Tom Kerr on DIY gardening

The first time I experimented with organic gardening was on one of the worst plots of land I’ve ever tried to work. Instead of topsoil it was gummy, sticky, dense clay. Water puddle on top…and anything planted in it would have its root system suffocated.

But I had read a book about intensive gardening methods used in Japan, which relied on beds of nutrient-rich, highly-aerated soil that were constructed on top of the existing grade of the terrain. I tried it, and by the end of that summer I had the most vibrant and plentiful garden in the neighborhood.

The reason that a raised bed works so effectively is that this design allows you to quickly and easily create your own soil conditions. For those unfamiliar with raised beds, it helps to think of the design like a child’s sandbox that lets you import a beach into your backyard. Similarly, a raised bed is a kind of boxed-in design that allows you to fill it up with superior soil that is deep enough to accommodate the fruits and vegetables you want to grow.

Here is a basic step-by-step tutorial:

  • Use stakes and string to outline the shape of the bed on the ground, and then use a spade, mattock, or other tool to remove any turf, rocks, and weeds until you have bare dirt. You can make your raised garden plot small or as large as you desire.
  • Once your plot is defined and cleared, build the perimeter retaining walls or “box” out of whatever non-toxic and durable materials you prefer. It should be at least 12-to-18 inches high, or you can go higher if you have sufficient soil to fill that area.
  • Logs or pieces of lumber – which will eventually decay but are inexpensive to replace – are the most common materials used by gardeners. You can also build a more permanent structure with stones or concrete blocks. Avoid railroad ties, though, because they are treated with toxic creosote.
  • The ideal mixture for filling the raised portion of the bed is a blend of compost, fertile top soil or potting soil, and peat moss. If you are adding manure as fertilizer be sure that it has been sufficiently “cured” or pasteurized. Otherwise the seeds of weeds within it will sprout and flourish, creating lots of unnecessary labor.
  • After the “box” is filled, level the soil, which should be loose enough that you can dig into it with your bare hands without tilling, and then plant and mulch. Leave space between beds for walkways and garden hoses, or a larger path if you intend to use a wheelbarrow.
  • Water will flow downhill from a raised bed, providing excellent drainage. But it can also puddle in the rows between your beds and make for muddy boots. To help remedy that you can place paving stones or loose gravel on those pathways.

As you can see, instead of digging and tilling downward into the ground, we are piling and mounding rich, fluffy, healthily-oxygenated soil on top of the ground. Plus, as the raised bed develops the lower section of it – which rests on the existing plot of dirt – decomposes into that inferior soil. Worms burrow into that lousy dirt, too, so that the longer you garden using a raised bed, the deeper your beneficial soil develops.

After I gardened in a raised bed that was 18 inches high, for a year, on that seemingly incorrigible plot of clay, the clay began to break apart and become a fresh new layer of wonderful topsoil.

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