever it’s needed.

Cold Frame Gardening

Not an absolute necessity but certainly a great money-saver is the cold frame, of which we now have three. These allow us to start all our own seedlings at considerable saving over the cost of buying plants to set out.

The smallest of our frames is 6 feet long, 4 feet wide and one 1-by-10 board high. The bottom is covered with sand and the top is an old storm door. Taller plants are started in a similar frame, except that the lid slopes from a back, two 1-by-10s high, to a front made of one board. Again, the lid is a storm door, but this time hinged to the compost bin. For the taller still taller species (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) we made a cold frame of concrete blocks: 5 units long, 4 wide and 3 high, with a sand-covered brick floor and a roof of 3 old storm windows.

We use out cold frames all year: When they’re not housing seedlings for the garden, they hold cuttings of various plants and shrubs which we even winter in the frames.

Labor-Saving Management of Raised Beds

One of the deep-mulch-no-plow system’s many advantages is that it allows you to plan your garden on a permanent basis, with no need to measure and lay out planting arrangements each year. Our plot is divided into 18-foot rows, two feet apart, marked at noth ends with white-painted stakes joined by a nylon cord. The markers and string are left in place year after year. In the winter months, when we’re deciding what to plant in each row, we just paste labels on the end posts as reminders.

The tomato patch is also laid out permanently, with 7 foot-long 1-by-2s (one for each plant) set in the ground three feet apart and with three feet between rows. The poles are driven a foot into the earth and left in place year after year (except that we pound them a little deeper in the spring if they’ve heaved with the frost). We tie up all tomato plants with rag strips and in late July, when the vines are about seven feet tall, we snip the growing tips to promote branching. This system prevents the vegetation from sprawling and puts the harvest at was it-to-shoulder level for easy picking.  

Another labor and space saver is our vine tower, a cylinder, three feet in diameter, of five-foot chicken wire stapled at intervals to six-foot-high 1-by-2s. We have eight of these contraptions on which we grow squashes, cucumbers, peas, lima beans, some tomatoes and any other plant that tends to sprawl. The supports contain the foliage within a small area and raise the crop to a good picking level.

Our strawberries are grown in three-tiered pyramids made from 6-inch aluminum plant-bed edging. Each level is a foot less in diameter than the one below it, and the whole arrangement easily accommodates 100 plants. We drive 4-foot stakes at intervals around these structures and crisscross nylon cord across the tops to serve as supporting frame for bird netting during the bearing season.

We quickly discovered that if we wanted even one blueberry from our 15 bushes, we’d have to outwit our bird friends in that part of the garden too. We did, by means of a chicken wire cage stapled on 2-by-4s. The enclosure is 5 feet high, so that we have to stoop just a little when we harvest the berries. This protection is a complete success.

Our seven varieties of raspberries and blackberries are grown in a controlled patch with walk-space between the lines of bushes. The canes are trained on trellises of 4-foot chicken wire, stapled to 6-foot-long 1-by-2s at the ends of rows at and at six-foot intervals between. We hammer the poles a foot into the ground, and leave an extra foot of their length available for later driving as circumstances require from year-to-year.

A grape arbor makes an excellent screen for the whole garden area and provides us with the basis for wine of raisins, and also desserts to enjoy with cheese. Our vines are supported by a double row of 7-foot-long 2-by-4s set a foot into the ground and bored with holes at 18-inch intervals. Through these openings we string white plastic clothesline with a wire core.

As you can see from the plants I’ve mentioned, we grow as many perennial crops as possible for a great saving in time, labor and money. We do almost no work and invest nothing but the small original expense in seeds or sets, and still gather many quarts of raspberries, blueberries and strawberries, a 6-week harvest asparagus, a bushel or more of Jerusalem artichokes, gallons of grapes and adequate supplies of perennial herbs. With these and our annual vegetables and fruits on hand, we eat well all summer, preserve for winter, freeze many products and dry some for later use. Our methods work well for us; maybe they’ll help you too!