Vegetable Garden Series Part 4: Design For Easy Care

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 rows.

To be honest, the thought just scared me when I was a beginning gardener. And on a number of levels, too: I’d never used a tiller (and couldn’t afford one), I didn’t want to wait until mid-May or later to plant (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.

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 little weeds, but we were told there were lettuce seedlings in there somewhere…

So when I read in Organic Gardening (in 1992!) about raised beds, I knew they were for me! There are so many reasons to have raised beds, even if you like to till a plot, 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 some years where I live.

In addition, they make a garden easier! No spending time with a hoe on paths: I like permanent paths between the beds, gravel is my favorite, but large wood chips work, too. There are a few weeds that sprout, but they are easy to pull.

When I do need to weed the beds, the soil is so nice and hasn’t been compacted with walking on them that the weeds just pull up easily. I can weed a 4′ x 12′ bed in 10 to 15 minutes with just hand tools AND only a few 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? Visit The Pioneer Woman for a great tutorial on building raised beds.

I had 6 raised beds in our old house in the city. They were 3’x6′ and were fine until I decided I loved growing vegetables and needed more.

Now we have an acre and I can have a bigger area dedicated to my raised beds. This is the design I came up with for our new area:

The beds on the left are asparagus beds. They are permanent as asparagus can produce for more than 20 years. I hadn’t grown asparagus before and it is a wonder to see those shoots coming up about this time each year!

The 6 beds on the right are my main vegetable beds. I rotate crops through them each year to lessen disease and group like plants together (tomatoes in one, broccoli and cabbage in another).

We put in the cold frames (boxes with old windows on them) last year and I hardened off my seedlings in them, but haven’t used them yet to grow early crops. I’m hoping to take more advantage of them this year.

*Notice the hoses laying on the ground…I’m horrible at clean-up. I had just composted the old, dead tomato plants from last year right before I snapped the picture!*

This picture shows the main beds closer: they are 4’x12′ with 10″ sides and I use soaker hoses to water in the summer.

In the upper part of the picture, you can see 4 larger beds with only 4″x4″ sides. They are about 9’x20′ although some have the corners angled. I did find that I needed larger areas than raised beds for corn and potatoes and these were my solution. I still treat them as raised beds, but I do have to walk on them, though I try to keep it to a minimum. The soil is not as nice yet, because I couldn’t put as much in them as the taller ones, so they have more weeds. While I have been tempted to till them under, I have read even more that has put me off of tilling:

Tilling actually PRODUCES more weeds! Two things can happen with tilling: weeds that can propagate from the smallest root fragment (think dandelion and bindweed) will come back ten-fold after being cut up, and dormant weed seeds that needed light to germinate will be brought to the surface so they can sprout anew! That’s why there always seems 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, what was I to do with these big beds? I came up with two things.

One is to use straw to cover my potatoes instead of soil. I will go into the reasons for this in a later post when I share with you how I plant potatoes. But it is a thick layer that effectively keeps the weeds down and I leave it in place until the following spring so weeds don’t have a place to start over the winter.

The other is illustrated in the photos below:

This is a bed I grew pole beans, shell beans, cucumbers, and zucchini in last year, and it is 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 this is what I do in February or March of each year:

I cover it with a large piece of black plastic. Not the most beautiful, but very effective. I use the plastic on the 3 beds I plant in corn and beans and they do best waiting until the soil is warmed sufficiently which happens mid to late May around here. So these will use the sun’s power until then to kill all the weeds underneath.

When I need to plant, I will remove the plastic and rake up the dead debris. There will probably be a few roots I need to remove, but not many. Then I will add a layer of compost, rake it smooth, and plant! That’s it…I just add a layer every year and now after 3 years, the soil is starting to look pretty good and I’ve never tilled.
In fact, the first year we made them, we just put large pieces of cardboard over the pasture grass (mowed short) and filled them with about 3″ of soil. I wondered about planting that year and 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!
So, to design I vegetable plot for easy care, there has to 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.
Next up: Vegetable Planting Schedule Checklist




  1. Terese @ says

    Very good article, very interesting! I’ve been tilling my traditional garden (, but doing things the way you are describing makes a lot of sense. I am planning on trying the plastic, just gotta find it. Home Depot didn’t have it.
    Oh, and I think the hose in your garden looks just fine; no need to clean it up, you’ll just have to bring it back out again! ;) It makes it look like an active garden in full use.
    Thanks for the information!

  2. michelle lisica says

    Where do you get the black plastic?. Love your garden wish I would have known about the tilling

    • says

      Sorry I didn’t see this earlier, Michelle!! They sell all different weights of black plastic at home centers (like Home Depot or Lowes). Oh, and it’s never to late to stop tilling. ;)

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