Gardening 101: Establishing Beds

This year we’re going back to basics, sort of. We are going to try and increase our planting density, thereby decreasing the overall area we have to maintain. To do that, we’re going to re-establish our beds, improve our propagation techniques, and be even more diligent this year on weed removal.

What We’ve Been Doing

When we first moved in, the property was overgrown. It had been unlived in for years and before that the previous owner was ill. Neighbors did help, but the black-cap raspberries, black locusts, and other colonizers had taken over. It took most of 2017 to remove the brush and since then we’ve been using cardboard and other light-excluding barriers to fight the weeds.

Overgrown garden space in 2017.

Our typical bed was made by putting down cardboard, outlining the beds with logs or other edging, and then filling the beds with a few inches of straw mulch. Starts were then planted in small holes punched in the cardboard. The soil is very fertile and this allowed us to make use of that soil while still getting good weed control. For the most part, this worked.

To increase our density, though, we need to improve our methods.

What We’ll Be Trying This Year

We’ll be following the advice of Charles Dowding more closely. Charles is a long-time market gardener in England. Although he’s in a warmer environment than us, his garden has been inspiring our work for years. He is a proponent of the no-dig method. This means no turning over the soil each spring, which is not only a huge labor savings, but it keeps the beneficial microbes and soil structures intact.

We are not associated with Charles, but we encourage you to check out his YouTube channel and website.

Unlike our own method of laying down cardboard with straw mulch and punching holes to plant through, Charles smothers the cardboard in a layer of compost. The layer of cardboard kills weeds by starving them of air and light. The weight of the compost helps in the process. A few weeds will push through the cardboard as it disintegrates over the season, but they will be greatly weakened and fewer in number, allowing for easy weeding.

We’ve avoided this due to the expense involved. Part of our plan for this summer is to build a larger and more committed composting station. We also hope to generate a lot of compost during our Hot Box Compost trials. The result is more compost for spreading on top of cardboard in years to come. Therefore we’re going to bite the bullet this year and buy in a few loads to get a head start on this method.

We also do not need as much compost as one who is starting from scratch. We have 6–8 in of organic soil already built up due to the fallow period and our previous years of no-dig gardening. We’ll be able to get by with about 2 in of compost plus another inch of mulched straw — the former holds down the cardboard and the latter helps maintain moisture.

The plan is to make a weed-impermeable barrier around each block of beds. This will be done with weed fabric and woodchips. We’ve avoided this in previous years because we were not sure where the beds would end up. Inside each block, we’ll have beds of compost overlaying cardboard with woodchip paths between them. We’re removing the bed edging, as they can harbor slugs. Then we’ll plant right into the compost, giving the weeds no chance to grow through the holes as they have in previous years. The barrier around the beds is important to keep weed creep from adjacent areas.

We’ll also be exercising more diligence in weed removal. We did this more last year than in years before, and it paid off. By staying on top of it for another year, we should significantly exhaust the existing seed and weed stores in the ground.

In the past, we’ve used smothering cardboard and newspaper with straw mulch on top to keep down the weeds. But we’ve left gaps for the planting rows and while this does help keep down the weeds, unwanted vegetation pushes through the gaps left for the vegetables. This improved method, while more resource-intensive, should show results immediately and will be easier and less-resource-intensive to maintain.

3 thoughts on “Gardening 101: Establishing Beds

  1. This compost-on-cardboard technique reminds me of deep-mulch (aka “lasagna”) gardening that my fried Roger in Lone Rock promotes fanatically. In his method, he doesn’t cover the cardboard evenly with compost. Instead, he covers it with an enormous amount of wet straw or hay (the hay not having soil to seed in), enough to weigh down the cardboard, and also deep and dense enough that he can plant directly into the mulch. He puts a shovel-full of compost under the plant, and the plants root right into the mulch. He gets good results–productive plants and no weeding–although it does require more watering, especially during dry summers, as you need that mulch moist. Being fond of soil, I haven’t tried it myself. (I did try it in straw bales and wasn’t very impressed), but I would if I had a patch of land that I wanted to smother weeds on. It feels resource-intensive to do repeatedly, but as a way of killing off a bunch of weeds and laying down a new laying of carbonaceous organic matter, it seems ideal. (Although I don’t know which weeds can be smothered in a season and which have seeds that persist in dormancy for years just waiting to be uncovered. I am sure it won’t take care of all of them.)

    Regarding getting a ton of compost, something I have been thinking about for years and think I will finally try this summer is to collect some of the tons of algae the county dredges off the lakes and leaves on the shore. It must be very rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, since that is what is causing the blooms, Mix it with some browns and I expect it will turn into some very good compost. Also weed-free, since any other vegetation in it would be water plants,and it should be easy to hot-compost and heat-kill anything, regardless. It’s free, so you could make as much as you wanted with just the expense of hauling it. Of course you wouldn’t have finished compost at your planting time so it wouldn’t help at the start, but you’d have as much compost as you want later in the season, and if you collected it again in the fall, you could have tons of compost ready for your method in 2022.

    1. I’ve tried the way your friend has done it with one difference: I’d punch a hole in the cardboard, plant my start in my good soil below the cardboard, and then mulch with straw on top. This kept the soil moist, even in droughts and I got to tap into my underlying fertility. As I said above, the weeds came up through the planting gap.

      The algae is a good idea. I know people near the coasts do it. I’ve thought of going to the nearby lake to get washed-up seaweed etc. One thing to keep an eye on is E. coli. I know that algae around here has manure runoff and potentially dangerous levels of bugs, so I’d look into how well they survive composting.

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