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Gardening 101: Establishing Beds

After weeding.

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.

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