Updated with new photos and information in January 2015.
I should probably start this part of the series with this confession: I have never grown vegetables in the “traditional” way of tilling a large spot of land and planting in long rows. To be honest, the thought just scared me when I was a beginning gardener on a number of levels: I’d never used a tiller (and couldn’t afford one), I didn’t want to wait until mid-May or later to plant (I read in Organic Gardening magazine that you have to wait for the soil to dry out some- hello? This is Oregon!), and most importantly – I didn’t want to deal with the weeds.
Ugh, weeds. My limited experience with gardening came as a kid and involved having to go out and weed the little (tilled) patch we had at our house. All my sisters and I could see were a sea of weeds, but we were told there were lettuce seedlings in there somewhere…
So when I read in Organic Gardening (way back in 1992 when we bought our first house) about raised beds and how they help to lessen the weed problem, I knew they were for me! My first tip for designing an easy vegetable garden, then, is to build raised beds. There are so many reasons to have raised beds and even if you like to use a tiller, you should make room on the edges for a couple of beds:
- Root crops like carrots and parsnips will grow so much better and be easier to harvest.
- Early crops of lettuce and greens can be started, as well as peas, which can go in as early as February in mild areas in the north.
- They make gardening easier- less bending, easier weeding (when needed), planting, and watering.
- No spending time with a hoe on paths: create permanent paths between the beds with gravel or large wood chips or seasonal paths with cardboard and straw. They don’t get watered and you don’t trample the delicate planting ares. And the few weeds that sprout are easy to pull.
- When the beds do need weeding, the soil is so nice and hasn’t been compacted with walking on them that the weeds just pull up easily. For example, I can weed a 4′ x 12′ bed in 10 to 15 minutes with just hand tools AND only a few weeds come up the entire remainder of the season. I just pull them here and there when I’m out harvesting. I NEVER have to spend hours weeding the garden and I can always find my plants even if I go on vacation!
Have I convinced you yet?
I started with 6 raised beds in our old house in the city that were 3’x6′ each. I quickly caught the vegetable bug (that thrill of serving food you get to say you grew…who knew?) which started our desire for larger acreage to grow more. Our garden now is huge by many standards and I’ve created a hybrid raised-bed-permanent-path garden with both traditional 4-foot wide beds as well as four larger 9’x20′ beds with permanent edges designed for easy care. This is the design I came up with for our new area:
And this is my second tip for designing a vegetable garden for easy care: sketch out a plan! As you can see, it doesn’t have to be fancy or well-drawn, but it should be as much to scale as possible (each square on the graph paper above = 2 feet). Think about what you want included (fruit trees? perennial vegetables like asparagus?) and the direction of the sun. Aligning your raised beds north-south, for instance, is best to minimize shadows from rising and setting sun patterns. Read more about how I plan my vegetable garden here.
I planned raised asparagus beds on one edge (top in plan above) since they are permanent (asparagus can produce for more than 20 years) and I knew nothing else would be able to grow with them once they were established. Along the other edges I set strawberry beds and beds to grow fruiting bushes like currants and blueberries.
The 6 “traditional” raised beds are my main vegetable beds (pictured here in very early spring). They are 4 feet x 12 feet with 10″ sides and I use soaker hoses to water at the roots. I rotate crops through them each year to lessen disease and group like plants together (tomatoes in one, broccoli and cabbage in another), which leads to tip #3:
Quickly plan your garden crops each year, rotating and keeping track of what did well and what you liked (or didn’t).
Using raised beds also makes it easy to cover early crops and to give summer crops, like the tomatoes covered above, an early start in areas with cooler springs like ours. You can read more about how to plant tomatoes and get them earlier here.
Note: We put in the cold frames (boxes with old windows on them) one year for hardening off seedlings as I read in a number of books, but as you can see using old windows isn’t actually a good idea. The glazing came off within a year and the glass started breaking. Plus, the lids where heavy with real glass. In the future I’d only use plastic or a plexiglass product. Now they are just storage boxes.
You can make beds out of untreated wood, cinder blocks, stacked concrete or other stone blocks or even just raised dirt sides (though they are harder to maintain). One other benefit for people who will see the beds from their house is that it’s easy to make them look pretty and they look neat and tidy even at the end of the season with their permanent sides.
Referring back to my hand-drawn plan above, our garden also consists of 4 larger beds with edges made from 4″x4″ pieces of wood. These are what I call my ‘nontraditional’ raised beds since I do have to walk on the soil when planting and harvesting. They are about 9’x20′ although some have the corners angled. These larger beds are to grow corn, potatoes, dry beans and sprawling squashes. In the beginning I was tempted to till them under, but what I read about tilling put me off it for good:
Tilling actually PRODUCES more weeds!
Two things can happen with tilling:
- Weeds that propagate from the smallest root fragment (think dandelion and bindweed) will come back ten-fold after being cut up.
- Dormant weed seeds that need light to germinate will be brought to the surface so they can sprout anew.
That’s why there always seem to be more weeds after tilling – because there are! (And I’m not even going to go into how tilling can damage the tilth of the soil…). So, tip #4 is to not till the ground, but what was I to do with these big beds?
The weedy bed pictured first above is where I grew pole beans, shell beans, cucumbers, and zucchini the year before, and it is pretty much my nightmare of weeds! I swear, if I thought I had to deal with this, I would run screaming far, far away…to the market to buy produce! So, tip #5 is: use plastic to kill weeds. In February or March of each year I cover the large beds with black plastic, as shown. Not the most beautiful thing every, but very effective. They use the sun’s power to kill all the weeds underneath for the month or two before I need to plant.
After a few months, I remove the plastic and simply rake up all the dead weeds. There are usually a few perennial weed roots like dandelion that need to be remove, but not many. All that needed then is to add a layer of compost, rake it smooth, and plant! That’s it! And you want to know the best part?
These beds have never been tilled and have never had herbicides used on them.
When we created them, we just put large pieces of cardboard over the pasture grass (mowed short) and filled them with about 6″ of soil (actually a 1-inch layer of manure and then purchased soil/compost mix). I actually wondered about planting that first year – if things would grow or if the corn would fall over because the roots couldn’t go deep enough – but they were fine! Everything grew and it was EASY- gotta love it!
I absolutely DO NOT spend hours weeding my vegetable beds and you don’t have to, either – if I could shout it from the rooftops, I would! Since I can’t (won’t?), I have written lots more about my low-weeding approach (and some tips for flower beds, too) that you can see by pursuing our weeds and weeding category. Some specific titles are:
So, to recap how to design a vegetable garden for easy care:
- Use a raised bed system with permanent or semi-permanent paths
- Sketch out a plan
- Plan your vegetables each year, rotating and keeping track of what you liked and didn’t
- Do not till the soil
- Use black plastic to kill weeds and layer on compost before planting.
There will be some planning up front and a small outlay of money for the beds, but you will save hundreds of hours of weeding and eliminate the wasteful watering of paths that occur in the “traditional” method. PLUS, you’ll be able to grow things on your timetable and not be at the whim of wet or dry spring weather determining when you can till to be able to plant, which you can read more about in the other parts of this vegetable gardening 101 series.
So, what do you think? Ready to plan for easy care?